The detentions are often used preemptively to prevent individuals from participating in events viewed as critical of the government, such as peaceful marches or meetings to discuss politics. Many dissidents are beaten and threatened when detained, even if they do not try to resist.
Victims of such arrests may be held incommunicado for several hours to several days. Some are held at police stations, while others are driven to remote areas far from their homes where they are interrogated, threatened, and abandoned.
On August 25, 2013, more than 30 women from the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White)—a group founded by the wives, mothers, and daughters of political prisoners and which the government considers illegal—were detained after attending Sunday mass at a church in Santiago, beaten, forced onto a bus, and left at various isolated locations on the city’s outskirts. The same day, eight members of the group in Havana and seven more in Holguin were arbitrarily detained as they marched peacefully to attend mass.
The death of political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo in 2010 after his 85-day hunger strike and the subsequent hunger strike by dissident Guillermo Fariñas pressured the government to release the remaining political prisoners from the “group of 75” (75 dissidents sentenced to long prison terms in a 2003 crackdown).
Yet most were forced to choose between ongoing prison sentences and forced exile. The overwhelming majority accepted relocation to Spain in exchange for their freedom.
Luis Enrique Labrador Diaz was one of four people detained in January 2011 for distributing leaflets in Havana with slogans such as “Down with the Castros” and was subsequently convicted in May 2011 for contempt and public disorder in a closed, summary trial. He was still in prison at time of writing.
Freedom of Expression
Only a tiny fraction of Cubans are able to read independent websites and blogs because of the high cost of and limited access to the Internet. A May 2013 government decree directed at expanding Internet access stipulates that it cannot be used for activities that undermine “public security, the integrity, the economy, independence, and national security” of Cuba—broad conditions that could be used to impede access to government critics.
A small number of independent journalists and bloggers manage to write articles for websites or blogs, or publish tweets. Yet those who publish information considered critical of the government are sometimes subject to smear campaigns, attacks, and arbitrary arrests, as are artists and academics who demand greater freedoms.
After jazz musician Roberto Carcasses called for direct elections and freedom of information in a nationally televised concert in Havana in September 2013, officials told him that his words benefitted “the enemy” and that he would be barred from performing in state-run venues. The government lifted the ban widely reported in the international press—a week later. In May, the director of the government-run Casa de las Americas cultural institute, Roberto Zurbano, published an article in the New York Times highlighting persistent inequality and prejudice affecting Afro-Cubans. He was subsequently attacked in the government controlled press and demoted to a lesser job at the institute.
Human Rights Defenders
Travel Restrictions and Family Separation
Nearly 183,000 people traveled abroad from January to September 2013, according to the government. These included human rights defenders, journalists, and bloggers who previously had been denied permission to leave the island despite repeated requests, such as blogger Yoani Sanchez.
The government restricts the movement of citizens within Cuba through a 1997 law known as Decree 217. Designed to limit migration to Havana, the decree requires that Cubans obtain government permission before moving to the country’s capital. It is often used to prevent dissidents traveling there to attend meetings and to harass dissidents from other parts of Cuba who live in the capital.
Key International Actors
The United States’s economic embargo of Cuba, in place for more than half a century, continues to impose indiscriminate hardship on the Cuban people and has done nothing to improve the country’s human rights. At the United Nations General Assembly in October, 188 of the 192 member countries voted for a resolution condemning the US embargo.
In 2009, President Barack Obama enacted reforms to eliminate restrictions on travel and remittances by Cuban Americans to Cuba put in place during the administration of President George W. Bush in 2004. In 2011, Obama used his executive powers to ease “people-to-people” travel restrictions, allowing religious, educational, and cultural groups from the US to travel to Cuba.
The European Union continues to retain its “Common Position” on Cuba, adopted in 1996, which conditions full economic cooperation with Cuba on the country’s transition to a pluralist democracy and respect for human rights.
Former US Agency for International Development contractor Alan Gross remained in prison despite a UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention report in November 2012 that called for his immediate release. Gross was detained in Cuba in December 2009 and later sentenced to 15 years in prison for distributing telecommunications equipment to religious groups. The working group said Gross’s detention was arbitrary and that Cuba’s government had failed to provide sufficient evidence of the charges against him.
In May, Cuba underwent its second Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council. Several countries expressed concern with repression of human rights defenders, increased arbitrary detentions, and lack of freedom of expression.
In November, Cuba was re-elected to a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, defeating Uruguay for a regional position despite its poor human rights record and consistent efforts to undermine the council’s work to respond to human rights violators.