Human Rights violations in Cuba



In order to visualize in more detail the correlation between the situation of human rights and the unending exodus from the island, let’s examine the operation of those rights from the perspective of Cuba’s living conditions. They will be grouped under three categories: Political and Individual Rights, Legal Rights, and The Economic and Social Welfare Rights. (Chapter 15 in the book provides what Cuban exiles have done in their struggle to defend these rights on the island.)

Political and Individual Rights

The rights to freedom and equality in dignity, inherent in all humans, along with the duty of fraternal conduct (Article 1), are practically ignored as a result of the oppressive totalitarian structure that attempts to control every dimension of social life. Political and economic freedoms are obliterated and will be later examined. Great inequality is clearly present when looking at the leaders of the only political party wielding all power along with its perks but without the great shortcomings of the imposed dysfunctional system.


Likewise, the precept prohibiting discrimination against the in­dividual (Article 2) is violated, institutionally, and in practice. In the former this occurs in an institutional basis when the prohibition of two potential forms of discrimination were left out of the Constitution: namely discrimination due to political ideas and place of birth of the person. Concerning political ideas this situation has created a sort of “apartheid,” permeating all levels of society along those two lines. It prevents and/or curtails opportunities for advancement, as well as the active participation in the direction and functioning of the political, educational, and occupational dimensions of the country, to those not considered politically reliable. Cubans are also discriminated in favor of foreigners, since the former are practically forbidden to use and enjoy what the latter can, in areas such as food, health care housing, transportation-mobility, and recreation.


It is important here to distinguish between Castro’s totalitarian system and the traditional authoritarian dictatorship. In the latter, the dictator mainly controls the military-repressive apparatus, the political structure, and marginally profiting from the economic activity, but it al­lows the individual a wide margin of neutrality. On the contrary, the totalitarian system goes beyond those categories, attempting complete control on all dimensions (the economic, educational, health, etc.). It also, in practice, penalizes or forbids the possibility of political neutrality. This neutrality will be considered “apathy towards the system.” or “ideological diversionism” It can entail various forms of a penalty such as discrimination in the economic and educational activity, in the long or short term. Among other forms of discrimination is the inability to freely participate in the country’s government (Article 21), since this will be limited to those “integrated to the revolution,’ in other words, to those politically trustworthy by the all-powerful Communist Party.


The Security of the Individual (Article 3) is in constant danger since the individual is completely helpless and defenseless, facing the overwhelming power of what is perceived to be an omnipotent and om­nipresent State. The individual who perceives that it is legally impossible to oppose such a powerful entity is left with the alternatives of joining the oppressors, feigning allegiance to it, or trying to flee at any cost.


This omnipresent repressive situation also promotes a state of dis­trust and constant fear that often reaches the terror level. In practice, it can be said that Cuba is a terrorist state against its own people. This reality also helps explain the prevailing high rate of alcoholism, depres­sion, and suicide, as a form of escapism from the totalitarian repression.


The general state of coercion suggests the presence of a new form of slavery (Article 4). In order to “domesticate” or “tame” those who show some form of actual or potentially rebellious leadership, can be subjected—depending on the circumstances—to all types of abusive treatment, from the traditional physical torture to the much more frequent refined and effective psychological torture. It is designed to break down the detainee, psychologically, and also to significantly hurt his fam­ily. Those measures can range from total isolation, losing all notion of time, to a faked execution. Some label this “white terror:” which practi­cally everyone experienced.


For those that have rebelled or have tried to actively oppose the totalitarian trend, if they did not perish in the attempt or were not executed, there has been a long and harsh political imprisonment, unparalleled in the hemisphere. “Cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment” (Article 5) has been used at various levels throughout the years in the Cuban “Gulag”. These range from forced labor, not used since colonial times, to confinement in the “drawers” (very small cells where several are locked in). Cuban political prisoners have suffered incredible cruelty, extensive to their families. There are some political prisoners who were imprisoned for over twenty years. Since the late 1960s political prisoners have also the aggravation of not being recognized as such by the regime, in sharp contrast with the past. They are housed with common criminals, thus making their lives more miserable.


There are basically two systems of repression in Cuba: the direct and the indirect. The first one is mostly exercised by the ministry of interior, by way of state security; the National Revolutionary Police (PNR); the Department of Technical Investigations (DTI), and the CDRs (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, present at the city block level), and is mostly centered on specific individuals. The indirect repression is not centered on anyone in particular, but applies like a Damocles sword to the population at-large. This is exercised by the repressive nature of the social institutions such as education, labor, the economy, and the media along with the CDRs and all of the ‘Mass Organizations” (MO). This type of control takes place within the totali­tarian socio-economic context, bearing in mind that the government is the sole educational and health provider as well as employer, where about 90 percent has depended on the State to earn a living.


State Security takes care of controlling the political dimension, while the DTI and PNR are normally in charge of common crimes, which includes the “economic” type. These entities are, in practice, police and judge, since the detainees sentence has been determined before trial. The CDRs constitute the long arm of those repressive organizations, both for political and common crimes dimensions; spying on citizens’ lives at the city by street/block level. They can meddle in the most minute details of the neighborhood life, including the private lives of citizens, in Orwellian “Big Brother” style.


The MOs attempt to involve as many individuals as possible in an organization. Its ultimate purpose is to promote the complete control of the individual, according to some occupational categories. The MOs start with the pioneers at the elementary school level, followed by the student organization, the labor unions, the Women’s Federation, and the CDRs. Membership in these organizations constitutes a first level of “political-ideological integration,” a requirement for the legal advancement within that society. Also, said organizations constitute another avenue to control even the citizens’ free time. On top of this must be added the Territorial Militia Troops (MTT), which exercise further control over individuals of both sexes, who are coerced into joining his paramilitary structure which will overlap the other repressive mechanisms.


The control of the individual can be better visualized at the educational and occupational levels. The most noticeable indicator of this control effort is found in two instruments, not well known abroad: the Cumulative Academic Record (CAR) and the Labor Dossier (LD). An examination of the CAR (modified recently) shows what looks like a detailed regular academic report card (years 1-12), containing the grades for each subject. But what has made the CAR so sinister (Article 12) are the sections containing the annual evaluation of the “political-ideological integration” of the student and that of his or her parents. It uses a numerical code system as well as a written description. It also inquires on whether the family belongs to a religious group and, if so, to which one. In this evaluation the CAR also probes on whether the student belongs to any MO and his or her level of involvement, assessing this way their revolutionary militancy and ideological trustworthiness. This instrument follows the student through the twelfth grade. This degree of political supervision actually makes the teacher, de facto, an important instrument in the repressive apparatus.


Likewise, the LD evaluates the workers’ performance, emphasizing his/her political behavior, and will follow the worker until retirement or death. This LD also contains the individual’s “merits and demerits,” and “special notations.” Religious activity, failure to attend labor union meetings, and failure to perform “voluntary labor” are examples of “negative” behaviors or “demerits” that are recorded. In both dossiers, the political record is paramount. It may be used, in the CAR, to determine whether the person may continue to higher education and the career path. The LD has been used to determine whether the person may have the right to buy in the past an important item such as a refrigerator, at a lower price, as well as to determine the worker’s career advancement.


In addition to these dossiers there are other inquiries, popularly called “cuéntame tu vida” (“tell me your life”), used for work applications and other purposes. A great deal of information regarding an individual’s personal life, including his political views is probed here.


It can be deduced from the previously stated facts that freedom of conscience and religion (Article 18) have been severely trampled on in Cuba. At best, there is relative freedom of worship, but not religious freedom, due to the constraints imposed on the religious denominations in terms of their operation. Religious practice was confined to the churches, since public manifestations (processions) had been rigorously prohibited until recently, when this restriction was relaxed. There has been a systematic and indirect repression in which discrimination has been applied against laypersons who are publicly committed to the faith. This has been applied to priests that don’t “behave properly,” in terms of being critical of the system. Religious services have been undermined in many ways. No Catholic churches have been built since 1959, and the government has made difficult the repairs of the existing ones, particularly in the interior of the country. Suspiciously, theft or damage to churches used to take place with virtual impunity, and great hypocrisy. In this way temples have been deprived of vital materials, very difficult and costly to replace. These actions have also promoted great fear within the faithful.


Clergymen have been harassed in various ways. They have been defamed or harshly criticized through the media, in movies and newspapers, portraying them in the worst possible image. There has always been an effort to create internal strife among the faithful communities. Likewise, there have been efforts to entrap the priest/minister in some sexual or common crime issue, to be used for blackmailing at the right time. There have also been mass and forceful expulsions, like the 131priests and other religious clerics in 1961, along with systematic harassment designed to coerce other clerics (male and female) into leaving the country “voluntarily.” In the case of foreign ministers, according to their behavior, they could be denied a visa renewal. Governmental policy against religion can be summarized in Castro’s own words of the early 1960s when he said that his strategy with religion was to “create apostates, not martyrs.” Jehovah’s Witnesses have been particularly singled out, suffering actual persecution, having their Halls closed, imprisoning its members, and forcibly expelling many, like in the 1980 exodus.


Castro’s government has sabotaged the charitable work of the churches, preventing and making difficult the arrival of humanitarian donations from abroad. It is also known that donations in food and medications, coming mostly from Europe have been sold for hard currency stores to be used in hospitals geared to foreigners and the ruling elite.2 Likewise, a few years ago Caritas, the catholic international humanitarian agency, not legally recognized, tried to import directly powdered milk for free distribution. Not allowed to do so, the Church tried to buy it at wholesale prices, but were not permitted, having to buy it at retail prices at the government-owned “dollar stores.” Currently, they have been forced to give the government a percentage of the donations received. Churches are not allowed the free entrance of ministers and supplies, all subject to strict control by the Office of Religious Affairs of the Communist Party. The Church has had to pay double the price charged to other entities on the special stores where they have to buy items. Churches had also been forbidden to give free medication received from abroad because “the Churches are not drug stores.” Some of these controls have been relaxed in recent time.


Given the nature of the totalitarian system, and what already has been presented, freedom of opinion and expression (Article 19) is nonexistent in Cuba. Article 52 of the Cuban Constitution proclaims absolute power control over the media by stating that “state or social property, can in no case, be private property, thus securing their services for the exclusive use of the working people.

. . .” In practice, and with a great dose of hypocrisy, all the media is an absolute monopoly of Castro and his party.


The right of freedom of education (Article 26) is flagrantly violated. Students can only receive the instruction provided by the Castro government. That instruction is ideologically tainted with political indoctrination in practically every course, besides the special courses in Marxism-Leninism that must be taken at certain levels. Although instructional opportunities (1-12 grades) have been extended throughout the island, this instruction is qualitatively limited by the poor preparation of the instructors.


Beyond high school, education has also been highly conditioned upon the individual’s “political-ideological integration.” This integration has determined whether the individual will be able to pursue the university level, since it is for revolutionaries. Those who are admitted, but lack the “political integration,” most likely will not be able to pursue studies with strong political or social relevance, thus hurting the vocational orientation of the individual. This restriction also occurs at lower levels due to Article 38 of the Constitution, which dogmatically establishes that the goal of education is “the communist formation of the new generations” based on the “scientific conception of the world, established and developed according to Marxism-Leninism. . . .” In practice, as indicated earlier, all children—as in the former Soviet Union—are members of the Pioneros, designed to further control and indoctrinate on Communist – ­Castroist ideas from an early age.


Furthermore, the notion of a “free” education is highly questionable since it is contradicted by the fact that students have been forced to perform agricultural work on a permanent or part-time basis. Parents do not have the right to “choose the type of education that best suits their children,” as established in Article 26 of the Human Rights Declaration. Due to the State’s complete monopoly of education, this institution has been a very effective means of indoctrination, control (physically and ideologically) of the student and his/her family. The factual evidence already presented clearly shows that freedom of assembly (Article 20) does not exist. On the other hand, it has been virtually compulsory to join one of the government-controlled “Mass Organizations” under the unwritten penalty of experiencing discrimination in one of the aforementioned forms.


Freedom of cultural activity (Article 27) is curtailed in many ways. This starts at the institutional level with Article 38 of the Constitution, which states that “artistic expression is free as long as its content is not contrary to the Revolution.” In practice, since the government controls all media and print shops, this has reached dramatic and even laughable extremes when dissidents’ and exiles’ books and other “dangerous” literature have been withdrawn from circulation. All independent cultural activity is considered illegal. Access to books, films, and other cultural manifestations from other countries has been extremely limited, except to top members of the government elite.


The right of internal movement (Article 13) of Cuban citizens as well as that of free entrance and departure from the country has been systematically violated since 1959. In order for a national to leave the country or re-enter after living abroad, it is necessary to obtain a visa or government permit. Changing residence requires special permission, particularly if the moving is from the eastern provinces to Havana. This measure, in turn, also violates the constitution that guarantees the right to live anywhere in the country.


Article 16 promotes the integrity of the family. These realities seriously undermine family bonds and promote their breakdown. The absence of traditional moral values by the educational system also promotes promiscuity among the young, resulting in the widespread practice of abortion. The great scarcity and poor condition of housing created by the totalitarian policies also contributes to the family crisis, promoting the current very high divorce levels.

Legal Rights

In 1971 the “anti-vagrancy law” was enacted, calling for imprisonment of one to four years. This law penalized those who wanted to work on their own, and not for the State. Likewise, at the end of the 1970s, a law that allowed incarceration of those people whom the authorities considered likely to commit some type of serious crime was enacted. This is a clear violation of Article 9, which forbids arbitrary arrests.


The sentences that have been imposed for political reasons have been extremely long. The cases of political prisoners who have spent over twenty years behind bars have been common. In the “Black Spring” of March 2003, with the crackdown on dissidents, one of the seventy-five arrested received a twenty-eight-year sentence for exercising journalism and taking pictures of socialist “eye sores” in the cities. Treatment in this Cuban Gulag has been well below world standards in terms of food, medical treatment, living conditions, and discipline as well as punishment methods.

Since 1959 the Castro regime has used a variety of deportation forms (Article 9) with the disaffected, promoting or imposing their departure from the island. Massive forceful deportations were used in September 1961 (priests and religious personnel) and during the “Mariel exodus.” Forceful internal deportation has also occurred. The outstanding example took place by mid-1960s and early 1970s with hundreds of small farmers from the Escambray Mountains (in central Cuba), who were expelled from their land, losing their possessions and being mostly resettled on the westernmost end of the island with the prohibition of ever returning to their land. This measure was taken to prevent the farmers’ cooperation with the peasant rebels operating in that area. In 1971, Catholic priest Armando Perez was deported from his home parish in Camaguey Province to Santiago de Cuba in Oriente Province. The reason was a never-proved connection with Catholic anti-Castro youths from that province that allegedly were distributing by mail pro-democracy and human rights literature that was considered subversive.


According to the Cuban Constitution, the courts are not (supposed to be) impartial or independent, thus violating Article 10. Likewise, in the said Constitution Article 123, Paragraph (f) states that one of the objectives of the courts is the establishment of opportunities to educate citizens on the cause of socialism. Moreover, Article 66 of the Law of the Organization of the Cuban Judicial System of December 13, 1978, specifies that to be a court president or professional judge, the individual must have “active revolutionary integration.” In reality, courts are used to provide a facade of legality to the system, since normally those indicted have already been sentenced before trial. Thus, the role of the defense lawyer is normally limited to acknowledge the accused’s guilt and merely ask clemency from the court. Lawyers that go beyond these un-written limits risk expulsion from the judicial system and even imprisonment. Contrary to what was established in the Human Rights Declaration, in practice, the detainee is considered guilty until proven innocent, violating Article 11.

Economic Rights and Social Welfare

The first of these rights, which guarantees individual or collective property (Article 17), is violated by Article 14 of the Constitution which prohibits private ownership of the means of production, because Cuba has “the socialist property of all the people.” Confiscation of private property reached incredible extremes with the 1968 “Revolutionary Offensive,” where even the smallest urban businesses were “nationalized” without compensation. This legal measure was repeated in 1986, and in the late 1990s with either the confiscation or forced closing of small family and individual-run urban businesses that had been permitted, such as the “paladares,” small private family restaurants allowing only twelve seats and only family workers. Also, the remaining small family agricultural enterprises cannot decide what to cultivate nor dispose of their production. They must sell their production to the government, at their arbitrary prices determined by the state agencies.


Castro’s massive confiscation of farms since 1959 created great scarcity, forcing the imposition in March 1962 of an unprecedented rationing still in effect. Significantly, the new ruling elite do not have to endure all the drawbacks of this system, as the rest of the population, since they are fully supplied by special providers.


Even with money, the average person has not been able to buy vital household appliances such as a refrigerator. These used to be offered through the places of work, provided that he/she earned the right to buy them on the basis of accumulated “merits.” With the new “dollar stores” started in 1993, the possession of that currency became the determining factor to acquire those goods, but at very high prices, imposing great hardships due to the great discrepancy between the price of goods in dollars and the personal income in devalued pesos. It must be taken into consideration that the monthly average personal income is about four hundred Cuban pesos (about U.S. $17 at 24 pesos per dollar rate).


The right to adequate housing is very negatively affected as well, due to the totalitarian control over construction and materials. This is compounded by an acute lack of maintenance, due to the lack of materials, generating a huge degree of housing deterioration nationwide. Consequently, there is a constant collapsing of dilapidated multi-story buildings, particularly in Havana. These facts have led to truly miserable living conditions, characterized by overcrowding, generating family breakdown, and the great proliferation of shantytowns inside or around cities. To make life even more difficult, in addition to the terrible condition of housing, there is also the increasingly great problem of water supply, and power blackouts. All of this constitutes a real nightmare for the average persons but again, not applicable to the leadership elite.


Medical attention is one of the areas where Castro’s government claims to have had the greatest achievement after the elimination of a good private system. Undoubtedly, there has been a geographic extension of this service. But those who have experienced the system by living there, and have used it, have harsh words for the quality of the medical service, particularly with medication. This has worsened since the end of Soviet subsidies in the early 1990s. No wonder the Cuban political elite received different and separate medical attention, much superior to that of the common citizen and similar to that of foreigners. This is why exiles have been sending, since the 1960s, great amounts of medications to their relatives.


Those who have experienced the past and present Cuban medical system disagree that it was necessary to eliminate civil liberties to allegedly “achieve,” in the medical field, what other countries have accomplished without resorting to any type of dictatorship. After the end of Soviet subsidies the poor quality nationwide of medical care became shocking. Essential medications and equipment were utterly lacking. Another paradox along this line has been Castro’s unlimited “generosity,” sending doctors, medical personnel, and medications to foreign lands. This has greatly deprived Cuban people of this service and even medication. Unfortunately, it is known that some of the medications sent by exiles and foreign donations have ended up in special pharmacies sold for dollars.


Regarding the right to work (Article 23), Cubans have been forced to do so for the government, the sole legal employer. To enforce that regulation, Castro created special legislation to achieve that goal through the “law against vagrancy” and other measures. The right to create unions and unionize is prohibited. Those who tried to do so in the 1980s were arrested, escaping the firing squad due to international pressure. This meant that working on your own has been a crime. By 2010, and due to the great economic crisis, the government of General Raul Castro has changed this norm, allowing some self-employment (” cuenta propismo”) in about seventy-eight minor occupations that will be heavily taxed and regulated. No professional careers were included in this sort of economic “opening” in response to the layoff of over 500,000 persons from the inflated governmental-economic apparatus.


Furthermore, it is important to remember that the Castro government has been “selling” for many years Cuban labor to other countries, where the regime receives the lion’s share of the workers’ pay. Likewise, in Cuba those working for foreign companies cannot be hired directly by them but through a government agency that has the monopoly of hiring. That agency also keeps over 60 percent of what those workers are paid in hard currency. This abuse and exploitation is possible thanks to the totalitarian nature of Cuba’s socioeconomic structure, with its multiple inherent controls, as tentacles, but quite invisible to the foreign visitor, with very limited or no contact with the people.


The right to rest (Article 24), supposedly “guaranteed” by Article 44 of the Constitution, has been systemtically curtailed. Cubans have been forced through the aforementioned repressive mechanisms to participate in the so-called “voluntary labor” (without pay). This has included work in agricultural activities to cleanup in their neighborhoods. On top of this, citizens are compelled to participate in the many other activities starting with the labor unions and continuing with the Mass Organizations, especially the CDRs. This will include all the marches to which they are convoked, and as if that was not enough, they have to spend much of their free time procuring the essentials for their families. Some believe that this exhausting kind of life is something deliberate to keep the mind of the people geared to survival, without time to think about subversive activities.


We can now conclude that the Cuban people have witnessed the disappearance of their path to a true realization of the rights and liberties proclaimed in the Human Rights Declaration (Articles 28, 29, and 30). All the rights proclaimed by the UN in 1948 have been violated in various degrees by Castro’s imposed totalitarian system.


Since the dawn of hope for the enjoyment of liberty with democracy and social justice that Castro heralded at his arrival to power in January 1959, the country has seen itself sunken into a dark night of unparalleled economic exploitation, destruction, repression, intolerance, and discrimination against all who try to attain those rights and liberties. It cannot be overlooked the unnecessary suffering resulting from the inherently highly inefficient economic system, destroying what took over four hundred years to build by the diligent work and entrepreneurial ability of the Cuban people.


Today, the Cuban people seem to be telling the world about the urgent need for international support and respect for human rights in their unfortunate country. On February 23, 2010, the terrible death of political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo—a humble young black mason—as a result of the eighty-three-day hunger strike, who was protesting the denigrating conditions prevailing in the Cuban Gulag, underscores the urgent need for that support. Likewise, the subsequent international exposure of the brutal treatment endured in April 2010, in Havana’s streets by the Ladies in White (female relatives of political prisoners incarcerated in 2003), while peacefully marching in the streets requesting the freedom of their relatives, dramatizes even more the dire need of that support. Ultimately, the goal of Zapata, and others who planned to follow his example, is not only the concern for the prison conditions, but also the desire to see a genuine democracy with justice and respect of human rights for all.

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