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Pope John Paul II’s January 1998 pilgrimage to Cuba sparked hope that the government would ease its repressive tactics. The papal visit provided unprecedented opportunities for public demonstrations of faith–in a country that imposed tight restrictions on religious expression in 1959 and was officially atheist until 1992–and was attended by an enormous international press contingent. Although Cuba refused visas to some foreign journalists and pressured some domestic critics, the pope’s calls for freedom of religion, conscience, and expression and the release of political prisoners created an unprecedented air of openness. Following the papal visit, Cuba released some one hundred political prisoners, but most of these had served the majority of their sentences and police required them to refrain from opposition activities. Cuba freed seventeen prisoners on the condition that they accept exile in Canada, violating their right to remain in their homeland. As 1998 drew to a close, Cuba’s stepped-up prosecutions and harassment of dissidents, along with its refusal to grant amnesty to hundreds of remaining political prisoners or reform its criminal code, marked a disheartening return to heavy-handed repression.

Cuban laws allowed the government to silence opponents under a veil of legality. The government rejected pleas to repeal offensive provisions such as the crime of enemy propaganda and spreading false news, which criminalized dissent and independent reporting. Cuban law broadly defined sedition as including nonviolent opposition that “perturb[ed] the socialist order.” Cuba’s laws against insulting public figures, mass organizations, and dead heroes also sweepingly denied freedom of speech. Justice Minister Roberto Díaz Sotolongo justified the restrictions by explaining that, as Spanish laws protected the monarch, Cuba also had laws to protect its “king,” Fidel Castro. Cuba’s provision against contempt for authority (desacato ), which barred truthfulness as a defense, punished those who offended high-ranking authorities with one to three years in prison. The criminal code’s dangerousness ( el estado peligroso ) and official warning ( advertencia oficial ) provisions permitted authorities to imprison or mandate police surveillance of individuals who demonstrated criminal tendencies but had committed no criminal act. Cuba retained on its books the crime of illegal exit, which prohibited unapproved emigration. Cuba’s associations law effectively barred the establishment of independent groups, leaving members at risk of up to one year in prison.

Cuban legislation also undercut the right to a fair trial by allowing political figures to control the courts, granting broad authority for warrantless arrests and pre-trial detentions and restricting the right to a defense. Charging dissidents with state security crimes, such as sedition or enemy propaganda, afforded authorities the legal right to impose lengthy pre-trial detentions and to conduct closed trials.

Several trials in 1998 demonstrated Cuba’s willingness to use the criminal code to crush dissent. On August 28, 1998, a Havana court sentenced Reynaldo Alfaro García, vice-president of the Association for the Struggle Against National Injustice (Asociación para la Lucha Frente a la Injusticia Nacional) and a member of the Democratic Solidarity Party (Partido de Solidaridad Democrática, PSD), to three years for spreading false news. Police had arrested him on May 8, 1997, after he called for the release of political prisoners and denounced prison beatings. On April 24, 1998, a Santiago court found Julio César Coizeau Rizo, a member of the Club of Ex Political Prisoners “Geraldo González” (Club de Ex-Presos Políticos “Geraldo González”), guilty of contempt for authority. The court sentenced him to three years for posting some twenty anti-government flyers.

On February 13, 1998, a Santa Clara tribunal sentenced Cecilio Monteagudo Sánchez, a PSD vice-delegate, to four years in prison for enemy propaganda. Cuban police arrested him on September 15, 1997, after he had drafted, but not published, a document calling for abstention from local elections. The same tribunal convicted Juan Carlos Recio Martínez, a local journalist with the Cuba Press agency whom Monteagudo Sánchez had asked to type the document, of failing to comply with his duty to denounce ( incumplimiento del deber de denunciar ) and sentenced him to one year in a labor camp without internment ( correccional sin internamiento ).
In late September 1998, Havana prosecutors charged the four leaders of the Internal Dissidents’ Working Group (Grupo de Trabajo de la Disidencia Interna, GTDI), economists Marta Beatriz Roque Cabello and Vladimiro Roca Antúnez, professor Félix Antonio Bonne Carcasses, and attorney René Gómez Manzano, with sedition. Cuban authorities already had held them for over fourteen months in maximum security prisons, since their July 16, 1997 arrests. At this writing, Cuban prosecutors sought a six-yearterm for Roca Antúnez and five-year sentences for the other three leaders. 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. Throughout 1998 Cuba ignored high-level appeals for their release, including pleas from the pope and the Canadian prime minister.

On November 18, 1997, a Santiago tribunal tried Dr. Dessy Mendoza Rivero, president of the Independent Medical College of Santiago (Colegio Médico Independiente de Santiago), found him guilty of enemy propaganda, and sentenced him to eight years. Cuban police arrested Dr. Mendoza in June 1997, shortly after he alerted the international press of a dengue fever epidemic in Santiago. On November 11, 1997, a Santiago court sentenced Orestes Rodríguez Horruitiner, a local leader of two opposition groups, to four years for enemy propaganda. Police arrested him in July 1997 after searching his home and seizing books by prominent leaders of Latin American independence movements–José Martí, Máximo Gómez, and Antonio Macéo–which later served as evidence of his crime.

Whether held for political or common crimes, inmates endured severe hardships in Cuba’s prisons. Most prisoners faced malnourishment on the prison diet and suffered in overcrowded cells without sufficient medical attention. Prison authorities insisted that all detainees participate in politically oriented reeducation sessions, such as chanting “Long live Fidel” or “Socialism or Death,” or face punitive measures including beatings and solitary confinement. Prison guards in men’s facilities relied on “prisoners’ councils” ( consejos de reclusos ) to maintain internal discipline with beatings and control over the meager food rations. Prison authorities restricted inmates’ access to receiving religious guidance, in some cases with interrogations about their religious beliefs. In some prisons, pre-trial detainees were held together with convicts and minors with adults. Minors also risked indefinite detention in juvenile facilities.

Cuba’s refusal to allow prison monitoring made arriving at a precise number of political prisoners impossible. In recent years, the numbers of political prisoners declined due to a general trend toward shorter prison terms. One Cuban human rights group estimated that, following the papal releases, approximately 400 political prisoners remained. Human Rights Watch interviews with former political prisoners, dissident groups, and prisoners’ family members revealed that Cuban political prisoners face serious human rights abuses. Cuba’s confinement of nonviolent political prisoners with prisoners convicted of violent crimes was degrading and dangerous. Guards imposed undue restrictions on political prisoners’ visits with family members. Prison authorities also punished political prisoners who denounced prison abuses or failed to participate in political reeducation or wear prison uniforms.

Many Cuban political prisoners spent excessive periods in pre-trial detention, often in isolation cells. Following conviction, they faced additional punitive periods in solitary confinement. Police or prison guards often heightened the punitive nature of solitary confinement with additional sensory deprivation, by darkening cells, removing clothing, or restricting food and water. The punitive and intimidatory measures against political prisoners that caused severe pain and suffering and the retaliations against those who denounced abuses violated Cuba’s obligations under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which it ratified in 1995.

The July 1998 death of Reinery Marrero Toledo, while he was in police custody, raised concern about police brutality and torture. On June 30, 1998, Havana police arrested Marrero Toledo, accusing him as an accessory to sacrificing livestock ( sacrificio ilegal de ganado mayor ). On July 9, 1998, agents of the Technical Department of Investigations in Havana (Departamento Técnico de Investigaciones) told his family that he had committed suicide by hanging himself with a sheet. However, a family member who viewed his corpse noted that it was heavily bruised, calling the police claim into question.

In early 1998, Guantánamo Provincial Prison authorities reportedly ordered beatings of political prisoners who denounced prison conditions, including Néstor Rodríguez Lobaina, Jorge Luis García Pérez (also known as Antúnez), Francisco Herodes Díaz Echemendía, and Orosman Betancourt Dexidor. On April 11, 1998, Capt. Hermés Hernández and Lt. René Orlando allegedly beat severely Bernardo Arévalo Padrón, a journalist serving a six-year sentence for contempt for authority at the Ariza prison in Cienfuegos. In a positive step, Cuban military prosecutors accused both officers of wrongdoing in early May, but at this writing, it remained unclear whether the two had been arrested or tried. On April 5, 1998, common prisoners at the Canaleta Prison in Matanzas beat Jorge Luis Cruz Arancibia. Prison authorities reportedly refused to provide Cruz Arancibia with medical care for his injuries.

Cuba’s criminal code retained the death penalty for many crimes. Although Cuba tightly guarded information about the application of death sentences, Human Rights Watch received credible reports that a firing squad executed Daniel Reyes, an inmate in the Las Tunas Provincial Prison, on October 29, 1997. Cuba’s reliance on the Council of State–a political entity presided over by President Castro–as the ultimate arbiter in death penalty cases undercut any appearance of judicial independence.

After an apparent opening early in 1998, Cuba took firm action against nonviolent government critics as the year progressed with surveillance, harassment, and intimidations. Cuba used short-term arbitrary detentions together with official warnings of future prosecution to urge activists to leave Cuba, abandon their opposition activities, or distance themselves from “counterrevolutionary” colleagues or family members.

On August 28, 1998, about twenty people protested the Havana trial of activist Reynaldo Alfaro García. In early September, Havana police arrested seven of the protesters and detained them for twelve to forty-eight hours. The detentions prohibited the activists from participating in a September 8, 1998 march celebrating the feast day of Cuba’s patron saint, Our Lady of Charity of Cobre. Police questioned the detainees about the Alfaro García demonstration and about their plans for the march. The detainees were: Nancy de Varona, a leader of the Thirteenth of July Movement (Movimiento 13 de Julio); Ofelia Nardo, of the Confederation of Democratic Workers of Cuba (Confederación de Trabajadores Democráticos de Cuba); Vicky Ruiz Labrit, of the Committee of Cubans in Peaceful Opposition (Comité Cubano de Opositores Pacíficos); Leonel Morejón Almagro, the national leader of the CubanCouncil (Concilio Cubano); Miriam García Chávez, of the College of Independent Teachers (Colegio de Pedagogos Independientes); and Dr. Oscar Elías Bicest González and Rolando Muñóz Yyobre, of the Lawton Human Rights Foundation (Fundación Lawton de Derechos Humanos). State security agents also impeded thirty human rights and other activists who had gathered at the Havana home of Isabel del Pino Sotolongo, of the Christ the King Movement (Movimiento Cristo Rey), from taking part in the feast day celebrations.

Cuba’s independent journalists faced mistreatment throughout the year. State security officials in Havana arrested Luis López Prendes, director of the Independent Press Bureau of Cuba (Buro de Prensa Independiente de Cuba, BPIC), on September 7, 1998 and detained him for over forty-eight hours. Police detained Luis Alberto Lazo, a reporter for the New Press Agency (Agencia Nueva Prensa, ANP) in Artemisa for approximately twenty-four hours on June 17, 1998 and gave him an official warning. Santiago-based state security agents briefly detained Margarita Sara Sosa Llero, a senior correspondent with the Independent Press Agency of Cuba (Agencia de Prensa Independiente de Cuba, APIC) on November 17, 1997. The government also appeared to single out independent reporters with the discriminatory application of legal measures. On September 23, 1998, for example, officials told ANP journalist Mercedes Moreno that she could not reside legally in her sister’s Havana home and imposed heavy fines on both women. In June 1998, Cuba denied Raul Rivero, Cuba Press’s founder and director, permission to travel to Spain on a personal visit.

The government exercised strict control over labor rights and refused to legalize independent unions and agricultural cooperatives. Havana police detained José Orlando González Bordón, of the Federation of Cuban Workers (Federación de Trabajadores Cubanos), for twenty-four hours in July and for several hours on September 8 and 23, 1998. On July 2, 1998, Havana police detained Evaristo Pérez Rodríguez, vice-president of the Cuban Union of Independent Workers (Unión Sindical de Trabajadores Independientes de Cuba, USTIC) and the president of the Patriotic Union of Independent Christians (Unión Patriótica de Cristianos Independientes), for twenty-four hours. In early May 1998, Cuban authorities prevented a conference of independent cooperatives from taking place in Santiago. On May 5, over one dozen police and members of a Rapid Response Brigade (Brigada de Respuesta Rápida) blocked access to the home of Jorge Béjar, president of the Transition Cooperative (Cooperativa Transición) and host of the conference. Police arrested Béjar and his wife, holding them for several hours. On May 3, police arrested Reynaldo Hernández, president of both the National Alliance of Independent Farmers of Cuba (Alianza Nacional de Agricultores Independientes de Cuba) and the Progreso I agricultural and fishing cooperative in Guantánamo, holding him for two days.

In recent years, Cuba has adopted several laws that tightly control labor rights in businesses backed by foreign investment. Under these laws, the Cuban government played a prominent role in the selection, payment, and firing of workers during 1998, thus barring employees from forming unions or even from entering into independent, direct discussions of labor rights with their foreign employers. In the tourist industry, on-the-job racism emerged as a persistent problem.

Cuba maintained its extensive system of prison agricultural camps and ran clothing assembly, construction, furniture, and other factories at its prisons. Cuba’s insistence that some political prisoners participate in work programs and its inappropriate pressuring of inmates to work without pay in inhuman conditions violated international labor and prison rights standards.













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