2007-02-01 / María Luisa Bascur
Human Rights in Cuba at the Twilight of the Castro Era
The general human rights situation in Cuba continues to deteriorate precipitously. The Castro government continues to repress all political and civil dissidence using criminal prosecutions, close surveillance of its citizens, harassment by mobs, police warnings and travel restrictions. The end result is that Cubans are systematically denied basic rights to free expression, association, assembly, movement, and due process of law.
This repression is not limited to the civil and political rights of the Cuban people. The regime has reduced the vast majority of the island’s population to poverty, with average salaries totalling less than USD 20 per month. Clearly, this widespread poverty is not solely the result of bad economic policies or of the effects of the collapse of the Soviet Union; it is the deliberate action of a totalitarian government seeking (like many others throughout history) to silence the masses through economic hardship.
The enjoyment of social, economic and cultural rights – traditionally the bastion of Cuba’s pride – has also been substantially restricted by the government. Food continues to be rationed, housing inadequate and scarce, education standards are falling and teaching materials lacking, while adequate and egalitarian healthcare is but a faint memory, with the best facilities reserved exclusively for currency-paying health tourists.
The regime thus keeps a very tight grip on its people, be it through economic hardship or through a well-oiled and sophisticated machinery of repression. The two main pillars of this machinery (which will be examined in this extract) are:
a) the use of the law to repress any type of independent thought or action; and
b) the deliberate black-out of information imposed on the Cuban people.
Rule by law rather than rule of law
In Cuba the law is used as a tool of repression, with criminal legislation providing the legal basis to silence and detain those who carry out any dissenting acts. Current legislation penalizes a person’s propensity to commit a crime, or state of ‘dangerousness’ (estado de peligrosidad), allows for ‘official warnings’ to be given (which can also lead to detention) and severely restricts freedom of expression for reasons of ‘national security’.
Besides the above-mentioned ‘crimes’, in Cuba one can be imprisoned for misdemeanours ranging from trying to buy or sell anything on the black market, to owning a satellite dish without official permission. Given the harsh economic conditions faced by most citizens in today’s Cuba, very few can make ends meet without trading in favours and/or small-scale theft. Thus many have found themselves in prison for simply trying to provide for their families.
This criminalization of so many aspects of ordinary life, and indeed of any type of dissenting acts, has led to a massive growth in the prison population on the island. Unofficial statistics estimate that the current prison population ranges from 80,000 to 100,000 inmates, incarcerated in more than 300 prisons. Most of the convicts are in prison for non-violent crimes, with at least 300 political prisoners. Such figures imply that 0.9% of the island’s population is behind bars, making Cuba one of the countries with the highest per capita imprisonment rates in the world (the United States is at 0.7%). It is therefore no surprise that some call Cuba a ‘floating prison’.
This situation is compounded by the Cuban people’s general lack of knowledge of their rights. An alarming example is the deliberate lack of dissemination of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the Cuban authorities. Not only is the Declaration not publicly distributed, but possessing a copy of the Declaration has been considered evidence of treason.
A curtain of silence
This information blackout not only relates to human rights legislation and standards (national and international), but to general information as well. Freedom of expression does not exist in Cuba; only expressions that coincide with official political ideology are allowed. Legislation prohibiting freedom of expression through political offences lists crimes such as enemy propaganda, disrespect to the Commander-in-Chief, offence to the homeland, ideological deviation, dangerousness, and distribution of false information.
The most important instrument for freedom of expression – the press – is non-existent in Cuba. As independent media remains banned, there are virtually no independent publications aside from several Catholic church newsletters. A small number of journalists manage to write articles for foreign websites or publish underground newsletters, but they do so at considerable personal risk. Unsurprisingly, access to the internet is severely restricted in Cuba and those who do so without the required authorizations can also incur criminal charges, such as ‘counter-revolutionary internet usage’.
Those who question the regime – either individually or through an organization – are increasingly facing repression and psychological terror. In the authorities’ efforts to clamp down on any independent thought, the regime has developed a full-fledged system to install fear amongst civil society activists and their families. The most commonly used method against those who try to exercise their freedom of expression is the ‘act of repudiation’, an act of public denunciation and harassment by state-organized mobs. Alternative methods are physical acts of aggression, short-term detentions, dismissal from jobs, searching of residences, threats to family members, police warnings of imminent arrest, travel prohibitions and defamation campaigns.
Regardless of these risks and restrictions civil society groups continue to be established and are growing in membership.
Cubans, especially now with an ailing Fidel Castro, are waiting to see how developments will unfold. While no one can know how things will play out, the Cuban people’s determination to decide its own fate – without foreign intervention – and choose the type of government seems unshakeable. One can only hope that when change does come, it will be in the shape of a pluralistic society, free of repression, in which Cubans will be able to finally enjoy their human rights and fundamental freedoms.
María Luisa Bascur is a consultant for the Vienna-based International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF). Her current work focuses on the protection and promotion of civil and political rights in Central Asia. She previously served with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, where she worked with the UN treaty bodies and UN Human Rights Commission. María Luisa Bascur also carries out advocacy work on behalf of the Cuba Futuro Foundation.
 The ‘state of dangerousness’ is established by articles 72-90 of the Criminal Code, under which an individual can be sentenced for up to four years’ imprisonment on the grounds that the authorities believe the individual has a ‘special proclivity’ to commit crimes, even though they might not have actually committed a crime. These articles broadly define ‘dangerous’ people as those who act in a manner that contradicts ‘socialist morality’ or engage in ‘anti-social behaviour.’
 Article 75 of the Criminal Code provides for an ‘official warning’ to people the authorities deem to be at risk of becoming ‘dangerous’, i.e., those who are not yet ‘dangerous’ but who are regarded as having potential criminal tendencies because of their “ties or relations with people who are potentially dangerous to society, other people, and to the social, economic and political order of the socialist State”.
 See figures published in Comisión Cubana de Derechos Humanos y Reconciliación Nacional, Lista parcial de sancionados o procesados por motivos políticos o politico-sociales(Havana: 5 July 2006)
 Currently there are 25 journalists in prison who have paid with their freedom for having founded an independent news agency, written for a dissident review or spoken to the media in the Cuban diaspora. http://www.cubanet.org/CNews/y06/nov06/07o4.htm
 Reporters without Borders, http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=10611
 Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (cited above)