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 government restricted freedom of expression in various ways.
Freedom of Expression: The government repeatedly 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. For example, on June 24, a court sentenced artist and activist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, who had protested restrictive laws such as Decree 349, to five years in prison on charges of “outrage against national symbols,” disrespect, and public disorder. The charges primarily dated to a 2019 art series in which Otero Alcántara took photographs of himself wearing only the Cuban flag. The official sentence stated that Otero Alcántara had offended the flag in “denigrating acts accompanied by notoriously offensive and disrespectful expressions.”
Government workers reported being fired, demoted, or censured for expressing dissenting opinions or for affiliating with independent organizations.
Religious groups reported increased restrictions on expressing their opinions during sermons, at religious gatherings, and in public protests. 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 against themselves and family members in retaliation for speech critical of the government. The Office of Religious Affairs, which regulates all affairs of religious groups, directed government policies against both registered and unregistered religious groups.
On September 13, David Pantaleón, a Roman Catholic priest from the Dominican Republic and head of the order of the Jesuits in the country, had to leave Cuba after the government denied the extension of his residence permit. Pantaleón had openly criticized the government and supported human rights defenders and activist organizations such as Movimiento San Isidro, composed of artists, journalists and academics, and the imprisoned July 11 protesters.
The government harassed, detained, interrogated, and prosecuted persons for making videos of protests. PEN International denounced the October 1 arrest of activist and artist Rosmery Almeda for recording one of the protests after Hurricane Ian. Almeda was accused of contempt of authority and public disorder. She was reportedly released on October 20, but the case was not resolved by year’s end.
Violence and Harassment: Repression and forced exile were used to harass independent journalists. Approximately 20 reporters, photographers, and illustrators of El Toque resigned after six of them were prevented from traveling to an international journalism event, followed by harassment by state security and blackmail tactics and threats of not being allowed to leave the country. Other threats included prosecution, confiscation of property, or harm to family members. Wimar Verdecia, Mary Esther Lemus, Iran Hernandez Castillo, producers of the Xel2 graphic supplement, were victims of these “offers.” Others included Meilin Puertas, José Leandro Garbey, Mauro Díaz, Aleiny Sánchez, Claudia Bravet, Laura Seco, Cynthia de la Cantera, Yadiris Luis Fuentes, Nelson Álvarez Mairata, and Jancel Moreno. Yoe Suárez, Nelson Alvarez Mairata, and Luz Escobar were already in exile after several years of being forbidden to leave 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 independent citizen journalists who reported on human rights abuses. Independent outlets El Toque, Diario de Cuba, Cubanet, and 14Ymedio reported the trend increased during the year, with independent journalists reportedly given three options: stop reporting, leave the country, or go to prison. As of August, the NGO Instituto Cubano por la Libertad de Expresión y Prensa (Cuban Institute for Liberty of Speech and the Press) registered 409 incidents regarding denials or restrictions of freedom of expression, including arbitrary detentions, threats, and internet disconnections.
Journalists Vladimir Turró and Yoel Acosta were arrested three times; Enrique Díaz and Henry Constantin, twice; Camila Acosta, Yania Suárez, Neife Rigau, Dunierky Martínez, Lisbeth Moya, Antonio Abad Sánchez, Pedro Yoel Rivas, Osniel Carmona and Orisvey Díaz, at least once. Pedro Luis Hernández was detained in the capital and sent back to his province. Rosmery Almeda, known as Alma Poet, and Danilo Martínez – young artists who filmed the protests after Hurricane Ian in Havana during the blackouts – were detained for more than two weeks. Reasons for the arrests were often vague or not announced.
Censorship or Content Restrictions 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 almost 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 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, many foreign journalists rarely published stories on human rights abuses while inside the country.
The Inter American Press Association reported that several members of the Associated Press, Reuters, and Spanish news agency EFE journalistic teams accredited in the country denounced limits on their work. In November 2021, the government withdrew press credentials of all but two EFE journalists covering a November 15 march. The government reinstated the press credentials in February only after formal protests from the Spanish government.
Armando Franco, editor of the state-owned magazine Alma Mater, was fired for publishing information on detainees arrested in the protests of July 2021. In addition, state media sports reporters Boris Luis Cabrera, Joel García, Norland Rosendo González, and Jhonah Díaz González were denied access to the press conference of a government entity after criticizing one of its directors.
In April, officials fined Ismario Rodríguez, the audiovisual director of independent journal Periodismo de Barrio, 4,000 pesos ($33) for “illicit economic activity,” a charge often used to punish those who practiced journalism without the regime’s permission. In August, Rodríguez said security officials threatened him with prison if he did not cease his journalism and renounce his “counterrevolutionary” activity.
Libel/Slander Laws: The government used a 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.”
On April 7, Yoandi Montiel was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for contempt of authority due to his criticizing authorities and the president on Facebook.
In October, activist Omar Ortega Mendoza was sentenced to three and one-half years’ imprisonment for contempt of authority after criticizing the president on Facebook. In 2021, he served a 10-month sentence for contempt after sharing photographs on social media of persons who died of COVID-19 in the municipality of Morón.
National Security: The law prohibits distribution of printed materials considered “counterrevolutionary” or critical of the government on the grounds of national security. The revised penal code sanctions propaganda against the constitutional order with three to eight years’ imprisonment. For example, 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.
The government sometimes barred independent libraries from receiving materials from abroad and seized materials donated by foreign governments, religious organizations, and individuals.
The government restricted access to the internet and used a combination of restrictive laws, targeted website censorship, bandwidth throttling, pressure on website operators, and unrestricted surveillance to censor information critical of the regime and to silence its critics and events such as the protests that took place in the summer. Authorities restricted internet access for individuals or particular regions of the country in response to protests. Several observers accused the government of cutting off access to the internet following a series of protests in the wake of Hurricane Ian.
The revised penal code allows the government to sanction social media posts critical of the government or government officials, and it lists criminal incitement through social media as an “aggravating circumstance” to allow for harsher sentences. According to the NGO Proyecto Inventario, the government used legislation to prohibit the online publication of information contrary to the “social interest, morals, [and] good manners,” and to target, temporarily detain, fine, and sometimes confiscate cell phones of citizens, journalists, and activists.
All internet access was provided through state monopoly companies, and the government had unrestricted and unregulated legal authority to monitor citizens’ and foreigners’ use of email, social media, internet chat rooms, and browsing. The government controlled all internet access, except for limited facilities provided by foreign diplomatic facilities and a small number of underground networks. Access to blocked outlets was generally possible only through a virtual private network.
The government closely monitored web access points, such as Wi-Fi hotspots, cybercafes, and access centers, as well as the backbone internet infrastructure, which was directly controlled by the government.
Some individuals could connect to the internet at low or no cost via state institutions where they worked or studied. The government selectively granted censored in-home internet access to certain areas of Havana and sectors of the population, consisting mostly of government officials, established professionals, professors, students, journalists, and artists. Others could access email and internet services through government-sponsored “youth clubs,” internet cafes, or Wi-Fi hot spots approved and regulated by the Ministry for Information, Technology, and Communications. Users were required to purchase prepaid cards to access the internet.
Authorities reviewed the browsing history of users, reviewed and censored email, and blocked access to websites the government considered objectionable. The number of blocked websites fluctuated. According to The Freedom on the Net 2022 report by Freedom House, the government routinely blocked numerous websites, including independent media outlets such as El Estornudo, 14ymedio, Diario de Cuba, Cibercuba, CubaNet, Cuba Encuentro, Periódico Cubano, Gato Pardo, Tremenda Nota, Proyecto Inventario, Rialta, and Martí Noticias, as well as Asociación Pro Libertad de Prensa and other websites critical of the government’s human rights record. The government blocked access to Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net report. The government blocked internet tools and websites considered contrary to its interests.
The state telecommunications monopoly Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba, S.A. (ETECSA) blocked dozens of websites of independent media and NGOs related to human rights. ETECSA helped monitor and censor the internet and usually cut or restricted internet connections in the entire country or by regions during protests. ETECSA frequently disconnected the telecommunication service of human rights organizers, often just before their detention by state security or to disrupt planned activities.
Human rights activists reported government employees tracked and “trolled” the social media accounts of activists. Activists also reported on the government’s practice of sending mass text messages warning neighbors to avoid association with dissidents.
While the law does not set specific penalties for unauthorized internet use, it is illegal to own a satellite dish that provides uncensored internet access. The government restricted the importation of wireless routers, actively targeted private wireless access points, and confiscated equipment.
The use of encryption software and the transfer of encrypted files are illegal, but information on enforcement of this restriction was not available. Despite limited access, harassment, and infrastructure problems, private news sites and blogs existed in which users posted opinions critical of the government with help from persons living outside the country, often expatriate Cubans. The government blocked local access to many of these blogs. In addition, citizens used Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, YouTube, TikTok, and other social networks to report independently, including observations critical of the government.
Restrictions on Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The government restricted academic freedom and controlled the curricula at all schools and universities, emphasizing the importance of reinforcing PCC rule through “revolutionary ideology” and “discipline.” Most academics refrained from meeting with foreigners, including diplomats, journalists, and visiting scholars, without prior government approval. Government monitors were sometimes present at these meetings. Persons permitted to travel abroad were aware that their actions, if deemed politically unfavorable, could negatively affect them and their relatives in Cuba. Several university professors, researchers, and students reported they were forced out of their positions, demoted, or expelled for expressing ideas or opinions outside of government-accepted norms. Outspoken artists and academics faced harassment and criticism orchestrated by the government.
In February authorities removed Leonardo Fernández Otaño from his doctoral studies in historical sciences. The human rights organization Observatorio de Libertad Académica reported state security officials arrested, interrogated, harassed, and threatened Fernández after his peaceful protest in front of the Instituto Cubano de Radio y Televisión in July 2021. Observatorio de Libertad Académica denounced the expulsion of July 11 protester Abel González Lescay from the Instituto Superior de Arte (Havana’s main art school) after he participated in the July 11 protests. González was subsequently sentenced to six years’ imprisonment. Some of those who joined a group calling for his release reportedly were threatened that they would lose their jobs or be expelled from school.
University admissions criteria gave great weight to prospective students’ ideological beliefs, and public libraries required citizens to complete a registration process before authorities granted access to books or information. Citizens could be denied access if they could not demonstrate a need to visit a particular library. Libraries required a letter of permission from an employer or academic institution to access censored, sensitive, or rare books and materials. Some religious institutions organized small libraries. Independent libraries were illegal but continued to exist, and owners faced harassment and intimidation.
The party censored public performances and presentations of movies or similar events.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The law allows for freedom of assembly and association. The government, however, restricted these freedoms.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
Although the constitution provides for a limited right of assembly, the right is subject to the requirement that it may not be “exercised against the existence and objectives of the socialist state.” The law requires citizens to request authorization for organized meetings of three or more persons, and failure to do so carries a penalty of up to six months in prison and a fine. The government tolerated some gatherings, and many religious groups reported the ability to gather without registering or facing sanctions.
Independent activists and political parties other than the PCC faced greater obstacles than religious groups. State security forces often suppressed attempts to assemble, even for gatherings in private dwellings and in small numbers. The government refused to allow independent demonstrations or public meetings by human rights groups or any others critical of government activity.
The government routinely arrested individuals who attempted to assemble, by either placing them under house arrest or taking them into custody if they left their residences.
On numerous occasions, the government, using undercover police and Ministry of Interior agents, allegedly organized “acts of repudiation” by crowds of civilians organized to assault and disperse persons who assembled peacefully. These agents arrived in government-owned buses or were recruited by government officials from nearby workplaces or schools. Participants arrived and departed in shifts, chanted progovernment slogans, sang progovernment songs, and verbally taunted those who had peacefully assembled. The persons targeted by this harassment at times suffered physical assault or property damage. Government security officials at the scene, often present in overwhelming numbers, did not arrest those who physically attacked the victims, nor did they respond to victims’ complaints. Instead, government security officials frequently orchestrated activities against protesters or took direct part in physical assaults.
Freedom of Association
The government routinely denied freedom of association to citizens and did not recognize independent associations. The law proscribes any political organization not officially recognized. Several independent organizations, including opposition political parties and professional associations, operated as NGOs without legal recognition, and police sometimes raided their meetings.
For example, members of the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White), an association of women political activists originally formed to protest the 2003 detention of their male relatives during the infamous “Black Spring,” were subjected to arbitrary arrest, constant surveillance of the house that served as the organization’s headquarters, and harassment by state officials and local PCC members. The European Union, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International criticized the arrests of Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White, and her husband Angel Moya during the year. They had been arrested numerous times and fined on their way to a church to ask for the release of political prisoners. Other members of the organization were also arrested and fined.
Officially recognized churches, Freemasons, and several fraternal and professional organizations were permitted to function outside the formal structure of the state or the ruling party. The PCC’s Office of Religious Affairs oversees religious groups, requires that groups have permits for religious activities, and has the authority to deny permission. The office pressured church leaders to refrain from including political topics in their sermons and often limited freedom of movement for independent pastors.
Groups are required to register through the Ministry of Justice to receive official recognition. Authorities ignored applications for legal recognition from new groups, including several new religious groups, women’s rights organizations, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) rights organizations. The lack of official recognition left group members open to potential charges of illegal association.
The legal code does not allow an association to exist if there is already an existing association with the same scope that is connected to the PCC or other large organizations, such as the Cuban Women Federation or the Cuban Trade Union.
Alas Tensas, an NGO, recorded the repression, surveillance, and harassment of several mothers who publicly called for the release of July 11 protesters imprisoned from Havana’s La Guinera neighborhood. Diario de Cuba reported the same treatment for the mothers of July 11 protesters imprisoned in Camaguey.
d. Freedom of Movement and the Right to Leave the Country
The government placed arbitrary restrictions on freedom of movement within the country, the right to leave the country, and migration with the right to return.
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 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 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 force them to return 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 vendors in a person’s official neighborhood of residence. 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 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 law restricts the right of citizens to leave the country. The law provides for imprisonment, a moderate fine, or both for those who attempt to depart the country illegally. According to reports, in the case of military or police personnel, or those traveling with children, the punishment could be more severe. When former government employees emigrated from the country, their family members sometimes were arbitrarily denied passports to travel and visit or join their family members abroad.
The government required 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, allowing authorities to prohibit them from receiving a passport, leaving the country, or returning (see section 1.e., Transnational Repression). The Patmos Institute, a civil society organization that promotes interreligious dialogue, human rights education, and monitors religious liberty, reported more than 250 regulados as of 2020, mainly activists and independent journalists. In 2018, independent journalist Ileana Hernández, a Cuban and Spanish citizen, sought to overturn her regulado status, which the Supreme Court declined to do in November 2021. In March the government removed the status.
The tactic was also employed against individuals whom the government sought to prevent from speaking at conferences. In June, the government prevented six independent civil society leaders, including pastor Alain Toledano, who had received invitations to attend the Ninth Summit of the Americas Civil Society Forum from traveling. On June 17, the government prohibited Liset Fonseca and Marta Perdomo, the mothers of three imprisoned July 11 protesters, from boarding a flight to Spain to meet representatives of the European Parliament and UN human rights institutions.
Exile: The government sought to pressure activists into exile to avoid extreme prison sentences or threats to their family. Human Rights Watch said that for Cubans who opposed the political system, there were two options: prison or exile.
On January 5, independent journalists Esteban Rodríguez and Hector Valdés Cocho were taken to the airport and forced into exile. Rodríguez was in prison without a trial after a peaceful protest in Havana in April 2021, during which he sought an end to the house arrest of Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara. In January independent journalist Abraham Jiménez Enoa’s regulado condition was lifted after five years on the condition that he depart Cuba and not return. In July after preventing his travel and participation in the Summit of the Americas, the government pressured pastor Alain Toledando and his family into exile, having allegedly told him he had 30 days to leave the country or “face the consequences.”
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 or had “abandoned” their jobs in the government’s labor export programs, which included low-paid medical workers, athletes, artists, teachers, and sea merchants.
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 the country for more than 24 months may lose full citizenship rights. The government suspended this rule in the wake of the pandemic.