Summary: Cuba is a repressive totalitarian dictatorship in which the rights of individuals are subordinated to the needs of the state.
Cubans have “the rights to assembly, demonstration and association” (Article 54), but “None of the freedoms which are recognized for citizens can be exercised contrary … to the existence and objectives of the socialist state, or contrary to the decision of the Cuban people to build socialism and communism” (Art. 62).
Free speech and a free press are guaranteed, but only “in keeping with the objectives of a socialist society.” The press, radio, television, cinema “and other mass media” are “state or social property and can never be private property” (Art. 53). The Constitution allows freedom of artistic expression “as long as its content is not contrary to the Revolution” (Art. 39d).
Only recently have Cubans been allowed to own cell phones, but the cost of wireless service is several months’ salary (a typical worker makes $17 per month), and must be paid in convertible pesos, which can be acquired only by those who have U.S. dollars. Computer ownership was recently legalized, but access to the Internet is severely restricted with respect to who can gain access and what sites are available.
The Constitution “recognizes, respects and guarantees freedom of religion” (Art. 8), but religious groups that do not register with the state are subject to official harassment and repression. Assemblies of more than three (three!) people—for religious meetings or any other purpose—are illegal without government permission.
Movement within Cuba is restricted. Police routinely stop cars to interrogate passengers. Dissidents are often sent from urban centers back to their home towns for years, on grounds that they are “socially dangerous.” The penalty for attempting to flee the island illegally by boat or raft is several years in prison. The permissions required to leave the country legally cost about three years’ salary. Since much Cuban immigration was illegal, it’s difficult to get an accurate tally of how many fled Cuba. The ballpark figures seem to be over 100,000 from 1960 to 1979, and another 125,000 during the Mariel boatlifts of 1980.
According to the Constitution, Cuba has only one political party—the Communist Party—and it is “the highest leading force of society and of the state, which organizes and guides the common effort toward the goals of the construction of socialism and the progress toward a communist society.” In the elections for the National Assembly held in 2008, the Communist Party won 98% of the vote. In the elections within the National Assembly for president, Raul won 100% of the vote. While membership in the Communist Party is not mandatory, it is required de facto for promotion or for holding any office.
The U.S. State Department estimates that there are some 200 political prisoners in Cuba and that another 5,000 people are or have been held on the vague charge of “dangerousness,” for which no proof is required. Police can detain without a warrant anyone accused of a crime against state security. Detainees can be held for years without a trial.
Two years of military service are required for both men and women. The current size of the armed forces is about 49,000, down from a peak of 235,000 in 1994, when Cuba was sending “advisors” to help Communist rebellions around the world. Since much of the Cuban army was funded by Soviet subsidies, the army’s shrinking size reflects financial considerations rather than a turn toward pacifism.