Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press and other media, 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. On August 17, the government imposed a new law restricting online speech and dissent. Decree 35, enacted in response to the widespread July 11 antigovernment protests, penalizes categories of internet activity determined to be critical of the government and provides criminal penalties for violations. Network providers were obligated to report any such activity to the new Office of Security for Computer Networks. According to the NGO Proyecto Inventario, the government utilized another decree that prohibits the online publication of information contrary to the “social interest, morals, [and] good manners,” to target, temporarily detain, fine, and sometimes confiscate the telephones of 14 citizens, journalists, and activists. In addition to restricting access to the internet, authorities prohibited access to specific social media platforms, including WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, and Telegram.
Freedom of Expression: 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, such as Decree 349, which empowers the Ministry of Culture to regulate all artistic and cultural activity. Rather than enforce these laws, police typically used other pretexts to harass and arrest persons exercising freedom of expression.
On January 28, security officials violently arrested more than 20 activists from the 27N movement, a collection of artists advocating for freedom of expression. Vice Minister of Culture Fernando Rojas had invited three 27N members, including artist Camila Lobon, to a private meeting that day under the guise of discussing artistic freedom. Prior to the meeting, the government arrested several other 27N activists on their way to a separate gathering. When Lobon and others gathered in protest in front of the Ministry of Culture, Rojas confronted the group, punching independent journalist Mauricio Mendoza, after which Ministry of Culture bureaucrats began attacking the protesters. Security officials violently arrested the protesters, breaking activist Alfredo Martinez’s finger. On a bus in transit to the police station, three security officials assaulted Lobon when she refused to surrender her cell phone. Another security official punched artist Celia Gonzalez for verbally protesting her detention. The activists were released within 24 hours, but their phones were returned with all data erased. The next day state media released a half-hour news program on the incident, attempting to defame the activists and independent journalists by alleging they went to the Ministry of Culture with the intention of provoking government employees. Among the individuals who protested these restrictive laws was Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara, an internationally recognized artist and leader of the San Isidro Movement, an organization promoting greater respect for civil rights and freedoms, especially for freedom of expression, as well as artistic rights. Otero Alcantara, who appeared in the video for the Latin Grammy Award-winning song “Patria y Vida” that became an anthem of the July 11 protests, had been arrested dozens of times previously and either detained or placed under house arrest.
On May 2, state security forces detained Otero Alcantara at his home, where he was on a hunger strike, and held him for more than four weeks before releasing him on May 31, under permanent surveillance. Police arrested him again during the July 11 protests and held him in the maximum-security prison in Guanajay, where he remained at year’s end. He went on a hunger strike again from September 27 to October 14 and then contracted COVID-19.
On May 18, state security forces arbitrarily detained rapper, fellow San Isidro activist, and “Patria y Vida” performer Maykel “Osorbo” Castillo. As of December, he remained in pretrial detention in Pinar del Rio, where he undertook a hunger and thirst strike and was kept in isolation. When Castillo publicly dedicated his Grammy to the Cuban people, prison officials responded by restricting his telephone calls for 30 days. They increased the restriction to 90 days after Castillo signed “Patria y Vida” under his name on the disciplinary measure, a document that prisoners are obliged to sign acknowledging they were punished.
State security regularly harassed the organizers of independent debates on cultural, political, economic, 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 Jesus Figueredo Izaguirre was detained with others during the July 11 protests in Bayamo, Granma. A physician of 15 years, he was fired in May 2020 and no longer permitted to practice medicine for his social media postings calling for medicine and personnel, rather than restrictive measures alone, to combat COVID-19. Gremio Medico Cubano Libre, an organization dedicated to fighting for doctors’ rights to practice medicine without interference of politics or doctrine, reported that he was one of 11 doctors the regime punished.
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. The Communist Party’s (PCC) Office of Religious Affairs directed government policies against religious groups.
Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: The government or the PCC directly owned all print and broadcast media outlets and virtually 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. On November 14, the day before the opposition had prepared to stage announced protests, the government revoked the media credentials of five journalists affiliated with the Spanish media agency EFE. Following engagement from the Spanish government, two of the journalists had their credentials reinstated the same day. As a result of self-censorship and lack of access, many 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.
On April 30, plainclothes security forces arrested Esteban Lazaro Rodriguez Lopez, an independent citizen journalist, and others during a peaceful demonstration in Havana. Rodriguez attempted to visit Otero Alcantara at his home, where the artist had gone on a hunger and thirst strike for several days, when military forces blocked access. Rodriguez reportedly sat on the ground and linked arms with other demonstrators in a nearby park, and agents arrested them by force. Habeas corpus appeals failed, and Rodriguez Lopez remained in detention as of November.
Security forces repeatedly threatened, detained, and harassed 22-year-old YouTuber Ruhama Fernandez for criticizing the government in online discussions of social and political issues. On October 24, when she traveled to Florida to visit her parents, security forces escorted Fernandez to her plane; she stated upon arrival in Florida that the government forced her to leave the country.
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 July 11, police beat Associated Press reporter Ramon Espinosa while he was covering the protests in Havana. Photographs documented the journalist bleeding from his face. Security forces prevented dozens of independent journalists from leaving their homes on November 15 to keep them from covering planned civic marches called for that day. Many reported the state telecom provider cut off service to their cell phones.
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.”
The law allows for freedom of assembly and association. The government, however, restricted these freedoms in practice. The government routinely blocked any attempts to assemble that it opposed, such as by repressing peaceful gatherings and denying requests to hold marches for the release of political prisoners.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement and the Right to Leave the Country
There were increased restrictions on freedom of movement within the country, foreign travel, and migration with the right of return. The government controlled internal migration from rural areas to Havana, sometimes arresting and expelling persons from Havana if authorities discovered their national identity card listed them as living in another city. These policies disproportionally affected Afro-Cubans from the eastern region of the country who resided in large numbers in marginalized communities in Havana without residential permits. The government also barred some citizens and persons of Cuban descent living abroad from entering the country, apparently on grounds that these visitors were critical of the government, had “abandoned” postings abroad as low-paid medical doctors, or had defected when they were abroad as athletes. The government prevented many Cubans who normally were residents in another country but who were in Cuba during the COVID-19 pandemic from leaving the country.
When former government employees emigrated from the country, sometimes their family members 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 moderate fine for first-time “rafters” (those who attempted to depart the country clandestinely, commonly using homemade vessels), although these attempts were less frequent than in previous years. Most persons caught attempting unauthorized departures via sea were detained briefly under quarantine as a precaution against COVID-19. In the case of military or police defectors or those traveling with children, the punishment could be more severe.
Under the terms of the 1994-95 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, assuming they had not committed a separate criminal offense.
In-country Movement: Although the constitution allows all citizens to travel anywhere within the country, establishing residence in Havana was 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 and send them back to their legally authorized residence. There were reports that authorities provided only limited social services to illegal Havana residents and at times restricted food purchases to a person’s official neighborhood of residence. Police threatened to prosecute anyone who returned to Havana after expulsion. Intraprovincial travel was also generally highly restricted.
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 that authorities prevented them from leaving their home provinces or detained and returned the dissidents to their homes, even though the dissidents had no written or formal restrictions placed against them.
Foreign Travel: The government continued to require persons from several professional and social categories to obtain permission to emigrate. The affected persons included highly specialized medical personnel; military or security personnel; many government officials, including academics; and many former political prisoners and human rights activists.
The government prohibited human rights activists, religious leaders, independent journalists, and artists from traveling outside the country to attend events related to human rights and democracy. The government used arbitrary or spurious reasons to deny permission for human rights activists and religious leaders 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.
The government arbitrarily designated some persons as regulados (regulated persons), 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 officials denied such a policy existed, declaring the law allows for freedom of movement. Because the government did not acknowledge that persons were prevented from leaving, those subject to the policy were left without any recourse for an appeal. The tactic served not only to restrict the movement of citizens but also their freedom of expression, because it was routinely applied when individuals attempted to travel to speak at conferences.
Exile: The government continued to pressure activists into exile to avoid extreme prison sentences or threats to their family, which was a growing trend.
On June 26, political dissident artist Hamlet Lavastida was arrested after returning from Poland where he had put on an art exhibit that was critical of the government. Authorities threatened him with a 15- to 20-year sentence for “fomenting rebellion” for an idea he had allegedly shared via private chat with an activist group, but never executed, to stamp symbols related to activist movements on Cuban money. As interrogations became more intense after the July 11 protests, and after three months in prison and believing he would not receive a fair trial, Lavastida agreed to go into exile in Poland with his partner, writer and activist Katherine Bisquet. After authorities released him from a state security facility, 20 agents escorted the couple directly to the airport, not allowing either of them to say goodbye to their families. Authorities told Lavastida that he would be arrested and sentenced to a long prison term if he continued to criticize the government and attempted to return.
Citizenship: The government regularly rendered citizens de facto stateless persons when it withheld consular services from employees and their families as punishment for abandoning a foreign work mission. There were reports of Cubans residing abroad who were refused a passport or other proof of identity or citizenship, including for direct return to Cuba. Children born abroad to Cuban citizens in these circumstances were unable to obtain recognition of their Cuban citizenship. Consular documents explicitly stated employees who were considered deserters for leaving their jobs, such as medical mission personnel, would be barred from reentering the country and reuniting with their family for eight years. Any citizen residing outside of the country for more than 24 months may lose full citizenship rights.
The government allegedly cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. Information about the extent of that cooperation was not publicly available.
Access to Asylum: The constitution provides for the granting of asylum to individuals persecuted for their principles or actions involving several specified political grounds. The government has no formal mechanism, however, 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 UNHCR to provide protection and assistance pending third-country resettlement.