Human Rights Developments

Cuba clamped down on dissidents in 1999, evidenced by, most notably, the trial and conviction of four leaders of the Internal Dissidents' Working Group. The apparent opening that followed the 1998 papal visit was firmly shut and human rights advocates, journalists, and activists faced steady government repression. Harassment and prosecution of dissidents coupled with a continuing refusal to grant amnesty to hundreds of political prisoners demonstrated Cuba's increasingly repressive human rights conditions in 1999.

The exercise of fundamental human rights of expression, association, assembly, movement, and press remained restricted by Cuban law. Authorities imprisoned or ordered the surveillance of individuals who had committed no illegal act, relying upon laws penalizing "dangerousness" (el estado peligroso) and allowing for official warning (advertencia oficial) . The criminalization of enemy propaganda, the spreading of "unauthorized news", and the insulting of dead heroes effectively denied freedom of speech under the guise of protecting state security. In addition, Cuba confined persons for "illegal exit" when they attempted to exercise their right to leave the country. In August 1999, the government ordered that no Cuban who had emigrated through illegal channels after September 1994 could ever return to the island. Previously, those who left illegally were allowed to visit after spending five years abroad.

The government controlled Cuban courts, undermining the right to a fair trial by, in particular, restricting the right to a defense. The Council of State, a political entity presided over by President Castro, reviewed all death penalty cases, undercutting judicial independence. Cuban courts failed to observe the few due process rights available to defendants under the law. At least twelve prisoners sentenced to death were reportedly executed in 1999.

The Cuban government created new mechanisms to strengthen its repressive authority in 1999. In February, Cuba's National Assembly approved the Law for the Protection of the National Independence and the Cuban Economy (Ley de Protección de la Independencia Nacional y la Economía de Cuba), establishing harsh penalties of up to twenty years for any actions that could be interpreted as support for the U.S. embargo on Cuba.

In 1999, the government placed several dissidents on trial and arrested dozens of independent journalists and activists. On March 15, 1999, a Havana court sentenced four leaders of the Internal Dissidents' Working Group (Grupo de Trabajo de la Disidencia Interna, GTDI) to several years of imprisonment for "acts against the security of the state" based on their alleged incitement of sedition. In June 1997, the GTDI released "The Homeland Belongs to All" (La Patria es de Todos), a paper that analyzed Cuba's economy, proposed reforms to the Cuban Constitution, discussed human rights, and challenged Cuba's exclusive recognition of one political party. The trial followed nearly nineteen months of pretrial detention in maximum security prisons for the four, economists Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello and Vladimiro Roca Antúnez, engineering professor Félix Antonio Bonne Carcasses, and attorney René Gómez Manzano. The trial was closed to the public, the press, and international observers. Only nine of the dissidents' family members were allowed to attend. The court forbade Gómez Manzano, the leader of a group of independent attorneys whom the government had previously disbarred, from defending himself. The court sentenced Roca Antúnez to five years, Bonne Carcassés and Gómez Manzano to four years each, and Roque Cabello to three and a half years.

On December 10, 1998, Cuban police arrested Lázaro Constantín Durán, the leader of the Friends Club of the College of Independent Teachers (Club de Amigos del Colegio de Pedagogos Independientes), while he was participating in a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the Butari Park in Havana. Less than a week later, a Havana tribunal sentenced Constantín Durán to a four year prison term for dangerousness.

Whether detained for common or political crimes, inmates were subjected to severe prison conditions. Prisoners suffered malnourishment and languished in overcrowded cells without appropriate medical attention. Some endured physical and sexual abuse, typically by other inmates with the acquiescence of guards, or long periods in isolation cells. Prison authorities insisted that all detainees participate in politically oriented "re-education" sessions or face punitive measures. In many prisons, authorities failed to separate pretrial detainees from convicted prisoners and minors from adults. Political prisoners who denounced the poor conditions of imprisonment were punished with solitary confinement, restricted visits, or denial of medical treatment. Minors risked indefinite detention in juvenile facilities, without the benefit of due process guarantees or a fixed sentence.

In an encouraging step, a February 1999 criminal code reform provided that prisoners "cannot be subjected to corporal punishment, nor is it permitted to employ any means against them to humiliate them or to lessen their dignity." Yet the failure to establish penalties for committing such acts diminished the potential impact of this reform. The government continued, moreover, to retaliate against prisoners who denounced prison conditions and extended its ban on prison monitoring.

In March 1999, Cuba expanded the use of the death penalty to punish two additional crimes: international drug trafficking and the corruption of minors. Cuba kept on the books over a hundred other crimes punishable by death. The Cuban legal system's serious procedural failings and lack of judicial independence facilitated miscarriages of justice. Cuban law afforded convicts sentenced to death minimal opportunities to appeal their sentences. In March 1999, Cuba announced that a Havana court had sentenced Raúl Ernesto Cruz León to death for terrorism, based on his alleged involvement in bombing Cuban hotels. Cuban prosecutors sentenced a second Salvadoran, Otto René Rodríguez Llerena, to death in April 1999. In January 1999, a Havana court sentenced Sergio Antonio Duarte Scull and Carlos Rafael Pelaez Prieto to death for the murders of two Italian tourists in September 1998. In June 1999, a firing squad reportedly executed Pelaez Prieto. In March 1999, the provincial court in Granma announced the executions of José Luis Osorio Zamora and Francisco Javier Chávez Palacios. Cuba executed at least twelve prisoners in 1999.

The Castro government maintained a firm stance against independent journalism. Cuban authorities detained at least fifteen independent journalists in late February 1999, in an apparent attempt to prohibit them from covering the trial of the leaders of the Internal Dissidents' Working Group.

On May 6, 1999, a court in Holguín found two journalists and one of their companions guilty of "contempt for authority" (desacato). Manuel Antonio González Castellanos of the Cuba Press agency was reportedly tried because he had criticized President Fidel Castro and other authorities in the course of a heated conversation with local police in late 1998. The police had apparently verbally harassed González Castellanos earlier in the day. The court sentenced him to two years and seven months in prison.

On December 29, 1998, Cuban police arrested Jesús Labrador Arias, a Cuba Press reporter in Manzanillo, holding him for several hours. On December 8, Cuban state security officials went to another Cuba Press journalist's residence, warning him not to cover any events on December 10, International Human Rights Day.

In a few cases, the government used housing regulations to harass independent reporters. In January 1999, housing authorities in Santiago notified Margarita Sara Yero, the director of the Turquino Correspondence of the Independent Press Agency of Cuba (Agencia de Prensa Independiente de Cuba), that she would be evicted from her home, where she had resided for thirty-five years. The officials claimed that she had abandoned her home, but several neighbors confirmed her residency. On February 1, 1999, police and housing officials called her neighbors to a public meeting, where they reportedly stated that Yero had not cast votes for Communist Party candidates and did not belong to the local Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (Comité para la Defensa de la Revolución). The next day, according to press reports, Yero received a written eviction notice.

On January 18, 1999, Cuban police detained Jesús Joel Díaz Hernández, the director of the Cooperative of Independent Journalists of Ciego de Avila (Cooperativa Avileña de Periodistas Independientes), in Morón, Ciego de Avila province. The next day, the Municipal Tribunal of Morón found him guilty of dangerousness and sentenced him to four years. The extremely brief period between Díaz Hernández's arrest and conviction made it impossible for him to prepare an adequate defense. The court reportedly based its verdict on Díaz Hernández's allegedly having met with delinquents and disturbed the public order.

On January 27, 1999, police in Ciego de Avila arrested Pedro Arguelles Morán of Cuba Press and detained him for two days. Earlier the same week, Havana police arrested María de los Angeles González Amaro, the director of the Union of Independent Cuban Journalists and Writers (Union de Periodistas y Escritores de Cuba Independientes, UPECI), Nancy Sotolongo, a journalist with UPECI, Santiago Martínez Trujillo, an UPECI photographer, and Angel Pablo Polanco, of the Cooperative of Independent Journalists (Cooperativa de Periodistas Independientes), holding them for three to five days before release. The arrests apparently occurred because the journalists planned to cover an event marking the first anniversary of the pope's January 1998 trip to Cuba. Police reportedly issued González Amaro with an official warning that she would face trial for criminal association and disobedience if she continued her activities.

While Cuba permitted greater opportunities for religious expression than it did in past years and allowed several religious-run humanitarian groups to operate, the government still maintained tight control on religious institutions, affiliated groups, and individual believers. On a positive note, in November 1998 Cuba approved visas for nineteen foreign priests to take up residence in Cuba.

The Cuban government restricted labor rights by banning independent labor groups and harassing individuals attempting to form them. The government recognized only one labor union, the Worker's Central of Cuba (Central de Trabajadores de Cuba, CDC). Havana police reportedly detained José Orlando González Bridón, of the Confederation of Democratic Workers of Cuba (Confederación de Trabajadores Democráticos de Cuba, CTDC) for brief periods in November and December 1998 and January 1999. On each occasion, González Bridón was participating in protests of dissidents' trials. Cuban authorities arrested his colleague, Ofelia Nardo Cruz, an attorney with the same organization, on January 6, 1999, holding her for a few hours.

To attract international investors, Cuba tightly controlled labor rights in businesses backed by foreign investment. Under restrictive labor laws, the government played a prominent role in the selection, payment and firing of workers, effectively denying workers the right to bargain directly with employers over benefits, bases of promotions and wages. Cuba continued to use prison labor for agricultural camps, clothing assembly and other factories in its prisons. Cuba's insistence that political prisoners work without pay in severe conditions violated international labor and prison standards.

Defending Human Rights

The Cuban government silenced opposition through dogged repression of domestic human rights defenders in 1999. Authorities used surveillance, phone tapping, and intimidation to silence dissent. The trial of the four leaders of the GTDI demonstrated the government's willingness to use the criminal code against human rights activists and independent journalists.

In late January 1999, Havana police reportedly detained seven members of the Lawton Human Rights Foundation (FLDH), including the group's leader, Dr. Oscar Elías Biscet González, for four to six days. The human rights activists had planned to participate in a celebration of the first anniversary of the pope's January 1998 visit to Cuba. The detentions prevented the FLDH members from taking part in the January 25 event, as they were not released until January 30, 1999. In August 1999, Cuban authorities again arrested and detained Biscet González for two days after he gave a lecture on non-violent civil disobedience. A witness reported that the police physically assaulted Biscet González and burned his arm with a cigar.

From June to July 1999, approximately twenty-five Cuban human rights defenders carried out a highly publicized forty day hunger strike to demand amnesty for political prisoners. In July 1999, jailed dissident Marta Beatriz Roque began a liquids-only and later a full-fledged hunger strike to protest the lack of government response to an appeal she filed against her imprisonment. Although state security officials reportedly visited Roque to inform her that prison staff would make no attempt to stop her from dying, on September 4, the government agreed to answer her appeal and Roque called off her strike. At this writing, no response had been issued to Roque's appeal.

In late February 1999, Cuban police and state security agents detained numerous members of opposition and human rights groups. The authorities apparently carried out the arrests to preclude the activists from being in the vicinity of the March 1 trial of the four leaders of the GTDI. The detentions ranged in length from several hours to several days, and detainees were held in both police stations and residences under the control of the Interior Ministry. Many of the detained activists were reportedly threatened with criminal prosecution. Police reportedly forced another fifty activists to remain in their homes while the trial was taking place. In October 1999, police cracked down on opposition, reportedly ordering forty human rights activists and dissidents to remain in their homes. Detentions were apparently carried out in order to prevent participation in human rights activities aimed at attracting the attention of Latin American heads of state attending the Ibero-American Summit in Havana in November 1999.

The Cuban government denied international human rights and humanitarian monitors access to the country. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had not been allowed to conduct prison visits in Cuba since 1989. Cuba remained the only country in the region that did not allow the ICRC to carry out prison visits. Human Rights Watch had not been allowed to visit Cuba since 1995.

The Role of the International Community

United Nations

Cuba's crackdown in early 1999, sentencing to prison prominent dissidents and enacting new repressive legislation, galvanized international support for renewed pressure on the government, in spite of a trend among many nations of warming relations with Havana. At the April 1999 meeting of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, a resolution expressing concern for Cuban human rights practices, which did not include a provision for a rapporteur, passed by a narrow margin. In an unprecedented move in July, Cuba submitted a request to the United Nations Economic and Social Council, the governing body of the Commission on Human Rights, to amend the April resolution condemning Cuba. Unable to garner sufficient support, Cuba was forced to withdraw the resolution, which would have suspended any further consideration of Cuba by the Commission on Human Rights.

Ibero-American Nations

After the 1998 papal visit to Cuba, Latin American and Caribbean nations intensified official contact with Cuba; some restored diplomatic relations for the first time in decades. With some notable exceptions, however, these nations failed to use their renewed dialogue with Cuba to press for human rights protection. At the time of this writing, the heads of state of all Ibero-American nations were scheduled to hold their annual summit meeting in Havana in November 1999. At least three heads of state announced their intention to boycott the Havana summit, citing Cuba's lack of progress in democracy and human rights.

European Union

The March 1999 sentencing of four dissidents for the peaceful expression of opposition fueled renewed criticism from the European Union of Cuba's human rights practices. In June, the E.U. issued a statement deeply regretting Cuba's decision to increase the use of the death penalty in response to stepped up executions in 1999. Even as it condemned Cuba's human rights record, the E.U. strongly opposed the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. High-level authorities from E.U. member States including the United Kingdom and Spain held official meetings with members of the Cuban government in 1999, demonstrating their differences with Washington's policy of isolation and confrontation with Havana. The E.U. member states continued to provide economic cooperation and humanitarian aid through nongovernmental organizations. In December 1998 and June 1999, the E.U. Council of Foreign Ministers noted that the parameters of Cuba's domestic and foreign policy had not improved and reaffirmed its Common Position that "full cooperation with Cuba will depend upon improvements in human rights and political freedom." The E.U.'s Common Position, originally adopted in 1996, called for "the reform of internal legislation concerning political and civil rights, including the Cuban criminal code, and, consequently, the abolition of all political offences, the release of all political prisoners and the ending of the harassment and punishment of dissidents."

Despite increasing repression, European trade and investment in Cuba continued throughout 1999. The Cuban government's restrictions on forming independent unions or bargaining collectively made European companies as well as all foreign investors in Cuba, complicit in the Cuban government's human rights violations.


Canada reassessed its constructive engagement policy with Cuba as a result of the March 1999 sentencing of four dissident leaders to three- to five-year prison terms. In June 1999, Canada suspended new programs that would not advance protection of human rights and canceled ministerial visits to Cuba. At the same time, Canadian officials also withdrew their commitment to press for Cuba's readmission to the Organization of American States (OAS), which had expelled Cuba in 1962. Canada was to host the OAS General Assembly in June 2000 and had previously intended to lobby for Cuba's reintegration into the system, provided that Cuba made progress on human rights and democracy. Although distancing itself somewhat, the Canadian government continued its dialogue with the Cuban government. Canadian officials, especially Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy, were also outspoken in their criticism of the U.S. embargo.

United States

Washington's approach to Havana remained defined by the all-encompassing trade embargo, despite its failure over more than three decades to bring about improvements in human rights practices in Cuba. The embargo continued to be an all-or-nothing policy rather than a calibrated tool designed to respond to changes in Cuban human rights practices. In January 1999, the Clinton Administration announced several small steps to soften the impact of the embargo on the Cuban population, while rejecting a call from prominent policy makers and former Republican officials, including former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, to empanel a bipartisan commission to review thoroughly U.S. policy toward Cuba. The U.S. was increasingly alienated from potential allies interested in promoting respect for human rights in Cuba but opposed to the embargo's indiscriminate nature. President Castro invoked the embargo to tighten restrictions on fundamental freedoms in 1999.

The embargo restricted the rights to free expression by limiting travel between Cuba and the U.S., violating article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the U.S. was party to. U.S. authorities continued to repatriate Cuban asylum seekers aboard vessels intercepted at sea. On a positive note, in January 1999, the Clinton Administration removed the ban it had previously established on direct air travel to Cuba from Miami. The Clinton Administration allowed the Baltimore Orioles management to negotiate exhibition baseball games with the Cuban national baseball team. The first of these games took place in Havana in March 1999 and the second in Baltimore in May 1999.

Several U.S. lawmakers made official visits to Cuba in 1999 for reasons varying from expanding agricultural markets to discussing bilateral relations. The most notable visits were the joint visit of Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle of South Dakota and Senator Byron Dorgan, and the rare visit by Republican Senator Arlen Specter, both of which included nearly seven-hour meetings with Cuban President Fidel Castro. Senator Daschle and Senator Dorgan were refused permission to visit the four imprisoned leaders of the GTDI, and Castro denied that human rights abuses persisted in Cuba. Congressional efforts to ease the indiscriminate effects of the U.S. trade embargo continued and in August 1999, the Senate approved an amendment allowing virtually unrestricted food and drug sales to Cuba. In July 1999, Western Union set up thirty-one offices in Cuba allowing New York, New Jersey and Florida residents to directly wire up to U.S.$300 to Cuban residents, excluding Communist Party and high government officials, each trimester.

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.