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This report documents Cuba's failure to respect the civil and political rights enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and international human rights treaties ratified by Cuba.1 Cuba has stated that its domestic legislation complies with the UDHR,2 but this report shows that neither Cuban law nor practices guarantee the fundamental rights enshrined in the declaration. Cuba's international obligation to respect the Universal Declaration arises from the fact that it is incorporated into the United Nations Charter, rendering all member states, including Cuba, subject to its provisions. Also, the UDHR is widely recognized as customary international law. The Universal Declaration constitutes a basic yardstick to measure any country's human rights performance.

Cuba is also bound to uphold numerous international human rights and labor rights conventions it has ratified. In doing so, Cuba assumed responsibility for complying with the treaties' provisions and for incorporating the treaties into Cuban domestic legislation. This report details how Cuban legislation and practices fall far short of compliance with these treaties and in many respects blatantly violate their provisions. The key international labor and human rights agreements ratified by Cuba include the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (hereinafter Convention against Torture), ratified in May 1995; the Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified in August 1991; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), ratified in June 1980; and various International Labor Organization Conventions such as Convention 87, the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize, ratified in June 1952; Convention 98, the Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining Convention, ratified April 1952; Convention 105, the Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, ratified June 1958; and Convention 141, the Rural Workers' Organizations, ratified in April 1977. Furthermore, Cuba has publicly stated that it is willing to comply with the provisions of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment ofPrisoners, which provide authoritative guidance on the treatment of prisoners.3 Cuba's stated willingness to abide by these international human rights standards is laudable, although its failure to live up to these commitments is troubling.

Cuba has not ratified one of the key human rights treaties providing specific guarantees of civil and political rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and thus has not ratified the Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, which would allow individual victims of human rights abuse to present claims before the United Nations Human Rights Committee. Cuba also is notably absent among those countries that have signed or ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which guarantees trade union rights among others.

When faced with criticism of its civil and political rights record, Cuba often defends its human rights practices by pointing to improvements in economic and social rights and blames any failings on the economic impact of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. But, as this report shows, Cuba's restrictions of civil and political rights directly impede Cubans' progress on economic and social rights. For example, Cuba's ban on independent labor unions severely limits workers' ability to improve working conditions and pay scales. Similarly, firing, evicting, or jailing nonviolent anti-government activists violate those individuals' rights to a job, a roof over their heads, and participation in the society. Cuba's denial of sufficient food to political prisoners, based on their political opinion, violates the right to adequate food. On a positive note, Cuba appears to have made significant strides toward compliance with its obligations under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which it ratified in February 1972.

Cuba routinely insists that its laws guarantee fundamental human rights. But Cuba's constitution, which makes broad assertions of guaranteeing fundamental freedoms, including those of association, expression, and religion, simultaneously undermines these basic human rights, as do other Cuban laws. For example, the constitution nullifies freedoms when they are contrary to "the goals of the socialistState," "socialist legality," or the "people's decision to construct socialism and communism."4 The constitution also has been used to negate the impact of human rights treaties ratified by Cuba by providing that any treaty, pact, or concession that disregards or diminishes Cuba's "territorial sovereignty" is illegal and void.5 In international fora for the protection of human rights, Cuba often invokes sovereignty as a justification for non-compliance and non-cooperation.

Cuba has a mixed record on questions of international arms control. Cuba ratified the Chemical Weapons Ban Treaty in April 1997. However, at this writing Cuba had not signed the Mine Ban Treaty, which bans the production, use, and sale of anti-personnel landmines. As of September 1997, Cuba's Union of Military Industries (Unión de las Industrias Militares, UIM) still was producing landmines, along with other weapons and military technology.6


This report shows that Cuba's treatment of political prisoners in some cases rises to the level of torture, violating Cuba's obligations under the Convention against Torture and under the Universal Declaration.7 The convention bars torture and "acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" and the Universal Declaration states that "no one shall be subjected to torture." 8 Cuba's imposition of prolonged periods of incommunicado pretrial and post-conviction detention, beatings, and prosecutions of previously-tried political prisoners—where those practices result in severe physical or psychological pain orsuffering—constitute torture under the convention.9 Cuba also has failed to comply with its obligations under the convention to "take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction" and to "ensure that all acts of torture are offenses under its criminal law."10

Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, and Exile

Cuba frequently subjects nonviolent dissidents to arbitrary arrests and detentions. Human rights activists and independent journalists are among the government's most frequent targets, along with independent labor organizers, religious believers, members of independent political parties, organizations of independent academics and medical professionals, environmental activists, and others. These improper arrests and detentions, which serve as intimidating measures designed to silence dissent, violate Article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Cuba often ratchets up pressure on government opponents by subjecting them to repeated arrests, short-or long-term detentions, or criminal prosecutions. In many cases, the government then presents activists with the "choice" to go to prison, or continue serving a prison term, or be exiled from their homeland. This practice violates the UDHR, which explicitly prohibits governments from exiling citizens from their own country.11

Detention Conditions

Cuba confines its sizable prison population in substandard and unhealthy conditions, where prisoners face isolation and physical and sexual abuse. Prison guards also commit abuses against prisoners that rise to the level of torture. Cuba's practices fail to comply with numerous provisions of the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, including the rules governing food, health care, internal prison security, punitive measures, and prison work programs.12 Short-term detainees usually are held in degrading and inhuman conditions in policestations. Cuba's integration of political prisoners into its prison labor programs violates a prohibition on forced labor performed by detainees held for their political opinion. This practice is banned under the International Labor Organization's Convention 105, regarding the Abolition of Forced Labor, a treaty ratified by Cuba.

Freedom of Expression and Opinion

Cuba exerts strict control over freedom of expression and opinion, both in law and practice, in violation of the UDHR's Articles 18 and 19. The Criminal Code grants officials extraordinary authority to crush dissent. Among the numerous criminal provisions restricting free expression and opinion, the government frequently employs those against enemy propaganda and contempt for authority (desacato) to penalize outspoken activists.13 The government continues to prosecute its citizens for these and other crimes solely on the basis of their criticism of the government, as well as subjecting independent activists to arrests, detentions, and harassment. The government treats independent journalists and human rights activists with notable harshness. Prison indoctrination programs, where prisoners are forced to participate in pro-government sloganeering, and punishment of prisoners who criticize prison abuses also violate the freedoms of expression and opinion. In a remarkable statement, Cuban Justice Minister Roberto Díaz Sotolongo justified Cuba's restrictions on dissent by explaining that, as Spaniards had instituted laws to protect the monarch from criticism, Cuba was justified in protecting Fidel Castro, Cuba's "king," from criticism.14

Cuban authorities often refer to peaceful government opponents as "counter-revolutionaries." But Cuba invokes state security interests to restrict nonviolent dissent, for acts as innocuous as handing out "Down with Fidel" flyers. Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, restrictions of fundamental rights are only permissible:

for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.15

Cuba's efforts to silence critics fall well outside these limits.

Freedom of Association

Despite Cuba's assurances that it protects freedom of association, this report details how Cuban legal measures and actions stifle this fundamental freedom for independent labor unions, human rights groups, professional associations, and others.16 Cuba does not allow any independent labor union to operate legally.17 Cuba's Associations Law effectively bars the legalization of any genuinely independent organization, requiring associations to accept broad state interference in their activities and arbitrary state authority to shut them down. The government's denial of legal recognition to opposition groups leaves the members of unauthorized groups at risk of arrest and prosecution. Cuba also subjects members of independent organizations to frequent harassment, arrests, and detentions. Cuba's failure to guarantee freedom of association violates Article 20 of the UDHR. The government's infringement of labor rights violates Article 23(4) of the UDHR, as well as several International Labor Organization treaties ratified by Cuba, including Convention 87, the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize; Convention 98, the Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining; and Convention 141, the Rural Workers' Organizations.

Religious Freedom

While Cuba permits greater opportunities for religious expression than it did in past years, the government still maintains tight control on religious institutions, affiliated groups, and individual believers.18 Inside Cuba's prison walls, officialsrestrict prisoners' access to pastoral care.19 Since the exercise of religious freedom—guaranteed in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration—is closely linked to other freedoms, including those of expression and association, Cuba's laws and practices create direct and indirect impediments to religious expression.

Freedom of Movement

Cuba continues to criminalize unauthorized attempts to leave the island as "illegal exit." Cuba's failure to revoke this law calls into question its willingness to legitimize the basic right of its citizens to leave their country. Cuba also maintains its crime of "illegal entry," which has been used to penalize Cuban citizens returning to their homeland. Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees the right of all citizens to leave their country and to return to their country. Cuba's pressuring nonviolent opponents to go into exile, often with threats of prison terms or as a condition of release from prison, violates Article 9's prohibition on exile.

Due Process Protections

Cuban legislation undercuts the right to a fair trial by allowing political figures to control the courts and prosecutors, granting broad authority for warrantless arrests and pretrial detentions, and restricting the right to a defense.20 Unfortunately, Cuban courts have failed to observe the few legal guarantees of due process rights available to defendants under the law.

These laws and practices violate the due process protections under Articles 10 and 11 of the UDHR, which ensure the right to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and the right to "all guarantees necessary" for a defense.

Children's Rights

The abuse of minors in Cuban detention centers represents a government failure to comply with the Convention on the Rights of the Child. 21 While Cuba's conscription of sixteen year olds for service in the armed forces satisfies the convention's age limit for child soldiers, Human Rights Watch and other members of the international Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers urge Cuba to raise the minimum recruitment age to eighteen.22


This report documents extensive human rights violations committed by the Cuban government that remain unpunished.23 Under the Universal Declaration and the Convention against Torture, Cuba has an obligation to provide an effective remedy for the violations of fundamental rights, particularly torture.24 The UDHR states that "Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunal for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law."25 Beyond failing to take sufficient remedial measures for human rights violations, this report also details numerous retaliatory measures taken against Cubans who complain of governmental human rights violations.26
1 The Universal Declaration on Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations on December 10, 1948, is included as an appendix to this report.2 Cuban report to the United Nations regarding International Human Rights Instruments, June 1997 (HRI/CORE/1/Add. 84), October 13, 1997.3 "Informe de la Fiscalía General de la República de Cuba," presented by Blanca Gutiérrez, Cuba's Attorney General for the Control of Legality in Penitentiary Establishments at the Instituto Latinoamericano de las Naciones Unidas para la Prevención del Delito y el Tratamiento del Delincuente conference, San José, Costa Rica, February 1997, p. 5.Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, approved by the U.N. Economic and Social Council by resolutions 663 C, July 31, 1957 and 2076, May 13, 1997. The Standard Minimum Rules are included as an appendix to this report.4 Constitution of the Republic of Cuba (1992), Articles 10 and 62. Translation by Human Rights Watch. The Constitution and other legal provisions inhibiting the full exercise of human rights are discussed below, at Impediments to Human Rights in Cuban Law.5 Ibid., Article 11. Translation by Human Rights Watch.6 Octavio La Vastida, "Industrias Militares en la Senda de la Eficiencia," Granma Internacional, September 3, 1997.

7 UDHR, Article 5. Torture in Cuban prisons is discussed below, at Treatment of Political Prisoners: Torture. The Convention against Torture is included as an appendix to this report.

8 Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, U.N. Doc. A/39/51 (1984), entered into force June 26, 1987, Article 16(1). UDHR, Article 5.

9 These practices are detailed below, at Treatment of Political Prisoners: Punitive Measures Against Political Prisoners.

10 Convention against Torture, Arts. 2(1) and 4(1).

11 Article 9.

12 These practices are detailed below, at General Prison Conditions, Treatment of Political Prisoners, and Labor Rights: Prison Labor.

13 These and numerous other offensive provisions are detailed below, at Impediments to Human Rights in Cuban Law: Codifying Repression, while several recent prosecutions are discussed at Political Prosecutions.

14 Díaz Sotolongo was referring to the crime of contempt for authority (desacato). In the course of the interview, Sotolongo twice referred to Castro with the term "king." Human Rights Watch interview with Roberto Díaz Sotolongo, New York, June 11, 1998. Translation by Human Rights Watch.

15 Article 29(2).

16 Cuban restrictions on the freedom of association are discussed below, at Impediments to Human Rights in Cuban Law: Codifying Repression and Associations Law, Political Prosecutions, Routine Repression, Labor Rights, and Limits on Religious Freedom.

17 Cuba's multiple pressures on labor activists and legal restrictions on labor organizing are detailed below, at Labor Rights.

18 These restrictions are detailed below, at Limits on Religious Freedom.

19 Prisoners access to religious attention is detailed below, at General Prison Conditions: Restrictions of Religious Visits.

20 Cuba's violations of due process rights are discussed below, at Impediments to Human Rights in Cuban Law: Due Process Denied, Political Prosecutions, and Treatment of Political Prisoners: Abusive Pretrial Detentions.

21 Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 40. The treatment of minors in Cuban detention centers is discussed below, at General Prison Conditions: Juvenile Justice.

22 Article 38(2) establishes the minimum age for child soldiers as fifteen. Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, "Stop Using Child Soldiers!" International Save the Children Alliance, 1998, p. 22. The coalition is now leading an effort to create an optional protocol to the convention that would raise the minimum age for military recruitment to eighteen.

23 The question of impunity for human rights abuses in Cuba is discussed below, at Impunity.

24 UDHR, Article 8 and Convention against Torture, Articles 2(1) and 4(1).

25 UDHR, Article 8.

26 Repressive actions against human rights activists and human rights victims complaining of abuses are discussed below, at Political Prosecutions, Treatment of Political Prisoners: Punitive Measures Against Political Prisoners, and Routine Repression: Human Rights Activists.

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