With the visit of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter to Cuba in May, Cubans were exposed to unprecedented public discussion of democracy and human rights. But as no legal or institutional reforms were made, the country's lack of democracy and intolerance of domestic dissent remained unique in the region.
The highlight of former President Carter's five-day visit to Cuba was his address on May 14 at the University of Havana, which was broadcast live on Cuban television. Speaking in Spanish, Carter urged the Cuban authorities to allow democratic changes and to grant basic political freedoms. He specifically criticized the Cuban government's ban on opposition movements and made direct reference to the Varela Project, a petition drive organized by Cuban dissidents to call for a national referendum on civil and political reform. At the close of his speech, he engaged in a spirited question-and-answer session with members of the audience--an audience that included Cuban President Fidel Castro.
Carter drew attention to some of the country's most serious human rights problems. A one-party state, Cuba restricted nearly all avenues of political dissent. Although the criminal prosecution of opposition figures was becoming increasingly rare, prison remained a plausible threat to Cubans considering nonviolent political dissent. The government also frequently silenced its critics by using short-term detentions, house arrests, travel restrictions, threats, surveillance, politically-motivated dismissals from employment, and other forms of harassment.
Cuba's legal and institutional structures were at the root of rights violations. 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 organizers of the Varela Project, led by prominent dissident Oswaldo Payá, presented an important symbolic challenge to the government's intransigence in the area of political rights. On May 10, the organizers delivered a petition to the National Assembly--Cuba's unicameral legislature--containing more than eleven thousand signatures. Relying on constitutional protections for the right to petition, the Varela Project asked the government to hold a referendum on a broad array of civil and political rights, including competitive elections, freedom of the press, and an amnesty for political prisoners.
The Cuban government responded to the reform effort with a signature drive of its own. In June, in what seemed like a distorted caricature of the earlier campaign, the authorities organized a mass signature collection effort in support of Cuba's socialist system. Holding marches all across the country, and employing many thousands of signature collectors, the government claimed to have gathered more than eight million signatures in two days. With this purported mandate, the National Assembly then proceeded to approve an official proposal enshrining the socialist system in Cuba's constitution as "irrevocable."
A number of political dissidents were detained over the course of the year, with some facing criminal prosecution. The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (Comisión Cubana de Derechos Humanos y Reconciliación Nacional, CCDHRN), a respected Havana-based nongovernmental group, released a partial list of political prisoners in July that included 230 reliably documented cases. (It should be noted that not all of the cases listed involved persons who were wrongly detained or prosecuted on the basis of nonviolent political expression; it also listed people convicted of crimes such as "piracy," if the crimes were politically motivated.) The list showed a net increase of twenty cases over a similar list compiled in January. The increase led the CCDHRN to suggest that a ten-year general trend away from the use of political imprisonment was coming to an end.
The vast majority of the year's politically motivated detentions took place during incidents in February and March. The first group of arrests occurred when the government tried to block members of the opposition from commemorating the anniversary of the 1996 shoot-down of two small planes by the Cuban air force. Several dissidents were arrested in advance of the event, while others were detained when they tried to reach a beach in the Miramar neighborhood of Havana to throw flowers into the sea. While most of the detainees were quickly released, a few remained in long-term detention.
Among those still detained as of early November were Leonardo Miguel Bruzón Avila, president of the February 24 Human Rights Movement, Carlos Alberto Domínguez González, an independent journalist, and Emilio Leyva Pérez and Lázaro Miguel Rodríguez Capote, president and coordinator, respectively, of the Cuban Pro Human Rights Party. None of the detainees had been officially charged with a crime. To call attention to his indefinite detention without trial, Bruzón Avila reportedly went on a hunger strike that began in late August and continued into October, raising serious concerns for his health.
On February 27, in a dramatic incident, a group of twenty-one young male Cubans, including three teenagers, crashed a stolen bus through the gates of the Mexican embassy in Havana. The group apparently believed that Mexico was granting refugee visas to Cubans, a rumor sparked by a U.S.-funded Radio Martí broadcast in which the Mexican foreign minister was reported saying that the embassy was open to all Cubans, including dissidents. Scores of other Cubans were turned away after trying to enter the embassy on foot. At the embassy's request, Cuban police entered the compound some thirty hours after the break-in and detained the asylum seekers. More than one hundred others were also arrested.
Some thirty political dissidents who did not participate in the embassy actions were also reportedly detained, having been arrested at some distance from the embassy. As of early November, a group of prisoners that included Iovany Aguilar Camejo, coordinator of the Fraternal Brothers for Dignity Movement, and Carlos Oquendo Rodríguez and José Aguilar Hernández, president and vice-president of the July 13 Movement, respectively, remained behind bars.
The embassy incident ended in a swirl of recriminations and conspiracy theories. The Cuban government accused the U.S. of maliciously instigating the break-in, while some dissidents surmised that President Castro had engineered the incident in order to embarrass Mexican President Vicente Fox, seen by the authorities as overly sympathetic to the Cuban dissident community. The Cuban authorities even aired a special television broadcast to discuss the incident. In it, Castro emphasized that "no one who storms into an embassy will ever leave [Cuba]," and attacked the asylum-seekers as "delinquents and anti-social elements."
A group of ten dissidents, human rights advocates, and independent journalists was arrested on March 4 at a provincial hospital in Ciego de Avila. They had gone to the hospital to visit a reporter who had reportedly been physically attacked by the police earlier in the day while he was traveling to a meeting of the Cuban Foundation for Human Rights. Reacting with disproportional severity to a minor disruption, state security police arrested the group after its members shouted statements such as "Long live human rights." Among those taken into custody was Juan Carlos González Leiva, a blind human rights advocate who was said to have been assaulted by police when he was arrested, requiring four stitches on his forehead. The other arrestees were seven dissidents and human rights activists--Delio Laureano Requejo, Lázaro Iglesias Estrada, Virgilio Mantilla Arango, Enrique García Morejón, Antonio García Morejón, Odalmis Hernández Matos, and Ana Peláez García--and two independent journalists--Léster Téllez Castro and Carlos Brizuela Yera.
The authorities quickly released the two women who had been arrested, placing them under house arrest. The remaining prisoners were kept in detention, however, and remained there as of early November. In September, the Ciego de Avila prosecutor's office notified the ten members of the group that they had been formally charged with the crimes of contempt of authority (desacato), public disorder, resistance, and disobedience. The threatened sentences varied, with one defendant facing seven years of imprisonment. Of González Leiva, the lead defendant, who faced a possible six-year sentence, the indictment noted critically that "he was not integrated into mass organizations and was not involved in any socially useful activities."
The year also saw the release of several well-known dissidents. In early May, just prior to Carter's visit, Vladimiro Roca Antúnez was freed from Ariza prison. He had spent over two years of his five-year sentence in solitary confinement. Prosecuted together with three other well-known dissidents, who were all released from prison in 2001, Roca was freed two months before the expiration of his sentence. The son of the late Blas Roca, considered a hero of the Cuban revolution, Roca was educated as an economist and had once flown missions as a Cuban air force fighter pilot. Years later, with his three co-defendants, Blas had embarked upon relatively high-profile dissident activities, holding press conferences in 1997 and releasing an analytical paper on the Cuban economy, human rights, and democracy. In the resulting criminal prosecution, the government had cast him as the group's ringleader, giving him the stiffest sentence of the four.
On October 31, Dr. Oscar Elías Biscet González was released from prison, having served out a three-year criminal sentence. A physician and prominent activist, Biscet was convicted in February 2000 of dishonoring patriotic symbols, public disorder, and instigating delinquency, for protests that included turning the Cuban flag upside-down and carrying anti-abortion placards.
Other dissidents who continued serving out their prison sentences included Francisco Chaviano González, incarcerated since 1994, Carlos Cabrera Roca, incarcerated since 1996, Joaquín Barriga San Emeterio, incarcerated since 2000, and co-defendants Néstor Rodríguez Lobaina and Eddy Alfredo Mena González, both incarcerated since 2000.
The government continued to prosecute people for "illegal exit" if they attempted to leave the island without first obtaining official permission to do so. Such permission was sometimes denied arbitrarily, or made contingent on the purchase of an expensive exit permit.
Prisoners were kept in abusive conditions, often in overcrowded cells. Many prisoners lost weight during incarceration and received inadequate medical care. Some endured physical and sexual abuse, typically by other inmates with the acquiescence of guards. Prison authorities insisted that all detainees participate in politically oriented "re-education" sessions or face punishment. Political prisoners who denounced poor conditions of imprisonment were frequently punished by long periods in punitive isolation cells, restricted visits, or denial of medical treatment.
Cuba retained the death penalty for a large number of offences, but a de facto moratorium on its use seemed to be in effect. Because the authorities did not release public information on death sentences and executions, however, it was difficult to ascertain the status of prisoners facing capital punishment.
The government maintained tight restrictions on the press, barring independent news reports from being published within Cuba. Although local independent journalists regularly sent their stories outside of Cuba for publication, they had to work under extremely difficult conditions. They frequently faced police questioning, short-term detention, surveillance, confiscation of their notes and other materials, and travel restrictions aimed at preventing them from covering certain events. In May, the Committee to Protect Journalists, a U.S.-based press freedom group, named Cuba as one of the "ten worst places to be a journalist." Besides Domínguez, detained since February, and Téllez Castro and Brizuela Yera, detained since March, the authorities kept independent journalist Bernardo Arévalo Padrón behind bars. Incarcerated since 1997, Arévalo Padrón was serving a six-year sentence for "insulting" President Castro.
Despite some limits on freedom of religion, religious institutions and their leaders were granted a degree of autonomy not granted to other bodies. Several religious-run groups distributed humanitarian aid and carried out social programs. The authorities did, however, continue to slow the entry of foreign priests and nuns, limit new church construction, and bar religious institutions from running schools (although religious instruction was allowed). In contrast to the first decades after the Cuban revolution, discrimination against overtly religious persons was rare.
The government recognized only one labor union, the Worker's Central of Cuba (Central de Trabajadores de Cuba, CTC). Independent labor unions were denied formal status and their members were harassed. Workers employed in businesses backed by foreign investment remained under tight government control. Under restrictive labor laws, the authorities had 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. Cuba also continued to use prison labor for agricultural camps and ran clothing assembly and other factories in its prisons. The authorities' insistence that political prisoners work without pay in poor conditions violated international labor standards.
Human rights monitoring was not recognized as a legitimate activity, but rather stigmatized as a disloyal betrayal of Cuban sovereignty. No local human rights groups enjoyed legal status. As a result, human rights defenders faced systematic harassment, with the government placing heavy burdens on their ability to monitor human rights conditions. Besides routine surveillance and phone tapping, the authorities in some instances used arbitrary searches, short-term arrests, evictions, travel restrictions, and politically motivated dismissals from employment.
Human rights defenders were generally denied exit visas to travel abroad unless a humanitarian reason (such as a sick overseas relative) could be proffered. Oswaldo Payá, for example, was unable to travel to Washington, D.C., in September to receive a democracy award from the National Democratic Institute.
International human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch were barred from conducting fact-finding investigations on the island. Cuba was also 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.
At its fifty-eighth session in April, and for the tenth time in eleven years, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights passed a resolution on human rights in Cuba. The language of the resolution, passed by a vote of twenty-three to twenty-one, was weaker than any in the past. Rather than expressing concern about violations, the resolution simply invited the Cuban government to make the same progress with respect to civil and political rights that it had with regard to economic and social rights. What was most notable about the resolution, however, was that it had the broad support of Latin American countries, which were increasingly willing to recognize Cuba's human rights problems.
Cuban representatives played a negative role at the commission by pressing to weaken the commission's human rights monitoring mechanisms under the guise of reviewing their functioning. In November, similarly, Cuba was one of only eight countries to vote against the U.N. General Assembly's adoption of the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, a new treaty aimed at eliminating torture and improving prison conditions.
In November 2001 and November 2002, as in past years, the U.N. General Assembly adopted by a resounding majority a resolution calling for an end to the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba.
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