CubaBrief: Freedom in the World 2021 Report rates Cuba among the 25 most “Not Free” in the world. Officials risk health of dissidents in midst of pandemic

The human rights situation in Cuba remains dire in 2021. Freedom House in their Freedom in the World 2021 rated Cuba Not Free and scored the country 13 out of a possible 100 for political rights and civil liberties. Cuba is among the 25 most unfree countries on the planet, and shares this dubious distinction with, among others, the People’s Republic of China, Belarus, Laos, North Korea, and the occupied country of Tibet.

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However I will quibble with the claim in the Freedom House report that the “the government achieved some success in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic, reporting just 145 deaths to the World Health Organization by year’s end, but the global crisis took a heavy toll on the economy.” The Cuban government has a decades long record of under-reporting deaths in other health crises, and locking up whistleblowers that disclose the real numbers.

Respected economist Carmelo Mesa-Lago in a Harvard webinar on May 1, 2020 noted that in Cuba, “there is no independent entity that can report its own [coronavirus] figures or criticize the government’s data.”

Data reviewed by the Miami Herald and reported by Nora Gamez on May 5, 2020 indicated that “in the week ending on March 21, 2020 there were 144,095 newly reported ‘acute respiratory illnesses.’ By March 28, the number of new weekly cases of people with acute respiratory diseases rose to 188,816, more than double the weekly average this year. ‘Not only could the increase be explained by a COVID-19 outbreak, it most likely does reflect the COVID-19 outbreak based on when it started and what has been going on in the world,’ said Dr. Aileen Marty, an expert on infectious tropical diseases and director of the Florida International University Health Travel Medicine Program.”

Footage emerged in April 2020 of a dead body in a street in Pinar del Río, and police afraid of being infected refusing to take the body.

Diario de Cuba reported on November 12, 2020 that ” examples abound showing that the information disclosed distorts case statistics and hides the severity of outbreaks.”

Political repression is prioritized over public health concerns. Christian Solidarity Worldwide reported on March 2, 2021 that Maria Antonieta Colunga Olivera, wife of Cuban journalist Yoel “Yoe” Suarez ” was abruptly summoned by Cuban State Security on [March 1, 2021] to the Immigration Police Station in Nuevo Vedado, where she was interrogated about the work of her husband,” and threatened. Yoel has been targeted “because of his work covering human rights issues, including freedom of religion or belief.”  They disregarded the danger to her and others in having her travel and meeting in an enclosed space in the middle of the pandemic.

Maria Antonieta Colunga Olivera

Maria Antonieta Colunga Olivera

Freedom House’s overall assessment in its 2021 report is spot on: “Cuba’s one-party communist state outlaws political pluralism, bans independent media, suppresses dissent, and severely restricts basic civil liberties. The government continues to dominate the economy despite recent reforms that permit some private-sector activity. The regime’s undemocratic character has not changed despite a generational transition in political leadership between 2018 and 2019 that included the introduction of a new constitution.”

On March 8, 2021 at 10:30am Freedom House, the Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs, and the Vaclav Havel Program for Human Rights and Diplomacy will host a free webinar on “Freedom in the World 2021: Political Rights and Civil Liberties in Latin America” and registration is now open. There should be an opportunity to probe further and ask questions.

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Last week on February 23rd CFC highlighted the case of four political prisoners, and unfortunately we have a concerning update for one of them. We are deeply concerned with what is being done to Virgilio Mantilla Arango.

Virgilio Mantilla Arango

Virgilio Mantilla Arango

Political prisoner Virgilio Mantilla Arango sentenced to 7 months in prison is currently in isolation and sick in the Kilo 8 Prison in Camagüey, reported independent journalist Yadisley Rodríguez. On February 18, 2021, Mantilla Arango was transferred to Kilo 8 Prison, a prison of greater severity that does not correspond to the sentence imposed on him. There he is being denied medical assistance. “Virgilio is in 26 (Kilo 8 Prison) and he had two inmates suspected of having Coronavirus. We think they put him there so that he could get infected because he only has four months [left on his sentence] and we don’t know why they transferred him to that prison. They continue to threaten that he cannot speak to us because they are going to put him in a punishment cell or they are going to take him to maximum security. When I spoke with him, he said that he has a lot of discomfort, a lot of sore throat, a lot of pain in the lungs, and pain in his back”, Yadisley Rodríguez said in a voice message.

Freedom House, March 3, 2021

Freedom in the World 2021: Cuba

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Overview

Cuba’s one-party communist state outlaws political pluralism, bans independent media, suppresses dissent, and severely restricts basic civil liberties. The government continues to dominate the economy despite recent reforms that permit some private-sector activity. The regime’s undemocratic character has not changed despite a generational transition in political leadership between 2018 and 2019 that included the introduction of a new constitution.

Key Developments in 2020

  • The government achieved some success in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic, reporting just 145 deaths to the World Health Organization by year’s end, but the global crisis took a heavy toll on the economy. In July, partly in response, the government announced that it would liberalize rules regulating the tiny private sector, including by allowing private businesses to trade more freely and obtain legal status as enterprises, eliminating the restrictive list of permitted occupations for self-employment, and expanding experiments with nonagricultural cooperatives.

  • The government at times cited the pandemic to justify crackdowns on dissident gatherings. In November, when members of the Movimiento San Isidro (MSI)—a collective of dissident artists—gathered and went on hunger strike to protest the arrest of rapper Denis Solís, police violently detained them on the pretext of controlling the spread of the coronavirus. This led to a sit-in by numerous artists and intellectuals at the Ministry of Culture. While the government initially agreed to negotiate with the group, protest participants later reported police harassment, intimidation, and charges of violating health restrictions.

  • During the year, the government continued to expand its list of so-called regulados, the more than 200 Cuban citizens who are not allowed to travel abroad due to their dissident political activities, human rights advocacy, or practice of independent journalism. The government also stepped up interrogations, threats, detentions, raids, and exorbitant fines targeting independent journalists and activists who publishing critical stories on foreign websites or social media.

Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1. 0-4 pts

Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 0/4

Under the 2019 constitution, the president and vice president of the republic are chosen to serve up to two five-year terms by the National Assembly, and the prime minister and other members of the Council of Ministers are designated by the National Assembly upon the proposal of the president. In practice, these processes ratify candidates who have been preselected by the ruling Communist Party of Cuba (PCC).

Miguel Díaz-Canel was elected as president of the republic under the new constitutional system in a nearly unanimous National Assembly vote in October 2019. In December of that year, he named Manuel Marrero as prime minister. Díaz-Canel had been the president of the Council of State, Cuba’s top executive office under the old constitution, since 2018, when he succeeded Raúl Castro in a tightly controlled transfer of power. However, Castro, who had succeeded his brother Fidel in 2008, continued to wield considerable power as first secretary of the PCC as of 2020.

A2. 0-4 pts

Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 0/4

The unicameral National Assembly is directly elected to serve five-year terms, but a PCC-controlled commission designates all candidates, presenting voters with a single candidate for each seat. Those who receive more than 50 percent of the valid votes cast are deemed elected. The National Assembly in turn selects the 21 members of the Council of State, a body that exercises legislative power between the assembly’s two brief annual sessions.

In the 2018 National Assembly elections, all 605 of the approved candidates were deemed elected.

A3. 0-4

Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 0/4

The only Cuban elections that offer a choice of more than one candidate per office are those for municipal assemblies, but no campaigning is allowed. This did not change under the new electoral law unanimously approved in 2019 following ratification of the new constitution, which retained the system of PCC-controlled electoral and candidacy commissions. However, the new law eliminated provincial assemblies, calling instead for municipal assemblies to approve provincial governors proposed by the president, and cut the number of National Assembly delegates to 474 as of the 2023 elections.

Full report here ]

https://freedomhouse.org/country/cuba/freedom-world/2021

Christian Solidarity Worldwide, March 2, 2021

Wife of Cuban journalist summoned and interrogated

Yoe Suarez and Maria Antonieta Colunga Olivera

Yoe Suarez and Maria Antonieta Colunga Olivera

2 Mar 2021

The wife of a Cuban journalist who has been targeted by the government because of his work covering human rights issues, including freedom of religion or belief, was abruptly summoned by Cuban State Security on 1 March. Maria Antonieta Colunga Olivera was given three hours’ notice to report to the Immigration Police Station in Nuevo Vedado, where she was interrogated about the work of her husband, Yoel “Yoe” Suarez.

According to Mrs Colunga Olivera, a state security officer hand delivered a police summons at around 10.30am. He told her that it was for the same day, despite the fact that the printed copy indicated that the citation was for 29 March. She decided she would go immediately, given that the location is 9km from where she lives and because reliable transport is scarce in Cuba.

Once at the station, two state security officers informed Mrs Colunga Olivera that they wanted to have a conversation with her about her husband’s work. Mrs Colunga Olivera responded that she was there involuntarily, noting that the summons indicated she could be fined if she did not comply, and that as such this was not a conversation, but an interrogation, and that “whatever they needed to know about my husband, his journalistic work and anything else, it seemed wiser to ask him, that I would only answer questions related to me.”

The interrogation lasted around 30 minutes, during which the officers asked about her work for the Catholic aid organisation Caritas. They repeatedly asked if she thought her husband’s work as an independent journalist could affect her work or her employer. Mrs Colunga Olivera declined to answer questions related to her family, including specific questions about the health of her mother.

In a statement posted on her Facebook page, Mrs Colunga Olivera said: “They repeated the stated objective of the meeting more than once: that as a wife I could “help” my husband, influence him, advise him to reevaluate his professional practice and not continue down that path. More than once, I made it perfectly clear to them that I greatly admire Yoe as a professional and that I would in no way interfere with his work, except to support him. Aside from the awkwardness of a situation like this, I did not feel bad, nervous or cornered; and I do not say this as a compliment to the security officers’ façade of kindness… maybe I just want to highlight this to calm the friends and family who will read this, and a little also so as not to overlook the serenity and peace that God has instilled in me, because even in the bleakest moments there are things for which to give thanks.”

CSW’s Head of Advocacy Anna-Lee Stangl said: “The Cuban authorities not only forced Maria Antonieta to travel across the city in the middle of a pandemic and subjected her to intrusive questions about her work and family, but they made not so subtle threats about the impact of her husband’s work on her own professional career and place of work. This is also not the first time Yoe’s female relatives have been targeted, his mother has also been summoned on two occasions, where she has been threatened and interrogated. It is despicable that the Cuban government would go after his close family members in this way, and to even go so far as to try to coerce or coopt them into working with them to try to stop him from carrying out his work. We stand with Maria Antonieta and Yoe, commending them for their integrity and commitment to the truth, and we call on the Cuban government to immediately stop its harassment of this family.”

https://www.csw.org.uk/2021/03/02/press/5159/article.htm