Political Rights: 7
Civil Liberties: 7
Status: Not Free
Population: 11,300,000
GNI/Capita: $1,406
Life Expectancy: 76
Religious Groups: Roman Catholic, Protestant, other
Ethnic Groups: Mulatto (51 percent), white (37 percent), black (11 percent), Chinese (1 percent)
Capital: Havana


In the midst of growing popular discontent with the Cuban government, the authorities stepped up repression in 2003 against dissidents calling for free speech and other prodemocracy reforms. Dozens of political activists and independent journalists were sentenced to lengthy prison terms in April, while three men were executed following a failed attempt to flee to the United States. Meanwhile, Fidel Castro continued efforts to persuade the United States to end its four-decades-old embargo.

Cuba achieved independence from Spain in 1898 as a result of the Spanish-American War. The Republic of Cuba was established in 1902, but remained under U.S. tutelage due to the Platt Amendment until 1934. In 1959, Castro's July 26th Movement – named after an earlier, failed insurrection – overthrew the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, who had ruled for 18 of the previous 25 years.

Following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of some $5 billion in annual Soviet subsidies, Castro has sought Western foreign investment. The legalization of the U.S. dollar since 1993 has heightened social tensions, as the minority with access to dollars from abroad or through the tourist industry has emerged as a new moneyed class, and the majority without access has become increasingly desperate.

Under Castro, cycles of repression have ebbed and flowed depending on the regime's need to keep at bay the social forces set into motion by his severe post-Cold War economic reforms. By mid-June 1998, after the visit of Pope John Paul II five months earlier, the number of dissidents confirmed to be imprisoned had dropped nearly 400 percent. In February 1999, the government introduced tough legislation against sedition, with a maximum prison sentence of 20 years. It stipulated penalties for unauthorized contacts with the United States and the import or supply of "subversive" materials, including texts on democracy, by news agencies and journalists.

U.S.-Cuban relations took some unexpected turns in 2000. The story of the child shipwreck survivor Elian Gonzalez, who was ordered to be returned to his father in Cuba after a seven-month legal battle involving emigre relatives in Florida, received unprecedented media coverage. In response to pressure from U.S. farmers and businessmen who pushed for a relaxation of economic sanctions against the island, the United States eased the 38-year-old embargo on food and medicine to Cuba in October.

In June 2001, Castro, who was then 74, collapsed at a long outdoor rally near Havana. The incident centered attention on what might happen once the world's longest-ruling dictator passes from the scene. In November, Hurricane Michelle, the most powerful tropical storm to hit Cuba in a half-century, left a low death toll but a trail of physical destruction, devastating Cuban crops. In the wake of the storm, the U.S. permitted the first direct food trade with Cuba since the beginning of the embargo in 1962. The renewal of food sales in the wake of Michelle sparked further debate between farmers and others in the United States who want the embargo lifted, and Cuban exile groups and some democracy activists who demand even tougher sanctions.

In 2002, the Varela Project, a referendum initiative seeking broad changes in the four-decades-old socialist system, achieved significant support domestically. Its leader, Oswaldo Paya, was showered with international recognition. In May, project organizers submitted more than 11,000 signatures to the National Assembly demanding that a referendum be held in which Cubans could vote for fundamental reforms such as freedom of expression, the right to own private businesses, and electoral reform. A June visit by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter also added status and visibility to the protest movement. After Carter mentioned the project on Cuban television that month, the regime held its own "referendum" in which 8.2 million people supposedly declared the socialist system to be "untouchable." In October, more than 300 dissident organizations joined together as the Assembly to Promote Civil Society in preparation for a post-Fidel Castro Cuba. Composed of 321 dissident organizations ranging from human rights groups and independent libraries to labor unions and the independent press, the civil society assembly said it would prepare for a post-Castro transition rather than seek reforms from the regime. Meanwhile, Castro faced serious popular discontent, particularly because of the failing sugar industry. In June 2002, the government closed 71 of Cuba's 156 sugar mills.

Although aging Cuban strongman Fidel Castro suffered another fainting spell in Buenos Aires on May 25, 2003 as he exited an inauguration event in Buenos Aires for Argentina's new president, there were few palpable signs during the year that his regime was any closer to collapsing, even though recovery from a 1990s depression faltered and discontent increased. In the midst of the worst rights crackdown in a decade, Cuba was reelected to a seat on the UN Commission on Human Rights. Castro also continued his attempts to whet the appetites of U.S. farm state congressional delegations and enlist their help to break the four-decades-old embargo by diverting $250 million from paying old debts to buy American agricultural products. He appeared to shrug off the decision by the European Union to review its policies toward Cuba because of human rights concerns. In June, the official newspaper Granma reported that one of Cuba's most visible black leaders, Esteban Lazo, had been promoted to the post of chief ideologist of the Cuban Communist Party.

In April, speedy one-day sham trials resulted in prison terms ranging from 6 to 28 years for 75 independent journalists, opposition party leaders, and human rights activists rounded up the previous month. After summary trials, the government also sent three men who hijacked a ferry in a failed effort to reach the United States to the firing squad, ending a three-year de facto moratorium on executions. In July, 12 Cubans attempted to sail a 1951 Chevy truck to freedom across the 90-mile Florida Straits. Just six months after the regime's heavy-handed crackdown on dissenters, Paya delivered more than 14,000 signatures to the National Assembly demanding a referendum for sweeping political changes.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Cubans cannot change their government through democratic means. Castro dominates the political system, having transformed the country into a one-party state with the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) controlling all governmental entities from the national to the local level. Communist structures were institutionalized by the 1976 constitution installed at the first congress of the PCC. The constitution provides for the National Assembly, which designates the Council of State. It is that body which in turn appoints the Council of Ministers in consultation with its president, who serves as head of state and chief of government. However, Castro is responsible for every appointment and controls every lever of power in Cuba in his various roles as president of the Council of Ministers, chairman of the Council of State, commander in chief of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR), and first secretary of the PCC.

In October 2002, some eight million Cubans voted in tightly controlled municipal elections. On January 19, 2003, an election was held for the Cuban National Assembly, with just 609 candidates – all supported by the regime – vying for 609 seats. All political organizing outside the PCC is illegal. Political dissent, spoken or written, is a punishable offense, and those so punished frequently receive years of imprisonment for seemingly minor infractions.

The press in Cuba is the object of a targeted campaign of intimidation by the government. Independent journalists, particularly those associated with five small news agencies established outside state control, have been subjected to continued repression, including jail terms at hard labor and assaults by state security agents while in prison. Foreign news agencies must hire local reporters only through government offices, which limits employment opportunities for independent journalists. Twenty-eight journalists were among those arrested in April 2003.

In 1991, Roman Catholics and other believers were granted permission to join the Communist Party, and the constitutional reference to official atheism was dropped the following year. However, in October 2002, the U.S. State Department issued a report saying that Cuba was one of six countries that engaged in widespread repression of religion. The report said that security agents frequently spy on worshippers, the government continues to block construction of new churches, the number of new foreign priests is limited, and most new denominations are refused recognition. In a positive development, the regime now tolerates the Baha'i faith.

Cuban state security forces raided 22 independent libraries and sent 10 librarians to jail with terms of up to 26 years.

In Cuba, the executive branch controls the judiciary. The 1976 constitution concentrates power in the hands of one individual – Castro, president of the Council of State. In practice, the council serves as a de facto judiciary and controls both the courts and the judicial process as a whole. In 1999, the Cuban government showed some willingness to enhance anti-narcotics cooperation with the United States.

There are some 320 prisoners of conscience in Cuba, most held in cells with common criminals and many convicted on vague charges such as "disseminating enemy propaganda" or "dangerousness." Members of groups that exist apart from the state are labeled "counterrevolutionary criminals" and are subject to systematic repression, including arrest, beating while in custody, confiscation, and intimidation by uniformed or plainclothes state security agents. Of the 75 dissidents – considered by Amnesty International to be "prisoners of conscience" – who faced charges in April, not a single one was acquitted.

Since 1991, the United Nations has voted annually to assign a special investigator on human rights to Cuba, but the Cuban government has refused to cooperate. Cuba also does not allow the International Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations access to its prisons.

Freedom of movement and the right to choose one's residence, education, and job are severely restricted. Attempting to leave the island without permission is a punishable offense. In the post-Soviet era, the rights of Cubans to own private property and to participate in joint ventures with foreigners have been recognized by law. Non-Cuban businesses have also been allowed. In practice, there are few rights for those who do not belong to the PCC. Party membership is still required for good jobs, serviceable housing, and real access to social services, including medical care and educational opportunities.

About 40 percent of all women work, and they are well represented in most professions. However, violence against women is a problem, as is child prostitution.

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