January 1, 2004
Cuba is a one-party state that restricts nearly all avenues of political dissent. The government severely curtails basic rights to free expression, association, assembly, movement, and to a fair trial. While it has long sought to silence its critics by using short term-detentions, house arrests, travel restrictions, threats, surveillance, criminal prosecutions, politically motivated dismissals from employment, and other forms of harassment, the government's intolerance of dissenting voices intensified considerably in 2003. In March, on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, police detained scores of political dissidents and others viewed as "counter-revolutionary" in their thinking. By early April, the defendants—who included such prominent figures as Raúl Rivero, the poet and journalist, and Héctor Palacios, a leader in the pro-democracy movement—had been sentenced to long stays in prison.
- Crackdown in March-April 2003
- Legal and Institutional Failings
- Death Penalty
- Prison Conditions
- Human Rights Defenders
- Labor Rights
- Key International Actors
Crackdown in March-April 2003
On March 18, state security agents began rounding up political dissidents, independent journalists, human rights advocates, independent librarians and labor rights activists. The arrests heralded Cuba's worst crackdown in more than a decade.
In all, nearly eighty people were detained. The Cuban security forces also searched homes across the island, confiscating dissidents' fax machines, computers, typewriters, and personal papers.
From April 3 to April 7, in a series of summary trials, the detainees were prosecuted under draconian legal provisions that ban actions deemed to undermine the socialist system or lend support to the U.S. economic embargo. A total of seventy-five people were convicted, receiving sentences of up to twenty-eight years of imprisonment, with an average sentence of more than nineteen years. Not a single defendant was acquitted.
Legal and Institutional Failings
Cuba's legal and institutional structures are at the root of rights violations. In 2003, the rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly, movement, and the press were strictly limited under Cuban law. By criminalizing enemy propaganda, the spreading of "unauthorized news," and insult to patriotic symbols, the government curbed freedom of speech under the guise of protecting state security. The government also imprisoned or ordered the surveillance of individuals who had committed no illegal act, relying upon laws penalizing "dangerousness" (estado peligroso) and allowing for "official warning" (advertencia oficial). The government-controlled courts undermined the right to fair trial by restricting the right to a defense, and frequently failed to observe the few due process rights available to defendants under domestic law.
The year 2003 saw at least three executions. Under Cuban law the death penalty is an option for a broad range of crimes, but for three years, beginning in April 2000, there had been a de facto moratorium on its use. The moratorium ended with the execution by firing squad of Lorenzo Enrique Copello Castillo, Bárbaro Leodán Sevilla García and Jorge Luis Martínez Isaac. The three men had tried to hijack a ferry, the Baragua, on April 2. Some fifty people were aboard the boat when it was seized, but none of them were believed to have been injured during the incident. The men were given summary trials that lacked any semblance of due process. On April 11, immediately after their appeals were denied, the three defendants were put to death.
Prisoners are generally kept in abusive conditions, often in overcrowded cells. Prisoners typically lose weight during incarceration, and some receive inadequate medical care. Some also endure physical and sexual abuse, typically by other inmates with the acquiescence of guards. Political prisoners who denounced poor conditions of imprisonment or who otherwise failed to observe prison rules were frequently punished by long periods in punitive isolation cells, restricted visits, or denial of medical treatment. These abusive conditions are particularly hard on the older incarcerated dissidents, some of whom are in their sixties and in poor health.
Human Rights Defenders
Human rights monitoring is not recognized as a legitimate activity, but rather stigmatized as a betrayal of Cuban sovereignty. No local human rights groups enjoy legal status. Instead, human rights defenders face systematic harassment, with the government placing heavy burdens on their ability to monitor human rights conditions. Nor are international human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch allowed to send fact-finding missions to Cuba. And Cuba remains one of the few countries in the world, and the only one in the Western Hemisphere, to deny the International Committee of the Red Cross access to its prisons.
The government recognizes only one labor union, the Worker's Central of Cuba (Central de Trabajadores de Cuba, CTC). Independent labor unions are denied formal status and their members are harassed. Workers employed in businesses backed by foreign investment remain under tight government control. Under restrictive labor laws, the authorities have a prominent role in the selection, payment, and dismissal of workers, effectively denying workers the right to bargain directly with employers over benefits, promotions, and wages.
Key International Actors
The U.S. economic embargo on Cuba, in effect for more than four decades, continues to impose indiscriminate hardship on the Cuban people and to block Americans from traveling to the island. Congress recently considered passing the "Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2003," however, which would have lifted the spending restrictions that restrict most U.S. travel to Cuba. In November, both the House and Senate voted in favor of the bill, but its provisions were later stripped from a larger legislative package after President Bush threatened a veto.
The March-April 2003 crackdown against Cuban dissidents was carried out during the six-week 59th session of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. In mid-April, just after the seventy-five dissidents were sentenced to a cumulative total of 1,454 years imprisonment, the Commission passed an extremely weak, mild-mannered resolution on Cuba's human rights situation. Later that same month, Cuba was reelected to another three-year term on the Commission.