Cuba is an authoritarian state with former president Raul Castro serving as the first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party, the highest political entity of the state by law, and Miguel Diaz-Canel serving as president of the republic. A new constitution ratified in February 2019 codifies that Cuba remains a one-party system in which the Communist Party is the only legal political party. Elections were neither free nor fair nor competitive.
The Ministry of Interior controls police, internal security forces, and the prison system. The ministry’s National Revolutionary Police are the primary law enforcement organization. Specialized units of the ministry’s state security branch are responsible for monitoring, infiltrating, and suppressing independent political activity. The national leadership, including members of the military, maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed numerous abuses.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings, by the government; forced disappearance by the government; torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of political dissidents, detainees, and prisoners by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrests and detentions; political prisoners; significant problems with the independence of the judiciary; and arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy. Freedom of the press functionally did not exist. Criminal libel laws were used against persons who criticized government leadership. The government engaged in censorship and internet site blocking, and there were severe limitations on academic and cultural freedom. There were severe restrictions on the right of peaceful assembly and denial of freedom of association, including refusal to recognize independent associations. There were severe restrictions on religious freedom. There were restrictions on internal and external freedom of movement. Citizens were unable to change their government through free and fair elections. Political participation was restricted to members of the ruling party. There was official corruption; trafficking in persons, including compulsory labor; and outlawing of independent trade unions.
Government officials, at the direction of their superiors, committed most human rights abuses. As a matter of policy, officials failed to investigate or prosecute those who committed these abuses. Impunity for the perpetrators remained widespread.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
There were recurring reports that members of the security forces and their agents harassed, intimidated, and physically assaulted human rights and prodemocracy advocates, political dissidents, and peaceful demonstrators, and that they did so with impunity. Some detainees and prisoners endured physical abuse by prison officials or other inmates at the instigation of guards. Although the law prohibits coercion during investigative interrogations, police and security forces at times used aggressive and physically abusive tactics, threats, and harassment during questioning. Detainees reported officers intimidated them with threats of long-term detention, loss of child-custody rights, denial of permission to depart the country, and other punishments.
State security officials frequently deployed to countries such as Venezuela and Nicaragua, where they trained and supported other organizations in their use of repressive tactics and human rights abuses and sometimes participated in the abuses directly. For instance, Cuban security force members were embedded in the Maduro regime’s security and intelligence services in Venezuela and were instrumental in transforming Venezuela’s Directorate General of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM) from a small organization focused on external threats to a much larger organization focused on surveilling Venezuelans and suppressing dissent. UN reports accused the DGCIM of torture, and many former Venezuelan prisoners said that Cubans, identified by their distinctive accents, supervised while DGCIM personnel tortured prisoners.
A December 2019 report from the Casla Institute, a Czech Republic-based NGO focused on governance in Latin America, stated the Cuban ambassador in Venezuela was personally involved in organizing this training. The Casla Institute report also stated, “Cubans constantly instruct members of the FANB [Venezuelan armed forces] and intelligence in techniques of repression, intimidation, and monitoring, so that they carry out investigation work and spy on their own colleagues and their families and political and social leaders, and directly intervene in social unrest.”
Impunity was pervasive. There were no known cases of prosecution of government officials for any human rights abuses, including torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions were harsh and life threatening. There were reports that prison officials assaulted prisoners. Prisons were overcrowded, and facilities, sanitation, and medical care were deficient.
The government did not publish official statistics on its prisons. In January, citing information from two senior Ministry of Interior officials, the Spain-based NGO Cuban Prisoners Defenders claimed more than 90,000 persons were in prison, with another 37,000 in other forms of custody such as labor camps, house arrest, or conditional parole.
Physical Conditions: The government provided no information regarding the number, location, or capacity of detention centers, including prisons, work camps, and other kinds of detention facilities. Cuban Prisoners Defenders claimed the government had more than 200 such facilities.
Prison and detention cells reportedly lacked adequate water, sanitation, light, ventilation, and temperature control. Although the government provided some food and medical care, many prisoners relied on their families to provide food and other basic supplies. Potable water was often unavailable. Prison cells were overcrowded. Women reported lack of access to feminine hygiene products and inadequate prenatal care.
In June political prisoner Walfrido Rodriguez Piloto told independent outlet CubaNet he was denied medical care in El Arco del Chico prison camp in Havana’s La Lisa municipality, where he said prisoners were fed less than two ounces of food per day. He said, “This is a concentration camp; I have been here for six days with nephritic colic and without any medical attention. Between the mosquitoes [which carry dengue], the bed bugs, and hunger, I’m going to die here.” He also complained that he was mistreated by fellow prisoners who did “the dirty work” of authorities in exchange for benefits.
Prisoners, family members, and NGOs reported inadequate health care in prisons, which led to or aggravated multiple maladies. Prisoners reported outbreaks of COVID-19, dengue fever, tuberculosis, hepatitis, and cholera. There were reports of prisoner deaths following official indifference to treatable medical conditions such as asthma, HIV, AIDS, and other chronic medical conditions as well as from suicide. Authorities rarely if ever supplied medicine. In May a member of the opposition group Eastern Democratic Alliance posted on Facebook that one of their members, Sandi Fernandez Ortiz, died in Mar Verde Prison in Santiago de Cuba of sepsis due to poor medical care.
Political prisoners were held jointly with the general prison population. Political prisoners who refused to wear standard prison uniforms were denied certain privileges, such as access to prison libraries, reductions in the severity of their sentence, or transfer from a maximum-security to a medium-security prison.
There were credible reports that prison officials assaulted inmates. Political prisoners also reported that fellow inmates, acting on orders from or with the permission of prison authorities, threatened, beat, intimidated, and harassed them.
In July the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) issued a resolution granting precautionary protection measures to Silverio Portal Contreras, who was arrested and beaten in March 2018 following a protest against unsafe housing in Havana. The IACHR resolution detailed complaints made on behalf of Contreras, including reports that following his July 2018 sentencing, prison authorities severely beat Portal on multiple occasions and placed him in an isolation cell, that he was losing his eyesight because of the beatings, that he was denied medical attention for his multiple chronic medical conditions, and that he was prohibited from contacting his family. In determining the gravity of risk to Portal, the IACHR cited the context faced by human rights defenders in Cuba, which it described as “generally characterized by a climate of hostility, abuse, and harassment, particularly with respect to those who have manifested opposition to the government.” On December 1, Portal was released in poor health.
Prisoners reported solitary confinement was a common punishment for failure to comply with prison regulations, and some prisoners were isolated for months at a time. Some prisoners were held incommunicado, without being able to contact friends or family until they were released.
The government subjected prisoners who criticized the government or engaged in hunger strikes and other forms of protest to extended solitary confinement, assaults, restrictions on family visits, and denial of medical care.
Administration: There were reports that prison officials assaulted prisoners, but authorities did not investigate credible allegations of mistreatment. Prisoners reported government officials refused to accept or respond to complaints.
Prisoners and pretrial detainees had access to visitors, although several political prisoners’ relatives reported prison officials arbitrarily canceled scheduled visits or denied visits altogether.
Authorities allowed prisoners to practice their religion, but there were isolated reports authorities did not inform inmates of their right to religious services, delayed months before responding to such requests, and limited visits by clergy to a maximum of two or three times per year.
Independent Monitoring: The government did not permit independent international or domestic human rights groups to monitor prison conditions, and it denied access to detainees by international humanitarian organizations. Although the government pledged in previous years to allow a visit by the UN special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment, no visit occurred during the year.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. Although the 2019 constitution adds explicit protections of freedom and human rights, including habeas corpus, authorities did not observe them, nor did the courts enforce them. The government denied a habeas corpus motion on behalf of political prisoner Jose Daniel Ferrer (see section 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees), the only time it was known to have been filed.
Arbitrary arrests and short-term detentions increased and became a routine government method for controlling independent public expression and political activity. The government frequently detained activists arbitrarily without informing them of any charges against them and often denied them the ability to communicate with their relatives.
The government broadened arbitrary arrest powers under the pretext of controlling the COVID-19 pandemic. In December the NGO Human Rights Watch released a report documenting 34 cases in which authorities invoked rules concerning the COVID-19 pandemic to target government critics and others. Documented cases included Keilylli de la Mora Valle, a member of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) political group, who was arrested on April 12 for lowering her mask to smoke a cigarette on the street. She was sentenced to 18 months in prison after protesting her treatment by police. In another incident, on November 26, authorities claiming to be medical personnel entered San Isidro Movement headquarters on the pretext of requiring a COVID-19 test of journalist Carlos Manuel Alvarez who had arrived earlier in the year. They were followed by police wearing medical gowns, who proceeded to arrest the protesters, several of whom later stated they were beaten during the arrests. Officers told the dissidents that a criminal complaint had been filed against them for “spreading an epidemic.”
The law requires that police furnish suspects a signed “report of detention,” noting the basis, date, and location of any detention in a police facility and a registry of personal items seized during a police search. Authorities routinely ignored this requirement. Police routinely stopped and questioned citizens, requested identification, and carried out search-and-seizure operations directed at known activists. Police used legal provisions against public disorder, contempt, lack of respect, aggression, and failure to pay minimal or arbitrary fines as ways to detain, threaten, and arrest civil society activists. Police routinely conducted short-term detentions in order to interfere with individuals’ rights to freedom of assembly and freedom of expression, and at times assaulted detainees.
Police and security officials used short-term and sometimes violent detentions to prevent independent political activity and free assembly. Such detentions generally lasted from several hours to several days.
The law allows for “preventive detention” for up to four years of individuals not charged with an actual crime, based on a subjective determination of “precriminal dangerousness,” which is defined as the “special proclivity of a person to commit crimes, demonstrated by conduct in manifest contradiction of socialist norms.” Mostly used as a tool to control “antisocial” behaviors such as substance abuse or prostitution, authorities also used such detentions to silence peaceful political opponents. Several of the more than 100 individuals considered to be political prisoners by domestic and international human rights organizations were imprisoned under the “precriminal dangerousness” provision of the law.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
Under criminal procedures, police have 24 hours after an arrest to present a criminal complaint to an investigative police official. Investigative police have 72 hours to investigate and prepare a report for the prosecutor, who in turn has 72 hours to recommend to the appropriate court whether to open a criminal investigation.
Within the initial 168-hour detention period, by law detainees must be informed of the basis for the arrest and criminal investigation and have access to legal representation. Those charged may be released on bail, placed in home detention, or held in continued investigative detention. Once the accused has an attorney, the defense has five days to respond to the prosecution’s charges, after which a court date usually is set. Prosecutors may demand summary trials “in extraordinary circumstances” and in cases involving crimes against state security. After the COVID-19 pandemic started to spread in February, the Ministry of Justice regularly invoked “extraordinary circumstances” in order to conduct summary trials.
There were reports that defendants met with their attorneys for the first time only minutes before their trials and were not informed of the basis for their arrest within the required 168-hour period. In the case of summary trials for persons accused of “propagating an epidemic” for allegedly violating COVID-19 restrictions, accused persons were tried and sentenced without representation from legal counsel or the opportunity to present any defense.
Reports suggested bail was available, although bail was typically not granted to persons arrested for political activities. Time in detention before trial counted toward time served if convicted.
Detainees may be interrogated at any time during detention and have no right to request the presence of counsel during interrogation. Detainees have the right to remain silent, but officials do not have a legal obligation to inform them of that right.
By law investigators must complete criminal investigations within 60 days. Prosecutors may grant investigators two 60-day extensions upon request, for a total of 180 days of investigative time. The supervising court may waive this deadline in “extraordinary circumstances” and upon special request by the prosecutor. In the case of the “extraordinary circumstances” waiver, no additional legal requirement exists to complete an investigation and file criminal charges, and therefore authorities may detain a person without charge indefinitely.
Arbitrary Arrest: Officials often disregarded legal procedures governing arrest. They detained suspects longer than the legally mandated period without informing them of the nature of the arrest, without allowing them to contact family members, and without making legal counsel available to them. Police and security officials continued to use short-term and sometimes violent detentions to prevent independent political activity and free assembly. Such detentions generally lasted from several hours to several days. After being taken into custody, these suspects were typically fined and released. The record of the fines frequently lacked information about the law that was broken or the name of the official responsible for the fine, making the fines difficult to contest in court. Sometimes fines formed the basis for preventing persons from leaving the country.
In connection with a planned yearly march on September 8, several activists from UNPACU were arbitrarily detained on September 7. On September 8, immediately after leaving his house with several supporters, UNPACU leader Jose Daniel Ferrer and other supporters were arrested (see also section 2.b., Freedom of Peaceful Assembly). Human rights NGOs reported at least 70 arrests and arbitrary detentions linked to the September 8 “Sunflower Revolution,” a call for nonviolent protests against the regime.
Pretrial Detention: The government held some detainees for months or years in investigative detention, in both political and nonpolitical cases. In nonpolitical cases, delays were often due to bureaucratic inefficiencies and a lack of checks on police. The percentage of prisoners and detainees in pretrial detention was unknown.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
The government held political prisoners and detainees but denied it did so. It refused access to its prisons and detention centers by international humanitarian organizations and the United Nations.
The NGO Cuban Prisoners Defenders estimated there were 134 convicted political prisoners serving sentences as of December 1. Other groups reported different numbers, although figures consistently ranged near 100 or higher. The lack of governmental transparency, along with systemic abuse of due process rights, obscured the true nature of criminal charges, investigations, and prosecutions. This allowed government authorities to prosecute and sentence peaceful human rights activists for criminal violations or “precriminal dangerousness.” The government used the designation of “counterrevolutionary” for inmates deemed to be political opposition, but it did not publicize the number of these inmates. The government closely monitored organizations tracking political prisoner populations, and the organizations often faced harassment from state authorities.
Political prisoners reported the government held them in isolation for extended periods. They did not receive the same protections as other prisoners or detainees. The government frequently denied political prisoners access to home visits, prison classes, telephone calls, and, on occasion, family visits.
The justice system systematically subjected Jose Daniel Ferrer, head of UNPACU, to a wide range of abuses after he was arrested in October 2019 with several colleagues. While he was incarcerated, Ferrer was subjected to routine abuse from fellow prisoners who told him they were being rewarded with special privileges by prison authorities for beating him. During Ferrer’s detention, prison officials at times withheld food and medicine and gave Ferrer only unclean water to drink. Ferrer and his compatriots were convicted of spurious charges of lesiones (inflicting grievous bodily harm) and false imprisonment after a 13-hour trial on February 26 with numerous irregularities.
On the day of Ferrer’s trial, the Ministry of Justice tweeted that Ferrer would get a fair trial but in the same tweet called him “a common criminal” in violation of his right to the presumption of innocence. State media conducted a propaganda campaign against him before his trial that alleged Ferrer was a habitual domestic abuser (which was contradicted by past partners of his). Authorities tightly cordoned off the courthouse and did not allow international observers; most members of the audience were in fact members of the security services. Authorities allegedly attempted to intimidate several defense witnesses. The court ignored evidence (a recorded telephone conversation) from the alleged victim’s wife that suggested the injuries to the alleged victim were the result of a motorcycle accident rather than a beating. The court also ignored evidence that the victim was coerced to testify on behalf of the prosecution.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, on the condition that the expression “conforms to the aims of socialist society.” The law bans criticism of government leaders and distribution of antigovernment propaganda, with penalties ranging from three months to 15 years in prison.
Freedom of Speech: The government did not tolerate public criticism of government officials or programs, and it limited public debate of topics considered politically sensitive. Several laws criminalize aspects of freedom of expression.
Rather than enforce these laws, police typically used other pretexts to harass and arrest persons exercising freedom of expression. Among the individuals who protested these restrictive laws was Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara, an artist and a leader of the San Isidro Movement (MSI), an organization promoting cultural independence. Several MSI members, such as rapper Maykel Osorbo and Otero Alcantara’s partner Claudia Genlui, were arrested, beaten while in custody, blackmailed by state security, and fined during the year. While some of these arrests were in conjunction with political events or Otero Alcantara’s art, many arrests were arbitrary.
Otero Alcantara, arrested dozens of times in conjunction with his performance art, was charged once, for “defiling national symbols,” a case that was dropped after he spent 13 days incarcerated. He was arrested, among other times: on February 7, for walking around Havana wearing a hard hat in protest of several individuals killed when their state-owned house collapsed; on February 11, for protesting a state television decision to censor a kiss between two men; on September 8, moments after stepping outside his home holding a sign with a black and white sunflower, referencing the country’s patron saint; and on October 10, after gathering individuals to celebrate the anniversary of the Grito de Yara (Cry of Yara, the 1868 start of the country’s independence struggle).
Otero Alcantara was also arrested several times while demonstrating for the freedom of fellow MSI member Denis Solis, including on November 12 when Otero Alcantara and another activist attempted to present a writ of habeas corpus for Solis. Otero Alcantara was arrested on November 26 when authorities raided his house to break up a hunger strike of MSI members. At year’s end he remained on house arrest, despite the government’s not levying charges against him.
State security regularly harassed the organizers of independent debates on cultural and social topics to force them to stop discussing matters deemed controversial. The organizers reported assaults by state security, video surveillance installed outside of venues, and detention of panelists and guests on the days they were expected to appear.
Government workers reported being fired, demoted, or censured for expressing dissenting opinions or for affiliating with independent organizations.
Alexander Raul Pupo Casas told independent media outlet CiberCuba that he was forced out of his residency program in neurosurgery at the Ernesto Che Guevara Hospital. His supervisor, Ponce de Leon Noriega, viewed Facebook posts from Pupo Casas that were critical of the government, including its low salaries for medical professionals. Noriega then publicly denounced Pupo Casas as “counterrevolutionary” and started proceedings to expel him from the hospital.
Religious groups reported increased restrictions on expressing their opinions during sermons and at religious gatherings, with authorities sometimes using COVID-19 restrictions to prevent persons from worshipping. Most members of the clergy exercised self-censorship. Religious leaders in some cases criticized the government, its policies, and the country’s leadership without reprisals. Other religious groups, particularly those not officially state-sanctioned, reported harassment and destruction of houses of worship.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The government or the PCC directly owned all print and broadcast media outlets and all widely available sources of information. News and information programming were generally uniform across all government-controlled outlets. The government controlled all printing presses and nearly all publications. The party censored public screenings and performances. The government limited the importation of printed materials.
Foreign correspondents had limited access to and often were denied interviews with government officials. Foreign correspondents struggled to gather facts and reliable data for stories. The government harassed and denied access to correspondents who reported stories deemed critical of the government. As a result of self-censorship and lack of access, foreign journalists rarely published stories on human rights violations while inside the country. Despite meeting government vetting requirements, journalists belonging to state media institutions who reported on sensitive subjects did so at personal risk, and the government barred them from working for unofficial media outlets in addition to their official duties. The government harassed and threatened any independent citizen journalists who reported on human rights violations.
After Camila Acosta started working as an independent journalist in August 2019, she endured nearly constant state harassment and other abuses for her work. Since February she was forced to move at least six times (including several times during the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak) due to police harassment of her landlords for “hosting a dissident.” She was arbitrarily arrested, detained, abused, fined, threatened, and interrogated at length on many occasions. For example, on July 31, she was waiting for friends in a park in Havana when two officers approached her, asked for her identity document, arrested her, and took her to a police station. Inside her bag they found several facemasks reading, “No to Decree 370,” a reference to legalized surveillance of electronic communication without a court order. The officers forced Acosta to strip and searched her further. Police fined her and threatened further prosecution for protesting the decree. On March 9, police arrested Acosta while she covered a demonstration for the freedom of artist and activist Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara (see section 2.a., Freedom of Speech). Police gave her a large fine and threatened her with “deportation” to her home province, Isla de la Juventud.
Violence and Harassment: The government did not recognize independent journalism, and independent journalists frequently faced government harassment, including detention and physical abuse. Most detentions were of independent journalists who filmed arrests and harassment of activists or otherwise attempted to cover politically sensitive topics. Community members and journalists for the Cuban Institute for Freedom of Expression and of the Press reported increased repression after President Diaz-Canel took office. Independent reporters experienced harassment, violence, intimidation, aggression, and censorship, and several were confined to their homes or prevented from traveling abroad. On November 22, security forces allowed a progovernment mob to block registered foreign media teams from reporting on protests for the freedom of Denis Solis in Havana’s central park. Foreign media reported the mob “pushing, shoving, and punching one cameraman four or five times in the body.”
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law prohibits distribution of printed materials considered “counterrevolutionary” or critical of the government. Foreign newspapers and magazines were generally unavailable outside of tourist areas. Distribution of material with political content–interpreted broadly to include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, foreign newspapers, and independent information on public health–was not allowed, and possession of these materials sometimes resulted in harassment and detention. Government officials also confiscated or destroyed cameras and cell phones of individuals to prevent them from distributing photographs and videos deemed objectionable.
The government sometimes barred independent libraries from receiving materials from abroad and seized materials donated by foreign governments, religious organizations, and individuals.
Libel/Slander Laws: The government used defamation of character law to arrest or detain individuals critical of the country’s leadership. Authorities frequently arrested and charged persons with the vague crime of “contempt of authority.”
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption. The government was highly sensitive to corruption allegations and often conducted anticorruption crackdowns.
Corruption: The law provides for three to eight years’ imprisonment for “illegal enrichment” by authorities or government employees. The government did not implement the law effectively, and officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of police and other official corruption in enforcement of economic restrictions and provision of government services. For example, employees frequently stole products from government stocks and sold them on the black market. Multiple persons reported that when searching homes and vehicles, police sometimes took the owners’ belongings or sought bribes in exchange for not imposing fines or arrests. Corruption by customs officers was also reportedly common.
Financial Disclosure: The law does not require appointed and elected officials to disclose their assets.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
The government did not recognize domestic human rights groups or permit them to function legally. Several human rights organizations continued to function outside the law, including UNPACU, the Christian Liberation Movement, the Assembly to Promote Civil Society, and the Lawton Foundation for Human Rights. The government subjected domestic human rights advocates to intimidation, harassment, periodic short-term detention, and long-term imprisonment on questionable charges.
No officially recognized NGOs monitored human rights. The government refused to recognize or meet with NGOs that monitored or promoted human rights. There were reports of government harassment of individuals who met with unauthorized NGOs.
The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government continued to deny international human rights organizations, including the United Nations, its affiliated organizations, and the International Committee of the Red Cross, access to prisoners and detainees. The government continued to deny or ignore long-standing requests from the UN special rapporteurs on torture, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and freedom of assembly to enter the country to monitor human rights.