Since the fall of the US-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1959 Cuba has been a one-party state led by Fidel Castro, a devotee of Marxist-Leninist theory who brought revolution to the country and created the western hemisphere’s first communist state.
Fidel Castro’s health has been an issue for some years. In July 2006 the ageing president temporarily stepped aside after undergoing surgery, and on 19 February 2008, Fidel Castro officially handed over control of the government to his brother and designated successor, Raul Castro. His government has continued to employ the totalitarian methods used by its predecessors in repressing independent journalism, though it is now more common for dissidents to be subject to routine harassment rather than major trials.
The Cuban media are tightly controlled by the government and journalists must operate within the confines of laws against anti-government propaganda and the insulting of officials which carry penalties of up to three years in prison. The Criminal Code is the primary legal instrument used to repress freedom of expression in Cuba. Freedom of expression is limited by laws that have criminalized disseminating enemy propaganda, ‘unauthorized news’ and insulting patriotic symbols. According to figures provided by Reporters Without Borders, Cuba has the second highest number of journalists in prison after China.
Around 80 people were detained in Cuba as part of a crackdown on alleged dissidents that began on 18 March 2003. 35 writers, journalists and librarians were sentenced during one-day trials held on 3/4 April 2003 under laws governing the protection of the Cuban state. Political prisoners are held in extremely poor conditions; reports have shown that they suffer physical and sexual abuse by other inmates and guards and often do not receive medical attention. Any criticism of their conditions leads to reprisals in the form of solitary confinement and restricted visitation rights. According to Reporters Without Borders, 24 journalists were still serving their prison sentences as of 2008, most of them imprisoned for threatening “the national independence and economy of Cuba.”
The Government heavily monitors internet communications. The Law of Security of Information prohibits Cubans from having internet services unless they belong to certain official organisations. The Government has recently been targeting writers that attempt to disseminate information of human rights abuse in Cuba via the Internet.
There is however some civil society activism in Cuba. In May 2006, activist Oswaldo Payá published his proposal for a new constitution, which included greater freedoms for Cuban people. This document was based on the results of his ‘Todos Cubanos’ programme, an initiative that involved consultation with thousands of Cuban citizens.
The Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) are another important civil society group in Cuba. These wives and family members of political prisoners hold peaceful vigils and marches for the release of their relatives. The Damas de Blanco were awarded the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in December 2005. They were not permitted by the Cuban Government to travel to collect their award. In October 2006, the Damas de Blanco were honoured with another award- the Human Rights First Prize for 2006.
Most recently, a wide group of key opposition figures, including Oswaldo Paya, Damas de Blanco and Martha Beatriz Roque, have formed an alliance known as “Unidad por la Libertad”.
At a governmental level, there are certainly clear avenues Cuba could follow towards greater political openness. In December 2007, the Cuban government announced its intention to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The ratification, if it occurs, would represent an important break from Cuba’s longstanding refusal to recognize these core human rights treaties. In February 2008, Cuba gave signatures only to these UN treaties.
Since becoming President in February 2008, Raul Castro has implemented only modest social and economic reforms, despite promising more. The Cuban economy also still suffers as a result of the US economic embargo, yet there is little chance of this being lifted while Cuba continues to restrict political freedoms and mistreat its political prisoners.
Nonetheless, the arrival of Barack Obama as the new US President has stirred fresh hopes for the fate of prisoners of conscience in Cuba. Mr Obama said during his election campaign that a scaling back of the US embargo would be possible, but only if concrete steps were taken by Havana towards democracy, including the freeing of political prisoners.
Cuba’s stance in relation to the US has also softened. In a speech in January 2009 Raul Castro said that he would be willing to engage in talks with Mr Obama, yet he still insisted on non-conditionality for such engagement. In general, the Cuban government remains wary of US demands relating to political freedoms or human rights issues, and this could continue to be a sticking point.
There is also hope that greater political openness in Cuba may come since the restoration of co-operation with the EU in October 2008. However, the hope that external diplomacy may eventually translate into greater internal freedoms is for now stifled given that Cuba’s strongest allies continue to be Venezuela, China and Russia.
Sources: For further information, please see the annual reports from Amnesty International (http://www.amnesty.org/), the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (http://www.cpj.org/), Reporters Without Borders (http://www.rsf.fr/), The Inter American Press Association (www.sipiapa.com) and the International Freedom of Expression eXchange (http://ifex.org/) . See also Human Rights Watch (http://www.hrw.org/). For more general information on Cuba, see the Foreign and Commonwealth Office country profile (www.fco.gov.uk).
Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/writersinprison/campaigns/cubacampaign/Cuba/