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Cuba - Politics

Cuba is an authoritarian state led by Miguel Diaz-Canel, president of the republic, with former president Raul Castro serving as the first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party (CCP). Despite ratifying a new constitution on February 24, Cuba remains a one-party system in which the constitution states the CCP is the only legal political party and the highest political entity of the state. The constitution recognizes the CP as the only legal party and the leading force of society and of the state.

The new constitution includes many sections that restrict citizens’ ability to participate fully in political processes by deeming the CCP as the state’s only legal political party and the “superior driving force of the society and the state.” For example, Article 4 states, “Citizens have the right to combat through any means, including armed combat when other means are not available, anyone who intends to overthrow the political, social, and economic order established by this constitution.” Because the CCP and its ideology are so entrenched in the document, the article effectively empowers ordinary persons to violently attack those who publicly disagree with the party.

The Cuban political system allows for legal and formal channels so that the people can vote for its leaders. Above the municipal level, Cuban elections are choices between candidates preselected by the Cuban Communist Party and related organizations. The municipal elections are one of three tiers of voting in Cuba's government, along with provincial and national elections. National elections are held every five years [eg, 2013, 2018]. Municipal level voting takes place once every two and a half years [eg, 2013, 2015, 2017]. Since the mid 1970s, all municipal elections have had turnouts above 90 percent of eligible voters, though voting isn't compulsory in Cuba. According to government figures, the municipal level elections in 2012 saw turnout just over 90 percent – similar levels to the national and provincial elections of 2013.

Arbitrary arrests and short-term detentions continued to be a common government method for controlling independent public expression and political activity. By law police have wide discretion to stop and question citizens, request identification, and carry out arrests and searches. Police used laws against public disorder, contempt, lack of respect, aggression, and failing to pay minimal or arbitrary fines as ways to detain civil society activists.

Police officials routinely conducted short-term detentions, at times assaulting detainees. The law provides that police officials furnish suspects a signed “act of detention,” noting the basis, date, and location of any detention in a police facility and a registry of personal items seized during a police search, but this law was not always followed. Arbitrary stops and searches were most common in urban areas and at government-controlled checkpoints at the entrances to provinces and municipalities.

The law allows for “preventive detention” for up to four years of individuals not charged with an actual crime, based on a subjective determination of “precriminal dangerousness,” which was defined as the “special proclivity of a person to commit crimes, demonstrated by conduct in manifest contradiction of socialist norms.” Mostly used as a tool to control “antisocial” behaviors, such as substance abuse or prostitution, authorities also used such detention to silence peaceful political opponents. Multiple domestic human rights organizations, including the Spain-based NGO Cuban Prisoners’ Defenders, published lists of persons they considered political prisoners; individuals appearing on these lists remained imprisoned under the “precriminal dangerousness” provision of the law.

The constitution provides for freedom of speech and press only insofar as it “conforms to the aims of socialist society.” Laws banning criticism of government leaders and distribution of antigovernment propaganda carry penalties ranging from three months to 15 years in prison. The government had little tolerance for public criticism of government officials or programs and limited public debate of issues considered politically sensitive. State security regularly harassed the organizers of independent fora for debates on cultural and social topics to force them to stop discussing issues deemed controversial.

The government directly owned all print and broadcast media outlets and all widely available sources of information. News and information programming was generally uniform across all outlets, with the exception of broadcasts of Venezuelan government news programming. The government also controlled nearly all publications and printing presses, and the CP must give prior approval for printing of nearly all publications. The party censored public screenings and performances. The government also limited the importation of printed materials.

Foreign correspondents in the country had limited access to and often were denied interviews with government officials. The law prohibits distribution of printed materials considered “counter-revolutionary” or critical of the government. Foreign newspapers or magazines were generally unavailable outside of tourist areas.

The Cuban Commission on Human Rights and Reconciliation (CCDHRN), an independent human rights nongovernmental organization (NGO), counted 9,940 detentions through the end of the year, compared with 8,616 in 2015. Members of the #TodosMarchamos campaign, which included Damas de Blanco, reported weekly detentions of members to prevent demonstrations. The largest opposition group, Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), also reported an increase in short-term detentions. Long-term imprisonment of peaceful government critics, while rare, sometimes occurred.

The government continued to deny holding any political prisoners but refused access to its prisons and detention centers by international humanitarian organizations and the United Nations.

The number of political prisoners was difficult to determine. Lack of governmental transparency and systemic violations of due process rights obfuscated the true nature of criminal charges, investigations, and prosecutions, allowing government authorities to prosecute and sentence peaceful human rights activists for criminal violations or “dangerousness.” The government used the designation of “counterrevolutionary” for inmates deemed to be political opposition, but it did not release those numbers. The government continued to deny access to its prisons and detentions centers by independent monitors who could help determine the size of the political prisoner population. At least two independent organizations estimated there were 75 to 95 political prisoners. The government closely monitored these organizations, which often faced harassment from state police.

Political prisoners and the general prison population were held in similar conditions. Political prisoners who refused to wear standard prison uniforms were denied certain privileges, such as access to prison libraries and standard reductions in the severity of their sentence (for example, being transferred from a maximum-security to a medium-security prison). Political prisoners also reported that fellow inmates, who they believed were acting on orders of prison authorities, threatened or harassed them.

According to independent reports, state-orchestrated counter protests directed against independent civil society groups and individuals, including the Damas de Blanco and other organizations, were organized to prevent meetings or to shame participants publicly. The Damas de Blanco and other members of the #TodosMarchamos campaign experienced weekly government-sponsored counter protests at their usual gathering place in Havana from January 2016 until March 2016, when the government shut down the demonstrations altogether.

The government also continued to organize repudiation acts in the form of mobs organized to assault and disperse those who assembled peacefully. Participants arrived in government-owned buses or were recruited by government officials from nearby workplaces or schools. Participants arrived and departed in shifts, chanted revolutionary slogans, sang revolutionary songs, and verbally taunted the targets of the protest. The targets of this harassment at times suffered physical assault or property damage.

In January 2013 the government largely dropped travel restrictions that prevented citizens from leaving the island, but these reforms were not universally applied, and authorities denied passport requests for certain opposition figures or harassed them upon their return to the country.

The government continued to require several classes of citizens to obtain permission for emigrant travel, including highly specialized medical personnel; military or security personnel; many government officials, including academics; and some former political prisoners or well-known activists. In December 2015 the government reimposed exit permit requirements on medical personnel for nonimmigrant travel, reversing a 2012 law that simplified the process by only requiring a supervisor’s permission.

The law provides for imprisonment of up to three years or a fine of 500 nonconvertible pesos (CUP) ($20) for first-time “rafters” (those who attempted to depart using clandestinely constructed vessels). The largest fine reported during the year 2016 was 3,000 CUP ($120) for an unauthorized departure from the country. Most persons caught attempting unauthorized departures via sea were detained briefly. In the case of military or police defectors, or those traveling with children, the punishment could be more severe. Prison terms were also more common for persons attempting to flee to the United States through the Guantanamo U.S. Naval Station.

All 612 candidates in the February 2013 National Assembly elections were prescreened by government-run bodies and, once approved by the CP, ran for office uncontested. All candidates for office were preapproved by government-run commissions, which rejected independent candidacies without explanation or the right of appeal. All 612 candidates elected in February 2013 and serving during the year were either CP members or affiliated and approved by the CP.

Government-run bodies pre-screened all candidates in the April 2015 municipal elections and, once approved by the CP, candidates ran for office mostly uncontested. The first round of voting took place on April 19. Runoff votes were held on 26 April 2015 for any positions where no candidate secured more than 50 percent of the vote.

According to the National Electoral Council (CNE), 167,263 Cubans stepped forward as potential candidates. Around 44 percent of the hopefuls were women. The final candidates vied for positions in Cuba's 12,589 municipal councils, with between two and eight candidates required by law for each position. Any of Cuba's roughly 8 million eligible voters can run, but not along party lines. Municipal elections are strictly non-partisan and very little campaigning took place. Instead, candidates wooed voters familiar with their track records as responsible members of the community.

Over 7.7 million Cubans out of 8 million registered voters cast their ballots to elect close to 12,600 delegates to the country’s Municipal Assemblies, which function as local councils overseeing services such as water and power. Cuban assembly members eleted at the local level hail from diverse sectors of society, and usually continue to work at their regular jobs in addition to their parliamentary duties which are unpaid, volunteer positions.

Government-run commissions pre-approved all candidates for office and rejected independent candidacies without explanation or the right of appeal. The government routinely used propaganda campaigns in the state-owned media to criticize opponents. In the April 2015 municipal elections, the government summarily refused some candidates the opportunity to run. Members of unrecognized, dissenting political parties attempted to run in local municipal elections. Two non-CP candidates secured places on the final ballots after being selected by a show of hands in a local neighborhood meeting in March 2015, but ultimately were unsuccessful due to reported tampering with their biographies and government-organized protests to besmirch their names.

The Council of State said 14 June 2017 that voting for municipal assemblies would take place on 22 October 2017 [in fact, it was delayed by a month]. The election timeline had to be modified for this year’s municipal assembly elections due to Hurricane Irma, which hit the island in early September. The first round of elections for municipal representatives was to be held on October 22, 2017, and the second round runoff for candidates who haven't obtained at least 50% of the vote was to be held on October 29th. It did not set the date of voting for the country's parliament, which selects the Council of State and the president. Raul Castro said he would step down as president in February 2018, although he was expected to remain head of the ruling Communist Party.

Cubans elected their municipal authorities Sunday 26 November 2017, in elections without opposition candidates. This will be the first round of votes, the second round was on Nov. 29, and there will be a runoff election if any of the candidates don’t get a majority of votes on Dec. 3.

These votes led to the election of Raúl Castro's replacement in 2018, marking the first generational change in almost six decades. More than eight million over 16 years (in a population of 11.2 million), were called to elect by direct and secret vote to 12,515 councilors among some 30,000 candidates proposed by show of hands at neighborhood assemblies , none of them members of the opposition. The elections are held a day after the discreet commemoration of the first anniversary of the death of Fidel Castro, who put into force in 1976 the unique political-electoral system of Popular Power, which Havana defends as "the most democratic and transparent" and the opposition calls "farce". The vote was not mandatory, but it constitutes an act of "revolutionary reaffirmation" and abstentionism was politically frowned upon.

Three opposition organizations (OTRO18, Candidates for Change and the Autonomous Pinero Party) failed in their attempt to nominate some 550 independent candidates to councilors.

All the expenses needed to run the elections were provided by the national state budget, and therefore no candidate has the need to raise money or contribute their own money to the campaign. The Cuban electoral process doesn't allow discriminatory, offensive, defamatory and demeaning political campaigning and no political, social or financial organization can pay for any campaign.

It was the first step of the process that must end in February (on a date yet to be defined) with the election of the replacement of President Raúl Castro, 86 years old and re-elected in 2013 for his last term of five years, setting in motion the first generational changeover in almost 60 years of communist government.

All the forecasts pointed to the current first vice president, Miguel Diaz-Canel, a 57-year-old engineer who in three decades was gradually climbing the steps of power, in the hands of Raúl. However, nothing indicates that Raúl would leave the leadership of the ruling Communist Party (PCC, only), the country's main political office, before his next Congress in 2021. He would be 90 years old by then.

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