Washington, D.C.; April 27th, 2021.- The eighth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party, held from April 16th-19th, failed to discuss the country’s serious human rights problems or take action to address them. Independent Cuban civil society felt that the Congress was ‘more of the same,’ despite the government and official media’s efforts to declare it a success.
Since the Communist Party is the county’s highest authority, the Party Congress, held every five years, invariably gives rise to speculation about changes in the country’s direction. On the first day of this year’s Congress, President Miguel Díaz-Canel tweeted that “here we refine ideas, recognize the past, and discuss the future.”
At the international level, the most newsworthy element of this year’s Congress was the passing of the position of First Secretary of the Party from Raúl Castro to Miguel Díaz-Canel. For Cuban civil society, meanwhile, the Congress was yet another official forum that neglected the most basic issues plaguing the country: difficulty accessing basic goods, lack of access to medicine, the spread of COVID-19, violence against women, and restrictions on the freedoms of expression and association.
The Afro-Cuban leader and national coordinator of the Citizens’ Committee for Racial Integration (CIR) Juan Antonio Madrazo told Race and Equality that “the Party Congress focused more on strengthening the ideological front, which has been showing cracks for some time now, than on addressing the immediate problems in society.” According to Madrazo, “the Party vanguard did not discuss how they will modernize social policy nor how they will use the social protection system to tackle poverty and inequality.”
The Congress also ignored Cuba’s human rights obligations and the structural failure of Cuban law to conform with international human rights law. When Cuba drafted its new Constitution in 2019, the original proposed text stated that “the rights and responsibilities established in this Constitution shall be interpreted in conformity with international human rights treaties ratified by Cuba.” This text was removed during the drafting process, however, and Article 8 of the ratified Constitution now states that the Constitution takes precedence over international treaties such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; and others.
The struggle against racism
Activists and organizations fighting against racism and racial discrimination were concerned by the Congress’ failure to address these issues, especially considering that the government’s National Program Against Racism has had no tangible impact and that few Cubans even know of its existence. “Efforts against racism, homophobia, and gender-based violence were not included because the State considers these issues to be part of an ‘enemy agenda,’” said Madrazo.
CIR’s efforts to hold the National Program Against Racism accountable for its stated goals has brought persecution, attacks, and arbitrary detentions down on its members, as Race and Equality has denounced before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the United Nations. In January 2021, the IACHR granted precautionary measures to Madrazo, Marthadela Tamayo González, and Osvaldo Navarro Veloz because of these violations, and in March, UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders Mary Lawlor called on the Government of Cuba to end the intimidation of CIR’s members.
“The Congress leaves a bitter taste in our mouths – it is clear that repression, ideological vigilance, and constant human rights violations will be the tools to maintain control over diversity,” reflected Madrazo.
Violence against women, repeatedly left off the agenda
President Díaz-Canel’s call to “discuss the future” rang hollow for activists working for a future free of violence against women, particularly those fighting for a proposed law to criminalize gender-based violence. Violence against women and girls was left off the agenda of the Congress.
As of April 23rd, 16 women have been murdered in Cuba this year. Violence is also inflicted constantly against women activists in the form of persecution, deprivation of liberty, and threats. In response, a coalition of women’s groups on the island is demanding a comprehensive law on gender-based violence, formally petitioning the National Assembly to take up the issue on November 21st, 2019.
María Matienzo, a Cuban writer, was unsurprised by the Congress’ failure to address the situation of women and other vulnerable groups, explaining to Race and Equality that the Congress’ purpose was strictly ideological. Although President Díaz-Canel issued a presidential order on April 8th (International Women’s Day) creating a National Program for the Advancement of Women, Matienzo explained that “this is merely an ideological response from the Party to the demands we have been making for two years.”
Marriage equality delayed again
Marriage equality, an urgent demand from Cuban civil society and a right that must be enshrined for Cuba to fulfill its international obligations, was also left off the agenda. The 2019 Constitution, in defining marriage as a union “between persons,” opened the doors to marriage equality, but the government ultimately capitulated to anti-LGBT sentiment and removed the legalization of non-heteronormative marriage from the text. The government promised to implement marriage equality through the referendum process of the upcoming Family Code, but a year and a half later, no progress has been made on this front.
The COVID-19 situation in Cuba is highly concerning, even as the possibility of mass vaccination approaches with the trials of two vaccines developed on the island. On April 26th, health authorities counted 23,056 patients in hospitals for COVID-19. Of these, 5,466 were confirmed cases; 3,302 were suspected cases; and 14,288 were “under observation.” The pandemic, however, did not appear on the Congress’ agenda.
While the Congress unfolded, a series of repressive actions against independent activists, journalists, and artists was also underway. Between April 19th and 25th, the civil society organization Cubalex counted 25 cases in which activists and journalists were prevented from leaving their homes by the police. Cubalex also registered at least 15 detentions, principally against members of the San Isidro Movement and the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU).
According to Maria Matienzo, “The Party Congress maintains the machinery of terror. We all have to ask ourselves what will be the next incident of repression, if we will be detained, disappeared for hours at a time, or given arbitrary and unjust prison sentences. Since the Congress was announced, there has been a rise in violence and hate speech.”
It is concerning and disheartening to observe the Communist Party, Cuba’s highest authority, failing to heed the Cuban people’s demands. Race and Equality calls on the Cuban government to prioritize public policies that will respond to unmet basic needs and to end its repression against activists, human rights defenders, journalists, and artists.
Race and Equality also expresses our particular concern at the elevation of Humberto López, host and director of the Cuban television program Hacemos Cuba (We Make Cuba), to membership in the Party’s Central Committee. Under his direction, Hacemos Cuba has launched countless vicious attacks against those who criticize the government and demand respect for human rights.
Race and Equality is committed to the belief that respect for human rights is a necessary base for all societies and the first step towards a dignified and prosperous life for all. We will continue to support independent Cuban civil society organizations in their struggle for human rights and their work to ensure that Cuba’s human rights obligations are enshrined in national politics and society.