When Raúl Castro replaced his ailing older brother Fidel as president of Cuba in February 2008, Cubans looked forward to an era of greater freedoms. They would be able to rent cars, use cellphones, buy consumer electronics and even have a sex change if they pleased. Or so they thought.
A series of new reports paints an ominous picture of the island nation 144 km off the southern tip of Florida. One, from Human Rights Watch, says Raúl’s government is using “draconian laws and sham trials to incarcerate scores who have dared to exercise their fundamental freedoms,” and notes that people are being punished before they even commit a crime. With details obtained by the New York-based group in a clandestine mission this past summer, the report highlights some 40 cases in which individuals were jailed for the fuzzy offence of “dangerousness.” Their crimes include staging rallies, writing articles that are critical of the government, and attempting to establish independent unions. Those unfortunate enough to be rounded up are serving time in “overcrowded, unhygienic and unhealthy” prisons where malnutrition and illness are rampant.
Even for non-“dangerous” Cubans, life isn’t much better. A survey released by the International Republican Institute found that four out of five Cubans are unhappy with the overall direction of the country. “Cubans are as frustrated and pessimistic as they’ve ever been,” noted Alex Sutton, the institute’s Latin American programs director. Of the 432 Cuban adults interviewed for the survey, 75 per cent said they would vote for democracy and 20 per cent suggested the political system should be changed altogether.
And Cubans don’t expect things to improve: just 15 per cent believe Raúl’s regime will solve Cuba’s biggest problems—low salaries, high cost of living and food shortages—in the next few years.