Events of 1991

Human Rights Developments

The Cuban government intensified its campaign of repression against human rights advocates and political dissidents in 1991, as rights-monitoring and pro-democracy associations strove to maintain a small political space for their peaceful activities.

Cuban authorities continued to detain dissidents and imprison human rights activists; to organize mobs for staged demonstrations against government critics in so-called acts of repudiation; and to dismiss writers, artists and union leaders from their jobs and unions for voicing dissent. "Rapid response brigades" – government-organized bands of civilian recruits – were a new development in 1991, used to intimidate "individuals with political and ideological problems."38 Plainclothes state-security police, better known for their subtler forms of repression, brutally assaulted political dissidents in a rash of targeted attacks. The government's actions against its most outspoken critics remind all Cubans, long accustomed to a government that rewards conformity, of the high cost of challenging the status quo.

Ruled for thirty-three years by Fidel Castro, Cuba lacks the laws and institutions that would protect basic civil and political rights. There is no free press. Only state-owned and -controlled media may operate legally. Free speech is curbed by laws that prohibit "enemy propaganda," "contempt" and "clandestine printing." Peaceful dissenters are sometimes imprisoned on charges as serious as "incitement" and "rebellion." For insulting President Castro, Cubans are imprisoned for up to three years.

There are no legally recognized civic or political organizations – such as labor unions or political parties – that are independent of the government or Communist Party. Free association and assembly are punished under laws that prohibit "illegal association" and "public disorder." There are no free and fair legislative or presidential elections.

The Cuban legal system is designed to maintain the status quo. Cuban courts are subordinate to the executive, and Cuban judges are required to demonstrate their "active revolutionary integration." Once arrested, defendants, especially in political cases, are almost always convicted.

Tight political control in Cuba is maintained through extensive monitoring of Cubans' daily lives. The monitoring is conducted by state-security police and government-sponsored surveillance organizations such as the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, which operate in the neighborhood and workplace. The failure to report criminal activity, including political or free-expression "crimes," is punishable under Cuban law.

In schools, teachers keep records on each student, detailing information such as the "ideological integration" of the parents and whether the family actively practices a religion. In late 1991 the Communist Party-led mass organization for school children, the Pioneers, considered creating "rapid response brigades" in the schools to deal with schoolchildren "affected" by foreign ideas.39

One exception to the otherwise bleak human rights picture in 1991 was the easing of travel restrictions. For years, only men over the age of sixty-five and women over age sixty were permitted to travel abroad and return to Cuba. In 1991, this restriction was gradually reduced, and in August, the age limit was lowered to twenty for men and women. This trend has been interpreted by some as an attempt by the Cuban government to create an escape valve – through emigration – to reduce internal tension caused by deepening economic austerity. Cubans enjoy the unique privilege under U.S. law of being allowed to overstay their tourist visas when visiting relatives in the United States while remaining eligible for an immigrant visa. Regardless of the government's motive, the loosening of travel restrictions represents a significant human rights improvement.40

At the same time, Cubans who do not qualify for travel because they fail to meet either Cuban or U.S. conditions have been departing in record numbers on makeshift rafts and small boats. Leaving the country without the Cuban government's approval is illegal under Cuban law and punishable with one to three years in prison. The hundreds who have been convicted of "illegal exit" are thought to constitute the largest category of political prisoners in Cuba today.

In the course of 1991, the Cuban government released at least five human rights monitors and political activists from custody before completion of their prison sentence. In addition, the last two remaining "historical plantados," or long-term prisoners who refused to cooperate with the prison "reeducation" program, were released – one, after serving twenty-two years of a forty-year sentence, and the other, a mere twenty-four hours before his thirty-year prison term expired.

Nineteen ninety-one saw an increase in limited forms of independent political activity in Cuba. The emergence of a variety of independent – and therefore illegal – democracy advocacy groups was spurred by frustration with the government's political intransigence and concern about the effects of heightened economic hardship caused by the loss of Cuba's traditional international trading partners. Some of these independent groups were singled out for especially harsh extra-judicial retaliation. The repression began to intensify in the months preceding the Pan American Games in August, when Cuba hosted thousands of foreigners and foreign journalists, and continued through the remainder of the year.

  • In June, Cuban authorities orchestrated a series of reprisals against the Harmony Movement (MAR), a social democratic organization which advocates peaceful change and democracy. MAR has deliberately engaged in relatively tame activities – such as attending masses at churches in sizable numbers – and had prepared the first issue of a pro-democracy publication, La Opinión, which had not yet been distributed when it was confiscated by state-security police. After gathering at churches, five MAR members in two separate incidents in Havana were assaulted on the street and badly beaten by small bands of what are widely believed to be plainclothes state-security agents. In a third incident, Yndamiro Restano, the leader of MAR was attacked on his way to meet with a well-known human rights advocate.
  • After searching their homes on June 30, state-security police arrested eleven MAR members and threatened them with charges of "illegal association," "enemy propaganda," "clandestine printing" and "inciting rebellion." The eleven were released a day later after receiving "official warnings." Six others were fired from their jobs and expelled from their official trade unions.
  • Also in June, a group of dissident writers and other cultural figures issued a statement calling for, among other things, a national debate about the future of the country, direct legislative elections, and an amnesty for all prisoners of conscience.41 The authorities retaliated by firing from their jobs six signers of the "Declaration of Cuban Intellectuals" and expelling them from the official writers,' artists' and journalists' unions. One of them, María Elena Cruz, a prize-winning poet, was viciously attacked in the official press and subjected to an "act of repudiation" – a staged demonstration in which a mob gathers in front of the home of a suspected "counterrevolutionary" and chants threats and revolutionary slogans. A seventh signer fended off an attack by two plainclothes assailants believed to be state-security agents.
  • Members of two other independent groups – Criterio Alternativo (Alternative Criterion), a small political study group, and Liberación, a Christian Democratic movement which advocates reform of the Cuban Constitution – were subjected to acts of repudiation in July. On July 19, the police detained Roberto Luque Escalona, of Criterio Alternativo, for shouting back at the mob staging the act of repudiation. The activist was held for more than one month on charges of contempt.
  • On September 6, state-security police arrested four activists affiliated with a grouping of independent associations known as the Cuban Democratic Coalition, as they peacefully demonstrated in front of state-security police headquarters in Havana to demand the release of political prisoners. The protest, staged by some twenty demonstrators in all, was violently suppressed by assailants in civilian clothes, widely believed to be state-security police and members of the newly created rapid action brigades. The four detained protesters were convicted on charges of "public disorder," and one of them was also convicted of incitement. They were sentenced to prison terms ranging from ten months to two years.
  • On September 23, police arrested eight members of the Cuban Democratic Coalition at the home of an activist, where they were waiting to participate in telephone interviews with Radio Martí, the Cuban programming section of the U.S. Information Agency's Voice of America, and the radio station of the Cuban-American National Foundation, an exile lobbying group based in Washington, D.C. The eight reportedly were held overnight in a police station and then released without charge the following day.
  • In October, police arrested fourteen activists affiliated with the Cuban Democratic Convergence (CDC), a newly formed grouping of several human rights and pro-democracy organizations, after they had held a press conference at the home of Elizardo Sánchez, head of the CDC-affiliated Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation. At the press conference, which was attended by foreign journalists, the CDC activists made statements and distributed leaflets calling on the Communist Party leadership to initiate constitutional reforms and take other steps to protect human rights and establish democratic institutions in Cuba.

Following the press conference, the police detained fourteen members of the independent associations Liberty and Faith, the Association of Defenders of Political Rights (ADEPO), the Followers of Mella, and the Association for Free Art. Ten were held in various Havana police stations for up to a week before being released without charge. As discussed in greater detail below, three other ADEPO members were imprisoned after swift trials, and a fourth – the leader of the group – remains in detention without trial.

  • On November 19, in a second "act of repudiation" directed against María Elena Cruz, scores of armed state security police and a mob of civilian recruits – perhaps as many as two hundred – surrounded her home. A mob burst into her apartment, forced her out, dragged her by the hair down four flights of stairs, and beat her while chanting "Down with the Worms!" and firing gunshots into the air. Cruz was taken into police custody for several hours and released without charge. She was rearrested two days later and taken to the Havana state security facility, Villa Marista. Cruz was tried on November 28, along with three other members of Criterio Alternativo, and convicted of "illegal association" and "defamation of state institutions." She is now serving two years in prison.
  • The same day, Marco Antonio Abad, a twenty-six-year-old filmmaker and former member of the Cuban film institute, was arrested by state security police as he attempted to videotape the "act of repudiation" against María Elena Cruz. He is being held in Villa Marista.
  • Between November 19 and 24, Cuban authorities cracked down on numerous peaceful political activists and human rights monitors, arresting them and staging violent "acts of repudiation" against them. Seven members of Criterio Alternativo were arrested, some after mobs attacked them at their home. Three – Gabriel Aguado, Pastor Herrera and Jorge Pomar – were tried on November 28, along with María Elena Cruz, and sentenced to prison terms ranging from sixteen months to two years for "illegal association," "clandestine printing" and "defamation of state institutions."

Human rights monitor Elizardo Sánchez, president of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, was briefly detained by state security police twice in two days. His brother, Gerardo Sánchez, who is also active in the commission, was detained at the time of Elizardo Sánchez's second arrest. When they were returned to their home, they were subjected to a gauntlet of beatings by a mob staging an "act of repudiation" outside. Their home was placed under virtual siege by the police. At least nine other activists and their relatives were briefly detained or attacked by mobs.

In addition to these new attacks and arrests, other political activists, including four members of the Movement for Democratic Integration, remained imprisoned throughout 1991, serving long terms of up to seven years for their peaceful advocacy of reform.

Prison inmates – both political prisoners and prisoners convicted of common-law crimes – reported that nonviolent protests in their cells spawned retaliation in the form of frequent beatings, confinement in harsh punishment or isolation cells, denial of medical attention and confinement in prisons far from their families. Two prisoners who participated in a hunger strike – Orlando Azcué Rodríguez and Israel López Toledo – were chained by the arms to the bars of their cells and severely beaten on several occasions. A third hunger striker, Orlando Domínguez de la Coba, who has only one arm, was also chained to the bars of his cell for long periods in January.

At least five prison inmates were reported killed by guards in various prisons, and at least three detainees were reported to have died in police custody during 1991. Human rights monitors in Cuba have also reported the use of excessive force by the police. In one incident, reported at the end of October, a police officer allegedly shot and killed a man who protested when the officer beat a suspect. Although it is difficult to confirm these reports and to ascertain the government's reaction, Americas Watch reported them in 1991 in the hope that Cuban authorities would provide clarifications and, when abuses have occurred, conduct vigorous investigations and punish those responsible.42

The Right to Monitor

Human rights monitoring is effectively illegal in Cuba. Despite numerous petitions for official recognition submitted to the Ministry of Justice by the various human rights monitoring groups currently attempting to function in Cuba, none has gained legal status. Laws restricting free expression and association combined with near-constant surveillance by the state-security police ensure that human rights monitoring is frequently punished.

Cuban human rights activists are routinely harassed, intimidated and threatened by the state-security police, and frequently arrested. Since 1989 Cuban authorities have made more than 150 arrests of human rights monitors and pro-human rights political activists. At least twenty-two human rights monitors – not including political dissidents – are currently serving prison terms of up to five years in connection with their human rights activities.

As noted above, the authorities tried and convicted three members of ADEPO, a human rights monitoring group launched in 1991, after they had participated in an October 7 press conference of the Cuban Democratic Convergence. The activists – Reinaldo Betancourt Alvarez, Aníbal Cruz and Julían Jorge Reyes – were found guilty of "illegal association," "clandestine printing" and "incitement to commit crime," and are serving two- and three-year prison sentences. The leader of ADEPO, Luis Alberto Pita Santos, who was also arrested on October 9, was detained for two weeks in a police station and then transferred at the end of October to the Havana Psychiatric Hospital. After about two weeks in psychiatric detention, he was returned to the police station. He reportedly faces charges of "contempt of the President of the Council of State" – referring to President Castro – as well as "clandestine printing" and "incitement."

State-security police frequently search the homes of human rights monitors, confiscating possessions such as typewriters, tape recorders and documents. Several human rights monitors have been subjected to acts of repudiation. Many have been fired from their jobs. At various times they have been either prevented from or pressured into leaving the country. Members of human rights groups are officially denounced as "counterrevolutionaries," "fifth column," "lumpen" and "worms."

International human rights monitoring has been severely restricted since a brief opening in 1988. Despite repeated requests, Americas Watch has yet to receive permission from the Cuban government to conduct the kind of open investigation – involving meetings with a broad range of victims, witnesses and monitors, and exchanges of views and information with pertinent government officials – that it undertakes routinely elsewhere in the region. Over the years, members of the Americas Watch board and staff have been allowed to enter the country only under the auspices of other organizations or, in one case, in connection with a U.N. event in Havana.

The Cuban government refused to cooperate with the resolution adopted in 1991 by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, which authorized the appointment of a special representative for Cuba to investigate human rights conditions and report his findings to the next commission session. As detailed below, the government denied the special representative permission to visit Cuba. The Cuban government's 1988 agreement with the International Committee of the Red Cross granting access to Cuban prisons and political prisoners remains suspended, having been broken by the Cuban government in 1990.

U.S. Policy

Because of its adversarial relationship with Cuba, the Bush Administration has limited influence on the Cuban government's human rights practices. The major source of leverage is the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, which the Administration has said it will continue to support until human rights improvements and democratic reforms are implemented.

Americas Watch takes no position on the trade embargo. However, we object to several discrete aspects of the embargo that are inconsistent with the human rights obligations of the United States. Chief among them is the effective ban on free travel to Cuba by those residing in the United States.

Under the 1975 Helsinki Final Act and successive accords reached by the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), the United States has vowed to lift restrictions limiting "human contacts," including bans on travel (Final Act) and telephone communications (Concluding Document of the Vienna Follow-Up Meeting in 1989). Although these human rights instruments are technically applicable only to relations among CSCE members – thirty-five European states, the Soviet Union, Canada and the United States – the principles set forth in the instruments would clearly favor the removal of any barrier on human contacts raised by a CSCE government in its relations with other nations.

Although the embargo allows U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba, they are prohibited from spending any money there without the permission of the U.S. Treasury Department. If citizens defy this restriction, they can be prosecuted for "trading with the enemy," imprisoned for up to twelve years and fined up to $500,000 for corporations and $250,000 for individuals. The Treasury Department makes exceptions for only four categories of visitors to Cuba: U.S. or foreign government officials or officials of any intergovernmental organization of which the U.S. is a member; family members with relatives in Cuba; academics and researchers with Cuba-specific expertise; and news media personnel. All other Americans traveling to Cuba must be guests of the Cuban government.

The travel ban also applies to Americans who since 1988 have been allowed to import "informational materials" from Cuba – books, films, records and, since April 1991, art. Would-be importers may not travel to Cuba to arrange for these materials to be sent to the United States.

The embargo also impedes telephone communications between Cubans and Americans by blocking payment of revenue due to Cuba for completing the calls. In 1987, the underwater telephone cable that had been in use since before 1959 – the year Castro came to power – finally broke down. The current AT&T cable to Cuba, which had been in place since 1989, is part of a used transatlantic cable that, because of U.S. restrictions on upgrading, is not state of the art. Nevertheless, connection of this cable would greatly improve the quantity and quality of communications currently provided by "over the horizon" radio service.

Since AT&T bills almost one hundred percent of calls between the countries – both calls originating in the United States and collect calls from Cuba – the Cuban telephone company must depend on AT&T for its share of revenue. However, the U.S. embargo against Cuba makes it illegal for AT&T to provide that payment to anything other than an escrow account. Although the Cuban state telephone company has helped to complete calls to and from the United States for three decades in return for payment that is placed in an escrow account, it is now requesting direct payment due to Cuba for calls it continues to complete, as a condition for connecting its end of the refurbished underwater cable. In the meantime, the Cuban telephone company continues to complete calls on the "over the horizon" system under the escrow account arrangement.

The State Department, in conjunction with the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, has been producing increasingly reliable human rights reports on Cuba. The State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1990, issued in February 1991, provided a largely accurate account of human rights violations in Cuba. It refrained from the exaggerations and distortions that had characterized the State Department's reporting under the Reagan Administration, and were routinely repeated by the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, former Cuban prisoner Armando Valladares.

With the resignation of Ambassador Valladares in December 1990, the Bush Administration gained an excellent opportunity to ensure that its efforts at the Geneva meetings of the United Nations Human Rights Commission would be more credible and effective. In 1991, the United States was largely responsible for a resolution adopted by the commission which provided an appropriate mechanism for scrutinizing the Cuban government's human rights practices and increasing pressure on the Cuban government to respect human rights.

Involvement of the United Nations

The resolution on Cuba adopted in 1991 by the United Nations Human Rights Commission called for the appointment of a special representative for Cuba, to be selected by U.N. Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar in consultation with the commission, and for a human rights report to be presented for open debate during the commission's 1992 session. The final resolution was an amended version of a far weaker Latin American proposal which had called for the secretary general to maintain contacts with the Cuban government and to report on those contacts during a confidential session in 1992. The final resolution was passed on a vote of twenty-two in favor (including Argentina, Canada, Japan, Panama, the United States and ten European nations), six opposed (Cuba, China, Ethiopia, Iraq, Ukraine and the USSR), and fifteen abstentions (including Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela). Adoption was secured after the U.S. delegation at the last minute introduced compromise language that had been proposed by Argentina. The Argentine role in brokering the compromise and supporting the final resolution has led the Cuban government-controlled press to criticize Argentina on several subsequent occasions.

Under the adopted resolution, the U.N. special representative is to pursue contacts with the government and people of Cuba and, ordinarily, to visit Cuba. However, the Cuban delegation to the commission immediately announced that Cuba would not grant access to the special representative.

In July, Rafael Rivas Posada of Colombia, the delegate who represented Latin America in a 1988 visit to Cuba by a commission delegation, was appointed as the special representative. Cuban Ambassador to the U.N. Ricardo Alarcón de Quesada quickly reiterated his government's position that the special representative would not be allowed into Cuba, alleging that the resolution was part of the "aggressive [U.S.] policy toward Cuba" for which "there is no justification."43

The 1991 resolution was an improvement on prior resolutions in several respects. First, the duties of the special representative as defined in the 1991 resolution come closer to the most stringent form of scrutiny engaged in by the United Nations – a status which is fully appropriate to Cuba's tightly closed society.

Second, the mandate of the special representative was broader than the inquiry authorized the prior year. The 1990 resolution called on the U.N. secretary general to report in 1991 on his contacts with the Cuban government relating to specific human rights questions still pending from the 1988 visit to Cuba by a commission delegation. Unfortunately, the secretary general's report on these contacts was little more than an exchange of letters between him and the Cuban government, which focused on reprisals taken against at least twenty-two human rights activists who had provided testimony to the commission delegation during its visit to Havana in 1988. While this topic was extremely important, the secretary general failed to report on such continuing violations as the Cuban authorities' arrest since then of some 150 activists who were attempting to monitor or promote respect for human rights. The 1991 resolution authorizes a comprehensive review of Cuban human rights conditions.

Third, the 1991 resolution explicitly authorized the inquiry to take account of reporting by nongovernmental organizations. As a result, while the refusal of the Cuban government to allow Ambassador Rivas to visit Cuba raises a substantial hurdle to his reporting, the hurdle is not insurmountable in light of the substantial information available from nongovernmental sources. Ambassador Rivas met in October with a broad spectrum of human rights monitors who follow developments in Cuba, including Americas Watch.

Despite its rhetorical attempt to dismiss as a product of U.S. hostility the international condemnation of its human rights record that was inherent in the 1991 resolution, the Cuban government's failure to cooperate with the U.N. special representative damages its international image still further and will certainly be frowned upon at the next commission session.

The Work of Americas Watch

An Americas Watch researcher was able to visit Havana for four days in April as a member of a delegation of publishers from the United States. Members of the delegation met with human rights monitors and political dissidents, as well as with Cuban government officials.

Americas Watch published two lengthy newsletters on Cuba in 1991. "Attacks Against Independent Associations, March 1990-February 1991" was issued in February, in time for the meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva. "Behind a Sporting Facade, Stepped-up Repression" was released in August during the Pan American Games, when Cuba was a focus of international press attention.

Americas Watch continued to campaign on behalf of individual political prisoners.

"Cuba Creates 'Rapid Action Groups' to Stop Public Dissent," Reuters, July 11, 1991.

"Child Vigilante Groups Suggested for Cuban Schools," Reuters, November 2, 1991.

However, shortly after the Cuban government announced the reduction in the age limit for travel, the United States announced that its Interests Section in Havana would suspend acceptance of new tourist-visa applications so that it could process a backlog of pending applications. The sudden announcement was seen by some as a way of undermining the Cuban government's attempt at securing an "escape valve."

Ironically, one of the reforms called for by the writers – direct legislative elections – was later adopted during the Fourth Communist Party Congress held in Santiago de Cuba in October.

See Americas Watch, "Cuba, Behind a Sporting Facade, Stepped-up Repression," August 1991.

"U.N. Names Rights Observer for Cuba; It Rejects Him," The Washington Post, July 3, 1991.

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.