Cuba Country Profile


Key Statistics

Population: 11,27 million (World Bank, 2014)

Capital: Havana

Languages: Spanish (official)

Major Ethnic Groups: white 64.1%, mestizo 26.6%, black 9.3% 

GDP per Capita (current US dollars): 13,607 (World Bank, 2013)

GDP per Capita PPP (2011 international dollars): 18,796 (World Bank 2011)

Security Sector Stats

Active Armed Forces: 49,000 (Military Balance, 2014)

Small Arms: the estimated total number of guns (both licit and illicit) held by civilians in Cuba is 220,000; the defence forces of Cuba are reported to have 415,000 firearms; and Police in Cuba are reported to have 43,000 (Gun Policy, 2015)

Military Expenditure: 3.3% of GDP (World Bank, 2011)

Executive Summary

Cuba is a one-party, communist state. The Communist Party of Cuba (Partido Comunista de Cuba - PCC) is the only legal political party; members of the political opposition, activists, and independent journalists face state surveillance, harassment, imprisonment, and violence.

There is no separation of powers in Cuba, meaning there is no judicial independence. In recent years, there has been an increase in short-term detentions of activists, journalists, and opposition members.

Unofficial reports suggest that violent crime is not a major problem, although the government does not publish official statistics. The country serves as a transit point for the transnational drugs trade though there are no major criminal groups operating within the country itself.

Although the security forces are effective at maintaining order and preventing narcotics trafficking from gaining a foothold in Cuba, police often violate procedural laws with impunity, especially when detaining and investigating members of the opposition.

Cuba has engaged in no major reform initiatives for its security and justice sectors, despite the problems within each. In light of the current political climate, the opportunity for engagement is confined to providing technical assistance rather than helping push through sweeping reform measures.

Security and Justice Context

The strong military and police presence throughout the country has kept the security environment in Cuba stable. The Cuban government does not publish crime statistics, but outside sources report that violent crime is not high; Cuba’s homicide rate was 5.0 murders per 100,000 people in 2009, the most recent year reported by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The rate has remained relatively consistent since 2001 (See Figure 1.).


Fig. 1 Cuba Homicide Rate 2001-2009

While Cuba's neighbours in the Caribbean have seen significant activity from drug trafficking organisations, Cuba's counter-narcotics efforts have kept drug traffickers from establishing a foothold on the island. Due to the harsh drug laws and low disposable consumer income among most Cubans, there is very little domestic drug consumption. The country does, however, serve as a transit point for illicit narcotics, primarily marijuana produced in Jamaica that is trafficked through Cuba’s maritime territory; in 2011 over 9 tons of drugs was seized, some 98 percent of which was marijuana. This marked a 300 percent increase on 2010’s drug seizures.

The country has some of the harshest drug laws in the region and has the death penalty for drug trafficking offenses, though it is currently suspended. People caught with small amounts can be jailed for lengthy periods.

Cuba is a one-party state, in which the Communist Party runs all government institutions. It is not an electoral democracy. Party membership is required to obtain meaningful access to social services, good jobs, and good housing. All political organising outside the PCC is outlawed. Raul Castro is the first secretary of the PCC, president of the Council of Ministers (Consejo de Ministros), the president of the Council of State (Consejo de Estado), and the commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces.

In April 2011, the PCC held its Sixth Congress, during which it was decided that Raul Castro would formally replace his brother Fidel as the party's first secretary. Castro had passed power to his younger brother on a provisional basis in July 2006, before resigning as president in February 2008.

In recent years, the government has slightly relaxed some long standing economic restrictions, such as rules about the purchase of consumer goods and private ownership of houses and cars.

The US-based NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that Cuba is the only country in Latin America that represses all political dissent, while Freedom House classified Cuba as “Not Free.” Human rights activists and members of the political opposition are subject to surveillance, harassment, intimidation, and sometimes violence from state security forces and state-sponsored “watch groups[1] .” The independent press is illegal and journalists are often harassed and imprisoned.  Political dissidents often receive very harsh sentences for minor offenses; although the exact number of political prisoners is unknown, estimates range from dozens to nearly 100.

Official corruption is a big problem and the government is very sensitive to allegations of corruption. There is a culture of impunity and illegality surrounding the country's state-run economy. The primary agencies tasked with combating corruption are the Office of the Comptroller General (Contraloría General de la República) and the Interior Ministry (Ministerio del Interior – MINIT). In recent years, the government has arrested several high-level government officials on corruption charges.

Attempting to leave Cuba without permission from the government is a punishable offense, and even relocating within Cuba is restricted.

A US diplomatic cable dated 2009 and released by WikiLeaks the following year, accused the Cuban government of allowing leftist rebel groups to use Cuba as a place for “R&R [rest and relaxation]” as well as providing them with medical services. The groups named were Colombian rebel groups the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN), as well as the Basque separatist group Basque Homeland and Freedom (ETA).

As of November 2012, the capital Havana has served as the site for peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC.  At the time of writing[2] these were on-going.

Perceptions of Insecurity

There is no available data on perceptions of insecurity among Cubans.

Security and Justice Institutions

Justice Institutions

Cuba has a civil law system based on Spanish civil code. Cuba's judicial system is entirely controlled by the PCC. The Council of State, of which Raul Castro is the president, runs the court system. While judicial independence is ostensibly outlined in Cuba's constitution, the judiciary is subordinate to the National Assembly of the People’s Power (Asemblea Nacional del Poder Popular), which is responsible for appointing and removing judges. In practice, the Council of State and the PCC exerts almost complete political influence over the judicial system.

The civil court system consists of the Supreme Court (Tribunal Supremo Popular), provincial, and municipal courts. There is also a military tribunal system, which has jurisdiction over cases involving defendants connected to the military or law enforcement agencies. In addition, there are special tribunals held behind closed doors for cases relating to members of the political opposition.

Citizens can be detained for up to four years before actually committing a crime if they are determined to be "potentially dangerous." This tool has been used to control “social ills” such as prostitution, substance abuse and political opposition. According to some estimates, there may be over 3,000 people imprisoned for "potential dangerousness."

Courts often fail to protect or observe the right to due process. Under the law, defendants are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty, but this right is not protected in practice. With the exception of politically motivated trials, defendants generally have the right to a public trial. Trials, which usually conclude in less than a day, do not involve juries.

Officials often disregard legal procedures regarding how long a person can be detained after arrest. By law, police have 72 hours to look into a crime and report to the prosecutor. The prosecutor then has 72 hours to recommend whether or not to open a criminal investigation. After this period, detainees must be given access to legal representation and informed of the basis for their arrest. In practice, however, detainees are often held for weeks or even months without access to counsel or even learning the charges against them. Bail, while available, is not usually granted for people arrested for political reasons.

International NGOs report that arbitrary arrests and unlawful detentions have increased. Between January and September 2012, the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (Comisión Cubana de Derechos Humanos y Reconciliación Nacional–CCDHRN) received 5,104 reports of arbitrary detentions, up from 4,123 in 2011 and 2,074 in 2010.

Cuba does not grant international humanitarian organisations access to its prisons. Prison conditions are reportedly extremely harsh and inhumane, and prisons are overcrowded. Abuse of prisoners by prison guards is commonplace. The government does not publish the number of prisoners, but according to unofficial estimates, Cuba currently holds 60,000 to 65,000 prisoners in its 150-200 prisons and labour camps. The Bureau of Jails and Prisons (Dirección de Carceles y Prisiones) is charged with handling the penitentiary system and is housed under the Interior Ministry.

Security Institutions

The police and the internal security forces are controlled by the Ministry of the Interior (Ministerio del Interior - MINIT), which is responsible to the Council of State. MINIT has three branches: Technical Operations, Internal Order and Crime Prevention, and Security. Internal Order and Crime Prevention oversees the penal system and the police. The primary police force is the National Revolutionary Police (Policía Nacional Revolucionaria–PNR). The PNR is divided into local branches, which are subordinate to the national directorate.

MINIT’s Security branch is responsible for “crimes against the state,” such as espionage and sabotage. The Security branch has specialised units to monitor and suppress political opposition, with support from the PNR.

Law enforcement operates with impunity, violating procedural laws on detentions and searches. There are numerous reports of civil rights and human rights abuses by members of the security forces, including coercive interrogations.

The criminal code gives police broad powers to search and arrest citizens. Police frequently fail to comply with requirements regarding obtaining a signed "act of detention" prior to detaining or searching subjects. Short-term detentions are often used to prevent political opposition from assembling.

The security forces also use Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (Comités de Defensa de la Revolución-CDR), or neighbourhood watch groups, both to prevent common crime and to stop political dissent. The CDR sometimes provides information to the police on political subversion and opposition activity.

Cuba's Revolutionary Armed Forces (Las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias - FAR) consist of the Army, the Navy (Marina de Guerra Revolucionaria), and Air Force (Defensa Antiaérea y Fuerza Aérea Revolucionaria). The FAR have a very high level of influence in Cuban politics. Unlike in many other communist countries, the government has not used the military to repress civilian dissent, and the FAR is generally held in high esteem by the population. That said, accounts from officers who have defected suggest that corruption in the FAR is a big problem, as in other Cuban government institutions.

At the time of writing, there was no publicly available long-term national development or security plan for Cuba.

State of Security and Justice Sector Reform

Justice Sector Reform and Initiatives

Cuba has not engaged in any significant justice sector reform in recent years.

Security Sector Reforms and Initiatives

Cuba has not engaged in any significant security sector reform in recent years.

Parliamentary/Congressional Capacity for Oversight

The National Assembly of the People’s Power was created by the 1976 constitution. The National Assembly designates the Council of State. Delegates for the National Assembly are chosen in elections in which voters can either reject or support a single PCC-approved candidate for each seat. Given the authoritarian nature of the state, the National Assembly does not have any meaningful capacity for providing oversight of the government.

Security and Justice Opportunities

The political situation in Cuba makes engaging with the government on judicial or security sector reform extremely challenging. Cuba's strongest regional partner is Venezuela, although Cuba enjoys strong trade relationships with countries like Mexico and Canada, and has engaged with China on tourism and military projects.

Compared to other countries in Latin America, Cuba fares comparatively better on the issue of corruption. In the 2012 edition of Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index (CPI), Cuba ranked 58th out of 176 countries, with a score of 48[3] . This score showed an improvement from the previous year’s score and ranking.

Justice Sector Opportunities

The Cuban government is receptive to purely technical judicial assistance, such as equipment, technology, and access to information databanks, and may be receptive to outside training for prosecutors. However the government appears to have little interest in major reform or in furthering human or civil rights. As many observers have pointed out, improving the administrative functioning of the judicial system is unlikely to resolve many of the problems (pre-trial detentions, lack of due process, etc.) that stem from deeper political issues. That said, while increasing the technical capacity of judicial officials may not help those arrested on political charges, it would potentially help improve the efficiency and fairness of trials for common crimes.

Security Sector Opportunities

In the same vein as judicial reform, it is difficult to assess whether purely technical assistance for Cuba’s police force, such as training and equipment, would lead to any significant improvements without accompanying political reforms. Many of the security sector’s biggest problems, such as harassing members of the opposition and neglecting to follow the correct procedures regarding searches and arrests, stem from the underlying political structure.

Civil Society Actors for Engagement

Cuba does not have a free civil society. In addition to state mass organisations such as labour unions, neighbourhood watch groups, and women's groups, there are some officially recognised civil society groups. Cuban NGOs must register and have a sponsoring state institution. The Cuban government began permitting these NGOs to exist during the 1990s to attract foreign aid.

There are also groups who operate without recognition from the government, relying on external support, such as political opposition groups and groups that advocate for the release of political prisoners.

The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation is a human rights group that denounces human rights violations in Cuba and provides assistance to detainees. The Cuban government does not recognise the group; members of the group are subject to slander and harassment from authorities and the government-sponsored press. It operates with support from international human rights organisations.

The Cuban Observatory for Human Rights[4] (Observatorio Cubano de Derechos Humanos - OCDH) is another prominent human rights organisation that advocates for the transformation to a democratic state. It is based in Madrid, Spain, and comprised primarily of former prisoners of conscience.

Over the past two decades, despite lingering obstacles to religious freedom, the Catholic Church has begun playing a larger role in Cuban civil society, particularly on the issue of political prisoners.

Many international organisations collect information on human rights and civil rights in Cuba and advocate for reform. Freedom House, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch are all very engaged on Cuba issues, although they are not permitted to visit Cuba.


Freedom House, “Freedom in the World 2012–Cuba,” March 2012

Transparency International, “Corruption Perceptions Index 2012,” December 2012

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Homicide Statistics 2012,” Data set retrieved from

U.S. Department of State, “2012 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report Volume 1: Drug and Chemical Control,” March 2012

U.S. Department of State, “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2011,” May 2012


[1] See Security Institutions section.

[2] February 2013.

[3] Countries are scored from 0-100 with a higher score representing less corruption.

[4] More information on their website:

Igarapé Institute

The Igarapé Institute is a southern think tank devoted to evidence-based policy and action on complex social challenges including global drug policy, citizen security and international cooperation. Its goal is to stimulate humane engagement on emerging security and development issues. Across all its programs, the Institute adopts a three-prong approach:

  1. Diagnose challenges through cutting-edge research;
  2. Trigger informed debate and action across public and private spheres; and
  3. Design tailor-made solutions that are people-centered.

The International Security Sector Advisory Team

The International Security Sector Advisory Team (ISSAT) provides practical support to the international community in its efforts to improve security and justice, primarily in conflict-affected and fragile states. It does this by working with a group of member states and institutions to develop and promote good security and justice reform practices and principles, and by helping its members to build their capacity to support national and regional security and justice reform processes.