Restrictions on freedom of expression, association and assembly persisted. Journalists and political dissidents faced harassment and intimidation by security officials. Four prisoners of conscience were released early in the year; 58 remained imprisoned. Cubans continued to feel the negative impact of the US embargo particularly in relation to the right to food.
In February, parliament named Raúl Castro President of the Council of State, making him the country’s head of state and government. Cuba signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; no date was set for ratification.
Cuba and the EU officially renewed ties, five years after the EU imposed sanctions following the arrest and sentencing of 75 prisoners of conscience in March 2003. The EU lifted its diplomatic sanctions and initiated a dialogue with the authorities on various issues, including human rights.
"Journalists, political dissidents and critics of the government were often detained..."
Economic reforms in the agricultural sector began to be introduced during the first half of the year. However, the devastation caused by several hurricanes hampered the government’s reform initiatives. According to official sources, tens of thousands of people were rendered homeless as a result of hurricanes and the country suffered losses in agricultural production of nearly US$1 billion.
Cubans were allowed for the first time to buy mobile phones and computers for personal use, but access to the internet remained restricted. In October, for the 17th consecutive year, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution, supported by 185 countries, calling on the USA to end its embargo on Cuba.
Impact of the US embargo
The US embargo and related measures continued to have a negative effect on the exercise of human rights. Freedom of movement between Cuba and the USA and family reunification remained severely limited. Also the extra-territorial application of US legislation limited the Cuban government’s capacity to buy, among other things, food, medical supplies and construction materials from Cuba’s trading partners. However, Cuba was allowed to buy staple foods from the USA worth more than US$530 million, which had to be paid for in cash and in advance.
Freedom of expression and association
Freedom of expression remained limited, with all mass media outlets remaining under state control. Journalists working for independent and alternative news agencies continued to face harassment and intimidation in the form of short-term detention and monitoring by security officers. Opposition political groups and many civil and professional associations continued to be barred from gaining legal status. In December, more than 30 people were briefly detained by the Cuban authorities, preventing them from celebrating International Human Rights Day in Havana.
- Journalist Carlos Serpa Maceira, of the Sindical Press news agency, was arrested at his home in Havana in June 2008. He was charged with engaging in “provocative and mercenary acts under the guidance of the United States Interests Section in Cuba.” Officials ordered Carlos Serpa Maceira to stop working as a journalist or face a forcible return to his home town. He was later released.
- In July, the authorities prevented scores of dissidents from participating in several events in Havana, including the civil society meeting “Agenda for Transition” and an event organized by the United States Interests Section to celebrate US Independence Day. Some were prevented from travelling to the capital, others in Havana were prevented from leaving their homes, and around 30 were detained by police and then released a few hours later or the following day.
Prisoners of conscience
At the end of the year, 58 prisoners of conscience continued to be held solely for the expression of their political views. In February, four prisoners of conscience were released on health grounds, but were ordered to leave the country. There were reports of harassment and intimidation against prisoners of conscience and political prisoners by other prisoners and prison guards.
The justice system continued to be used to harass political dissidents opposed to the Cuban government, in particular using charges of “dangerousness”. Journalists, political dissidents and critics of the government were often detained for 24 or 48 hours and then released without charge.
- Gorki Águila, a musician in the band Porno Para Ricardo, was arrested and charged with “dangerousness” in Havana in August because his lyrics were critical of the government. On 29 August the court dropped the charge of “dangerousness”, but convicted him of the lesser offence of civil disobedience, for which he was fined.
In April, President Raúl Castro announced that nearly all death sentences were to be commuted to life sentences. There were no executions in 2008.
In December, Cuba abstained for the second time in the vote on a UN General Assembly resolution calling for a worldwide moratorium on executions.
Amnesty International reportsCuba: Submission to the UN Universal Periodic Review – Fourth session of the UPR Working Group of the Human Rights Council, February 2009 (8 September 2008)
Cuba: Five years too many, new government must release jailed dissidents (18 March 2008)