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Blas Giraldo Reyes Rodriguez was born in Manicaragua, Cuba. As the son of a political prisoner, the government forced Blas out of school at the age of 16. During the next three years of his life, Blas was pressed into military service where he performed forced labor. In 1975, Blas and his family were sent to live with his father in a penal colony, essentially a concentration camp for political prisoners, in Pinar del Río. While there, Blas met Isel Acosta, the woman he would marry.

In 1990, Blas moved to Sancti Spiritus with his wife and began working as a surveyor, but was unable to escape his family’s past as he was harassed by State Security. Inspired by Pope John Paul II’s visit to Cuba in 1998, Blas decided to become active in the Cuban opposition. He also started an independent library and became involved in the Christian Liberation Movement, an organization that spearheaded the Varela Project, a petition calling for a referendum on legal reform in Cuba with the goal of greater personal, political and economic freedoms. Blas was arrested for his activism in March 2003 and sentenced to 25 years in prison; he was one of 75 nonviolent dissidents incarcerated as part of a massive government crackdown known as the Black Spring. While imprisoned, he was kept in solitary confinement for long periods and subjected to abuse by the prison guards.

Blas was released along with fellow prisoners in 2010 as part of an agreement negotiated among Spain, Cuba and the Catholic Church. In 2011, he resettled in the United States where he lives today. 

Cuba, an island nation of 11.4 million people in the northern Caribbean Sea, is a totalitarian state.

Fidel Castro led the 1959 Cuban Revolution and ruled the country for 49 years before formally relinquishing power to his younger brother Raul in 2008. Raul Castro is the current head of state and First Secretary of the Communist Party, which is recognized by the Cuban Constitution as the only legal political party and “the superior leading force of society and of the state.” Raul Castro has said that he will step down from power at the age of 86 in 2018.

Cuba was a territory of Spain until the Spanish-American War. The United States assumed control of the island until 1902, when the Republic of Cuba became formally independent. A fledgling democracy was established, with the U.S. continuing to play a strong role in Cuban affairs.

In 1952, facing an impending electoral loss, former president Fulgencio Batista staged a successful military coup and overthrew the existing government. While his first term as elected president in the 1940s largely honored progressive politics, universal freedoms, and the Cuban Constitution of 1940, Batista’s return to power in the 1950s was a dictatorship marked by corruption, organized crime and gambling. He held power until 1959 when he was ousted by Fidel Castro’s rebel July 26th Movement.

While promising free elections and democracy, Castro moved quickly to consolidate power. By 1961, Castro had declared Cuba to be a communist nation.

Castro’s communist government nationalized private businesses, lashed out at political opponents, and banned independent civil society. As Cuba aligned itself with the Soviet Union, Cuban-American relations soured, including a U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba. In the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States and the Soviet Union came close to war, after the Soviets installed nuclear missiles in Cuba, prompting a U.S. naval embargo.

Since the revolution, Cuba has remained a one-party state. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the evaporation of Soviet economic support, Cuba loosened some economic policies, became more open to foreign investment, and legalized use of the U.S. dollar. By the late 1990s, Venezuela had become Cuba’s chief patron, thanks to the close relationship between the Castro brothers and Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chavez.

The regime continues to exercise authoritarian political control, clamping down on political dissent and mounting defamation campaigns against dissidents, portraying them as malignant U.S. agents. In a massive crackdown in 2003 known as the Black Spring, the government imprisoned 75 of Cuba’s best-known nonviolent dissidents.

The Cuban government does not respect the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, association, movement, and religion. The government and the Communist Party control all news media, and the government routinely harasses and detains its critics, particularly those who advocate democracy and respect of human rights. Frequent government actions against dissidents often take the form of attacks by regime-organized mobs. Prison conditions are harsh and often life-threatening, and the courts operate as instruments of the Communist Party rather than conducting fair trials.

Cuba relaxed its travel laws in 2013, allowing some prominent dissidents to leave and return to the country. It continues to experiment with modest economic reforms but remains committed to communist economic orthodoxy.

In Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report, Cuba was designated as “not free” and is grouped near the bottom of the world’s nations, with severely restricted civil rights and political liberties.


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