Cuba is an authoritarian state led by Miguel Diaz-Canel, president of the republic, with former president Raul Castro serving as the first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party (CCP). Despite ratifying a new constitution on February 24, Cuba remains a one-party system in which the constitution states the CCP is the only legal political party and the highest political entity of the state.
The Ministry of Interior exercises control over the police, internal security forces, and the prison system. The ministry’s National Revolutionary Police is 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.
Significant human rights issues included: reports of abuse of political dissidents, detainees, and prisoners by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrests and detentions; significant problems with the independence of the judiciary; political prisoners; and arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy. The government severely restricted freedom of the press, used criminal libel laws against persons critical of leadership, and engaged in censorship and site blocking. There were limitations on academic and cultural freedom; restrictions on the right of peaceful assembly; denial of freedom of association, including refusal to recognize independent associations; restrictions on internal and external freedom of movement and severe restrictions of religious freedom. Political participation was restricted to members of the ruling party, and elections were not free and fair. There was official corruption, trafficking in persons, outlawing of independent trade unions, and compulsory labor.
On February 24, the country adopted a new constitution in a coerced referendum marred by violent government repression against those that opposed the proposed constitution. On February 12, for example, 200 police and security agents raided the homes of leaders of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) for openly campaigning against the draft constitution, detaining and reportedly beating UNPACU members. Other opponents reported that the government had blocked their email and texts to keep them from disseminating opposition campaign materials. Article 5 of the constitution enshrines one-party rule by the CCP, disallowing for additional political expression outside of that structure. Although the new constitution adds explicit protections of freedom and human rights, including habeas corpus, authorities did not respect them, nor did the courts enforce them.
Government officials, at the direction of their superiors, committed most human rights abuses and failed to investigate or prosecute those who committed the abuses. Impunity for the perpetrators remained widespread.
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 condition that it “conforms to the aims of socialist society.” Laws banning criticism of government leaders and distribution of antigovernment propaganda carry penalties ranging from three months to 15 years in prison.
Freedom of Expression: The government did not tolerate public criticism of government officials or programs and limited public debate of issues considered politically sensitive. The government passed two additional laws further criminalizing freedom of expression: Decree 349, which came into effect in December 2018, institutionalizes censorship of independent art and culture and establishes violations for art that was not regulated or recognized by the official cultural institutions. The decree also allows “supervising inspectors” to review cultural events and empowers them to immediately close any exhibition they deem violates the law and confiscate the business license of any business hosting the offending event. The National Symbols Law criminalizes the way the national flag may be displayed or used in other creative contexts.
Police arrested several persons who protested these laws during the year, including Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara, a leader of the San Isidro Movement, an organization promoting cultural independence, who was arrested at least 18 times in 2018 and 2019, with the last arrest occurring on December 10, International Human Rights Day. On August 9, police arrested him in front of his privately owned Museum of Dissidence for his performance art protest against the National Symbols Law. His performance consisted of wearing a national flag draped over his shoulders. He was also arrested on September 12, when three uniformed police officers and two plainclothes officers beat him and took him away in an unmarked vehicle, holding him incommunicado for more than 72 hours. On September 13, he was charged with violating the National Symbols Law and then released on the condition that he not leave his home after midnight, drink alcohol in a public place, or frequent public places. Several other members of the San Isidro Movement were assaulted, arrested, and fined during the year.
State security regularly harassed the organizers of independent fora for debates on cultural and social topics to force them to stop discussing issues deemed controversial. The fora’s 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. In addition, human rights activists, independent journalists, and artists were prohibited from traveling outside the country to attend events in international fora related to human rights and democracy in the country. Media and religious leaders said the government continued to harass or detain members of religious groups advocating for greater religious and political freedom.
Government workers reported being fired, demoted, or censured for expressing dissenting opinions or affiliating with independent organizations. Several university professors, researchers, and students reported they were forced from their positions, demoted, or expelled for expressing ideas or opinions outside of government-accepted norms.
In contrast with 2018, some religious groups reported increased restrictions to express their opinions during sermons and at religious gatherings. Most members of the clergy continued to exercise 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.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: The government directly owned all print and broadcast media outlets and all widely available sources of information. News and information programming were generally uniform across all outlets. The government also controlled nearly all publications and printing presses. The party censored public screenings and performances. The government also limited the importation of printed materials. Foreign correspondents in the country had limited access to and often were denied interviews with government officials. They also struggled to gather facts and reliable data for stories. Despite meeting government vetting requirements, official journalists who reported on sensitive subjects did so at personal risk, and the government barred official journalists 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 in the country.
On October 10, 19 independent media outlets published a joint declaration on the state of independent journalism in the country. They denounced the 183 documented incidents of state aggression against journalists since January 2018, part of a broader wave of repression of independent journalism, and demanded the state respect a more open, transparent, and diverse independent media.
On April 22, journalist and lawyer Roberto Quinones was arrested and assaulted while reporting on a trial involving religious expression. Quinones was interviewing a daughter of two Protestant pastors who were facing a court sentence because they wanted to homeschool their children when police officers approached to arrest him. Quinones asked why he was being arrested. Rather than answer, an officer pulled Quinones’ hands behind his back, handcuffed him, and threw him to the ground. The officers then dragged him to their police car. One of the arresting officers struck 65-year-old Quinones several times, including once on the side of the head with enough force to rupture his eardrum. On August 7, he was sentenced to one year of “correctional labor” for “resistance and disobedience,” and on September 11, he was taken to prison, after authorities processed and then denied his appeal. Quinones continued to write while in prison, especially about the bleak conditions of the facility, although he wrote a letter saying he was happy to “be here for having put my dignity before blackmail.” When the letter was published on CubaNet, an independent domestic online outlet, Quinones was reportedly punished and threatened with “disciplinary action.”
Violence and Harassment: The government does not recognize independent journalism, and independent journalists sometimes faced government harassment, including detention and physical abuse. Most detentions involved 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.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law prohibits distribution of printed materials considered “counterrevolutionary” or critical of the government. Foreign newspapers or 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. Among many blocked websites, in September the government blocked Change.org after several petitions critical of the government appeared on the website. 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 laws to arrest or detain individuals critical of the country’s leadership. Authorities frequently arrested and charged persons for the ambiguous crime of “contempt of authority.”
Human rights activists reported government internet trolls tracking their social media accounts and reported on the government’s practice of sending mass text messages warning neighbors to avoid association with dissidents.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
d. Freedom of Movement
There continued to be restrictions on freedom of movement within the country, foreign travel, and migration with the right of return. The government also controlled internal migration from rural areas to Havana, sometimes arresting persons in Havana if authorities discovered their national identity card listed them as living in another city. The government also barred citizens and persons of Cuban descent living abroad from entering the country, apparently on grounds that they were critical of the government or for having “abandoned” postings abroad as low-paid medical doctors or defected athletes. Chess master Jennifer Perez was denied a passport at least four times because, as Cuban authorities in Ecuador told her, she was considered a deserter for deciding to reside abroad to take advantage of better job opportunities.
Some family members of former government employees who emigrated from the island lost public benefits or were denied passports to travel and join their family members abroad. The law provides for imprisonment of up to three years or a fine of 500 CUP ($20) for first-time “rafters” (those who attempted to depart clandestinely, commonly using homemade vessels), although these attempts were becoming infrequent. Most persons caught attempting unauthorized departures via sea were detained briefly. In the case of military or police defectors or those traveling with children, the punishment could be more severe.
Under the terms of the 1994-1995 U.S.-Cuba migration accords, the government agreed not to prosecute or retaliate against migrants returned from international or U.S. waters or from the Guantanamo U.S. Naval Station after attempting to emigrate illegally if they had not committed a separate criminal offense. Some would-be migrants alleged harassment and discrimination, such as fines, expulsion from school, and job loss.
In-country Movement: Although the constitution allows all citizens to travel anywhere within the country, changes of residence to Havana were restricted. The local housing commission and provincial government authorities must authorize any change of residence. The government may fine persons living in a location without authorization from these bodies and send them back to their legally authorized place of residence. There were reports authorities limited social services to illegal Havana residents. Police threatened to prosecute anyone who returned to Havana after expulsion.
The law permits authorities to bar an individual from a certain area within the country, or to restrict an individual to a certain area, for a maximum of 10 years. Under this provision authorities may internally exile any person whose presence in a given location is determined to be “socially dangerous.” Dissidents frequently reported authorities prevented them from leaving their home provinces or detained and returned them to their homes, even though they had no written or formal restrictions placed against them.
Foreign Travel: The government continued to require several professional and social categories of individuals to obtain permission for emigrant travel, including highly specialized medical personnel; military or security personnel; many government officials, including academics; and many former political prisoners and human rights activists. It also used arbitrary or spurious reasons to deny permission for human rights activists to leave the country to participate in workshops, events, or training programs. Activists reported a significant increase in interrogations and confiscations at the airport when arriving from abroad. According to the NGO Patmos Institute, as of October there were at least 202 citizens whom authorities designated as regulados, meaning the government either prohibited them from receiving a passport or from leaving the country. The policy did not appear to be supported by a legal framework, and in an October 1 interview with the Associated Press, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla denied such a policy existed, declaring the law allows for freedom of movement. Because citizens are prohibited from leaving without explanation or justification, and the government did not acknowledge that persons were prevented from leaving, those subject to the policy were left without any recourse. The tactic served not only to restrict the movement of citizens but also their freedom of expression.
f. Protection of Refugees
Access to Asylum: The constitution provides for the granting of asylum to individuals persecuted for their ideals or actions involving a number of specified political grounds. The government has no formal mechanism to process asylum for foreign nationals and is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention.
Temporary Protection: On the small number of cases of persons seeking asylum, the government worked with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to provide protection and assistance, pending third-country resettlement. In addition, the government allowed foreign students who feared persecution in their home countries to remain in the country after the end of their studies until their claims could be substantiated or resolved. In June, however, 142 Congolese medical students protesting unpaid stipends at their embassy in Havana for several months were arrested and deported to the Republic of the Congo, despite several of them expressing fears for their safety if returned.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
While a voting process to choose CCP-approved candidates exists, citizens do not have the ability to form political parties or choose their government through the right to vote in free and fair elections or run as candidates from political parties other than the CCP. The government forcefully and consistently retaliated against those who sought peaceful political change.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption, and 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 law enforcement and other official corruption in enforcement of myriad economic restrictions and provision of government services. For example, employees frequently siphoned fuel from government stocks for sale on the black market. As of the end of June, there were 339 criminal proceedings related to fuel theft, according to the Attorney General’s Office. Multiple sources reported that when searching homes and vehicles, police sometimes took the owner’s belongings or sought bribes in place of fines or arrests.
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 any unauthorized NGOs that monitored or promoted human rights. There were reports of explicit government harassment of individuals who met with these 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.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law, including related regulations and statutes, severely restricts worker rights by recognizing only the CCP-controlled Central Union of Cuban Workers (CTC) as the paramount trade union confederation. To operate legally, all trade groups must belong to the CTC. The law does not provide for the right to strike. The law also does not provide for collective bargaining, instead setting up a complicated process for reaching collective agreements. The International Labor Organization (ILO) raised concerns regarding the trade union monopoly of the CTC, the prohibition on the right to strike, and restrictions on collective bargaining and agreements, including that government authorities and CTC officials have the final say on all such agreements.
The government continued to prevent the formation of independent trade unions in all sectors. The CCP chose the CTC’s leaders. The CTC’s principal responsibility is to manage government relations with the workforce. The CTC does not bargain collectively, promote worker rights, or advocate for the right to strike. The de facto prohibition on independent trade unions limited workers’ ability to organize independently and appeal against discriminatory dismissals. The government’s strong influence over the judiciary and lawyers limited effective recourse through the courts.
During the year, as in the past several years, Ivan Hernandez Carrillo, general secretary of the Association of Independent Unions of Cuba, was harassed, beaten, detained, threatened, and fined. After being detained for several hours in July, he was released only to have his house surrounded by security officers.
Several small, independent labor organizations operated without legal recognition, including the National Independent Workers’ Confederation of Cuba, National Independent Laborer Confederation of Cuba, and Unitarian Council of Workers of Cuba; together they constituted the Independent Trade Union Association of Cuba (ASIC). These organizations worked to advance the rights of workers by offering an alternative to the state-sponsored CTC and purported to advocate for the rights of small-business owners and employees. Police reportedly harassed the independent unions, and government agents reportedly infiltrated them, limiting their capacity to represent workers effectively or work on their behalf.
In late 2017 ASIC filed a complaint with the ILO in which the trade union alleged harassment and persecution of independent trade unionists involving aggression, arrests, assaults and dismissals; other acts of antiunion discrimination and interference on the part of the public authorities; official recognition of only one trade union federation controlled by the state; absence of collective bargaining; and no legal recognition of the right to strike. In June 2018 the ILO requested the government ensure ASIC be given recognition to freely operate and carry out its trade union activities, in accordance with freedom of association. ASIC was the first domestic independent trade union in more than 50 years to participate in the International Labor Conference, held in Geneva in June. During the conference the ILO Committee of Experts on the Applications of Conventions requested the government provide statistical data on the number of collective agreements indicating the number of workers covered by sector.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law does not explicitly prohibit forced labor. It prohibits unlawful imprisonment, coercion, and extortion, with penalties ranging from fines to imprisonment, but there was no evidence these provisions were used to prosecute cases of forced labor. The use of minors in forced labor, drug trafficking, prostitution, pornography, or the organ trade is punishable by seven to 15 years’ incarceration. The government enforced the laws, and the penalties appeared sufficient to deter violations.
Compulsory military service of young men was occasionally fulfilled by assignment to an economic entity controlled by the military or by assignment to other government services. Many citizens were employed by state-run entities contracted by foreign entities inside the country and abroad to provide labor, often highly skilled labor such as doctors or engineers. These employees received a small fraction of the salaries paid to the state-run company, often less than 10 percent. For example, in the “Mais Medicos” program run in cooperation with the Pan-American Health Organization in Brazil, of $1.3 billion the Brazilian government paid for the services of Cuban doctors, less than 1 percent–only $125 million–was paid to the doctors who provided the services. The rest went into the Cuban government’s coffers. Doctors in the program complained of being overworked and not earning enough to support their families. Former participants described coercion, nonpayment of wages, withholding of their passports, and restriction on their movement, which the government denied. Similar practices occurred in the tourism sector.
Prisoners were subject to forced labor. The government did not facilitate payment of decent wages to those incarcerated. The government continued to use high school students in rural areas to harvest agricultural products (also see section 7.c.).
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law prohibits all of the worst forms of child labor. The legal minimum working age is 17, although the law permits the employment of children ages 15 and 16 to obtain training or fill labor shortages with parental permission and a special authorization from the municipal labor director. The law does not permit children ages 15 and 16 to work more than seven hours per day, 40 hours per week, or on holidays. Children ages 15 to 18 cannot work in specified hazardous occupations, such as mining, or at night.
There were no known government programs to prevent child labor or to remove children from such labor. Antitruancy programs, however, aimed to keep children in school. Inspections and penalties appeared adequate to enforce the law, because inspections for child labor were included in all other regular labor inspections. The government penalizes unlawful child labor with fines and suspension of work permits. There were no credible reports that children younger than 17 worked in significant numbers.
The government used some high school students in rural areas to harvest agricultural products for government farms during peak harvest time. Student participants were not paid but received school credit and favorable recommendations for university admission. Ministry of Education officials used the “Escuela al Campo” plan to make students ages 11 to 17 work in the agricultural sector with no pay. Students were expected to work 45 days during the first academic quarter. Failure to participate or obtain an excused absence reportedly could result in unfavorable grades or university recommendations, although students were reportedly able to participate in other activities (instead of the harvest) to support their application for university admission. Children who performed agricultural work under the “Escuela al Campo” plan were not given the proper tools, clothing, footwear, or food. Deficient and unsanitary living conditions, coupled with a crumbling infrastructure, exposed them to diseases, such as dengue fever, zika, and chikungunya.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The law prohibits workplace discrimination based on skin color, gender, religious belief, sexual orientation, nationality, “or any other distinction harmful to human dignity,” but it does not explicitly protect political opinion (see section 7.a.), social origin, disability, age, language, gender identity, or HIV-positive status or other communicable diseases. No information was available on government enforcement of these provisions during the year.
The government continued to use politically motivated and discriminatory dismissals against those who criticized the government’s economic or political model. The government deemed persons “unfit” to work because of their political beliefs, including their refusal to join the official union, and for trying to depart the country illegally. The government also penalized professionals who expressed interest in emigrating by limiting job opportunities or firing them. A determination that a worker is “unfit” to work could result in job loss and the denial of job opportunities. Persons forced out of employment in the public sector for freely expressing themselves were often further harassed after entering the emerging but highly regulated self-employment sector.
Discrimination in employment occurred with respect to members of the Afro-Cuban and LGBTI populations. Leaders within the Afro-Cuban community noted some Afro-Cubans could not get jobs in better-paying sectors such as tourism and hospitality because they were “too dark.” Afro-Cubans more frequently obtained lower-paying jobs, including cleaning and garbage disposal, which had no interaction with tourists, a major source of hard currency.
Hiring practices in the private sector were racist, colorist, and sexist. A job posting for an accounting or finance position usually called for women with lighter or olive skin, blonde, and physically fit. Postings for bodyguards and security jobs normally sought male candidates of color, who were perceived as being stronger than other races.
There were no statistics stating whether the government effectively enforced applicable laws.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
Authorities set a national minimum wage at a rate below the poverty line, which even with subsidies did not provide a reasonable standard of living.
The standard workweek is 44 hours, with shorter workweeks in hazardous occupations, such as mining. The law provides workers with a weekly minimum 24-hour rest period and one month of paid annual vacation per 11 months of effective work. These standards apply to state workers as well as to workers in the nonstate sector, but they were seldom enforced in the nonstate sector. The law does not prohibit obligatory overtime, but it generally caps the number of overtime hours at 16 hours per week and 160 per year. The law provides few grounds for a worker to refuse to work overtime below these caps. Compensation for overtime is paid in cash at the regular hourly rate or in additional rest time.
The government set workplace safety standards and received technical assistance from the ILO to implement them. The Ministry of Labor and Social Security enforced the minimum wage and working-hours standards through offices at the national, provincial, and municipal levels, but the government did not effectively enforce occupational safety and health standards. No information was available about the number of labor inspectors. Reports from recent years suggested there were very few inspectors and that health and safety standards frequently were ignored or weakened by corrupt practices.
According to government statistics, approximately 618,000 (36 percent of whom were women) were self-employed by the end of September, a 4.9 percent increase from December 2018. The percentage of the total workforce in the private sector increased from approximately 25 percent in 2012 to 31.6 percent at the end of 2018. In December 2018 the government resumed the issuance of new licenses for self-employed persons and small private businesses that had been frozen since 2017.
Rules implemented in 2018 ban businesses operating under the license of “facilitator of home swaps and home sales-purchases” to operate as real estate or dwelling management companies or to hire employees. The rules also apply to music, art, or language teachers, other teachers, and sport trainers. The rules forbid the creation of schools or academies. They are particularly restrictive for the cultural sector, forbidding artists from dealing directly with the private sector, i.e., avoiding the intermediation and supervision of state-run agencies. The number of economic activities allowed to self-employed persons and small private businesses decreased, mostly due to merging and regrouping activities.
Despite criminal penalties for doing so, a significant number of workers participated in the informal economy, including individuals who actively traded on the black market or performed professional activities not officially permitted by the government.
Self-employed persons, such as fruit sellers, bicycle taxi drivers, and others, were frequently targeted by police for allegedly acting illegally, even when licensed. Police sometimes arbitrarily and violently closed down these businesses and confiscated any goods.
Foreign companies operated in a limited number of sectors, such as hotels, tourism, and mining. Such companies operated via a joint venture in which the government contracted and paid company workers in pesos an amount that was a small fraction of what the company remitted to the state for labor costs. Most formal employment took place only through government employment agencies. Employers, including international businesses and organizations, were generally prohibited from contracting or paying workers directly, although many reportedly made supplemental payments under the table. The Ministry of Labor enforces labor laws on any business, organization, or foreign governmental agency based in the country, including wholly owned foreign companies operating in the country, joint-stock companies involving foreign investors operating in the country, the United Nations, international NGOs, and embassies. Cuban workers employed by these entities are subject to labor regulations common to most state and nonstate workers and to some regulations specific to these kinds of entities. Government bodies, including the tax collection agency and the Ministry of Finance and Prices, enforced regulations. There were no reports about protections of migrant workers’ rights.
After increasing 4 percent in 2016, workplace accidents registered a downward trend, decreasing 10 percent in 2017 and 5 percent in 2018. Deaths related to workplace accidents increased 27 percent in 2016 and then decreased 2 percent in 2017 and 20 percent in 2018. By sector, in 2018 most deaths related to workplace accidents were concentrated in defense and public administration (17 percent), communal services and other services (16 percent), mining and quarries (14 percent), and construction (13 percent).
The CTC provided only limited information to workers about their rights and at times did not respond to or assist workers who complained about hazardous workplace conditions. It was generally understood that workers could not remove themselves from dangerous situations without jeopardizing their employment, and authorities did not effectively protect workers facing this dilemma.