Covering events from January-December 2001

Republic of Cuba
Head of state and government: Fidel Castro Ruz
Capital: Havana
Population: 11.2 million
Official language: Spanish
Death penalty: retentionist

A number of prisoners of conscience were released in 2001, but several new arrests indicated that the Cuban authorities had not renounced curbs on the peaceful exercise of freedom of expression, association and assembly. Short-term detention and other forms of harassment continued to be used to repress the activities of journalists, political activists and others. An unofficial moratorium on executions was said to be in force. No executions were reported during 2001, although the courts continued to hand down death sentences. The four-decades-old embargo against Cuba by the USA continued to contribute to a climate in which fundamental rights were denied. However, for the first time the USA sold agricultural commodities to Cuba in the wake of a hurricane in November. Both countries denied that this signified a change in overall relations. In November, UN General Assembly members voted overwhelmingly to condemn the embargo, for the 10th consecutive year.


After 75-year-old President Castro fainted briefly during a speech in June, speculation grew about his eventual successor as Head of State. President Castro addressed the issue openly and publicly reiterated his choice of his brother Raúl Castro Ruz, First Vice-President and head of the armed forces, as head of a collective leadership structure following his own eventual departure from office.

UN Commission on Human Rights

After unprecedented campaigning, in April the UN Commission on Human Rights again passed by a narrow margin a Czech Republic-sponsored resolution on the situation in Cuba. A resolution critical of Cuba's record had been passed annually since 1992, with the exception of 1998. This year's text was more conciliatory towards Cuba; while stopping short of condemnation of the US embargo, it stated for the first time that UN member states should "take steps to improve the economic condition of the Cuban people." The subsequent detention for nearly three weeks of two prominent Czech citizens on subversion charges was regarded by some as retaliation for the resolution. The two men were released after signing statements admitting that they had unwittingly broken Cuban law by meeting dissidents at the behest of a US-based organization.

Relations with the USA

In July the US House of Representatives voted to ease travel restrictions to Cuba, but President George W. Bush expressed his opposition to the proposed measure. In October, US lawmakers cut the relevant language from the bill, then before the Senate, thereby avoiding the issue for this year.

On the legal front, the US authorities released US$ 90 million in frozen Cuban assets in February as compensation to the families of three pilots shot down in February 1996 by Cuban jets. In June a US federal jury convicted five Cubans of working as agents for a Cuban espionage ring which had allegedly infiltrated military installations and Cuban exile groups in Florida. By the end of the year, four of them had been sentenced to prison terms ranging from 15 years to life. In September a US Defense Department intelligence analyst was arrested on charges of passing national defence secrets to Cuba; the Cuban government denied any knowledge of this. In September a retired Cuban immigrant living in Miami was arrested on charges of torturing Cuban political prisoners with electric shocks when he worked in a Havana psychiatric hospital several decades earlier.

Prisoners of conscience

The Cuban state continued to imprison critics for the peaceful exercise of their rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association. Limitations on these fundamental freedoms remained codified in Cuban law. A number of releases raised hopes that Cuba might be easing these restrictions and bringing its laws and practices into line with international standards. However, new arrests indicated that such hopes were premature. At the end of 2001 at least seven prisoners of conscience were held in Cuba.

  • In May, José Orlando González Bridón, Secretary General of the Confederación de Trabajadores Democráticos de Cuba, Cuban Confederation of Democratic Workers, was sentenced to two years' imprisonment for "spreading false news against international peace". This was apparently in retaliation for an article he wrote accusing the authorities of negligence in a domestic violence case. In September his sentence was reduced to one year by the highest court in Cuba, and he was released in November.
Detention without trial

A number of dissidents were held in detention for several months without trial before being released. They were prisoners of conscience.
  • Trade unionist Pedro Pablo Alvarez Ramos, General Secretary of the Consejo Unitario de Trabajadores Cubanos (CUTC), United Cuban Workers Council, was released in January after three months in prison without trial. He had been arrested in October 2000 by state security agents, apparently to prevent him from participating in the first national convention of the CUTC on 20 and 21 October 2000. Several other prominent trade unionists were briefly detained before the convention.
  • Leonardo Miguel Bruzón Avila was detained in December 2000 during a wave of arrests intended to prevent dissidents from participating in activities to commemorate the 52nd anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Leonardo Bruzón, president of the Movimiento Pro Derechos Humanos 24 de Febrero, 24 February Human Rights Movement, was reportedly held in the Technical Investigations Department, where he said he was handcuffed to the bars of a punishment cell while standing almost knee-high in water for four days. He was released on 1 February. He was rearrested in September after opening an "independent library" for children in his home; his family was threatened with eviction. He was released without charge after four days.

Medical concerns for detainees

There were continuing concerns about prisoners' lack of access to adequate medical care. The country's stock of medicines and materials was adversely affected by the US embargo. However, there were concerns that in some cases care was deliberately withheld from prisoners of conscience or other political prisoners as an additional punishment.
  • The family of Marcelo Amelo Rodríguez, aged 52, who died in custody in May after suffering from chest pains, accused prison officials of not giving him access to adequate treatment. Marcelo Amelo had been imprisoned in 1993 for rebellion and released in June 2000 after completing his sentence. He was later rearrested on different charges. There had been concerns about his health for several years.
  • Prisoner of conscience Nestor Rodríguez Lobaina was reportedly confined in close quarters with prisoners suffering from active pulmonary tuberculosis in Combinado de Guantánamo Prison, thereby putting him at risk of infection. Nestor Rodríguez was serving a sentence of six years and two months after having been convicted in February 2000 of "disrespect", "public disorder" and "damage".
  • Political prisoner Jorge Luis García Pérez went on hunger strike in April to protest at the lack of medical attention for various health problems. He ended his hunger strike after nearly one month, after the authorities allowed him to be examined by a lung specialist.
Continuing harassment of dissidents

The Cuban authorities continued to try to discourage dissent by harassing suspected critics of the government. Suspected dissidents were subjected to short-term detention, frequent summonses, threats, eviction, loss of employment and restrictions on movement. Harassment was at times carried out by state security agents or police officers, as well as by members of local groups such as the Brigadas de Respuesta Rápida, Rapid Response Brigades, or the Comités de Defensa de la Revolución, Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, set up in 1991 and 1960 respectively to discourage crime and dissident activities.

There were several incidents of verbal assaults against dissidents, most often by unidentified attackers. In some cases the homes of suspected dissidents were attacked by individuals throwing rocks or bottles, and in a few instances dissidents were said to have been punched or kicked by unidentified assailants in attacks that they believed were related to their political views or activities.
  • Rafael León Rodríguez, coordinator of the Proyecto Demócrata Cubano, Cuban Democratic Project, one of the organizations belonging to the Mesa de Reflexión de la Oposición Moderada, Table of Reflection of the Moderate Opposition, was reportedly evicted from his home in July following an apparent bureaucratic error. In spite of protests, Rafael León Rodríguez' home and belongings had not been returned to him by the end of the year. This led to concerns that the move was intended as punishment for his dissident activities.
  • Activists attempting to collect signatures for the Proyecto Varela, a petition for a referendum on legal reform, were subjected to threats, short-term detention, summonses, confiscation of materials and other forms of harassment by state security agents, police and other officials in a number of locations. At the end of November project organizers reported that they had collected over 2,500 voters' signatures; the law requires 10,000 signatures in order for a referendum to be held.
Death penalty

There were indications of a change in government policy on executions; no executions were reported to have been carried out in 2001. However, the death penalty was not legally abolished and in December the legislature reportedly reaffirmed its use against those convicted of the crime of "terrorism", the definition of which was said to have been expanded under new legal provisions. Courts continued to hand down death sentences. According to the Comisión Cubana de Derechos Humanos y Reconciliación Nacional, Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, a non-governmental organization, approximately 50 prisoners remained on death row at the end of 2001.

AI country reports/visits

  • Cuba: Prisoner of Conscience José Orlando González Bridón (AI Index: AMR 25/006/2001)
  • Cuba: Medical Letter Writing Actions – Insufficient medical care for Jorge Luis García Pérez [Antúnez] (AI Index: AMR 25/003/2001 and AI Index: AMR 25/005/2001)
  • Cuba: Medical Letter Writing Action – Political prisoners in need of medical attention (AI Index: AMR 25/004/2001)

AI last visited Cuba in 1988. The government did not respond to AI's requests to be allowed into the country.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.