Why are Cubans protesting in the streets?

Dissidents organising through a Facebook group are demanding expanded civil rights and the release of political prisoners

Io Dodds
Tuesday 16 November 2021 10:30
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<p>Pro-government protesters cover the apartment of Yunior Garcia, the organizer of Monday’s marches, with Cuban flags in Havana on 14 November</p>

Pro-government protesters cover the apartment of Yunior Garcia, the organizer of Monday’s marches, with Cuban flags in Havana on 14 November

Cuban dissidents declared they would march through the streets in protest against the government’s harsh response to massive demonstrations this summer.

Members of Archipiélago, a 35,000-strong Facebook group that has led the call for protests, announced a "Civic March for Change" and demanded "rights for all Cubans" and the release of political prisoners.

More than 1,000 people were arrested and 659 are still in jail following mass protests in July, according to the civil rights group Cubalex. Demonstrators sought an end to food and medicine shortages and wider civil liberties, with many calling for the resignation of Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel.

But Cuba’s government has claimed that the march as part of an American plot to foment rebellion and took strict measures to suppress it on Monday, cutting off activists’ and journalists’ internet and sending pro-government crowds to surround some people’s houses.

So why exactly are the protests happening?

Anger over crackdowns in July

The immediate cause of the protests is what happened in July, when thousands of people came out to protest against Cuba's ruling Communist Party in a rare show of open dissent.

Marches began in San Antonio de los Baños, a town near the capital city of Havana, and quickly spread across the country. Demonstrators shouted "freedom", "down with the dictatorship", and "down with Communism", with some overturning police cars and looting state-owned shops.

Among the triggers were Cuba's ongoing economic crisis, borne out of the sudden cessation of tourism during the pandemic and exacerbated by US sanctions. A grim sugar harvest depleted the country's reserves of foreign currency and sapped its ability to import food, fuel and medicine.

Cuban dissident leaders call for a protest over curbs on civil rights

Activists were able to use mobile internet, a recent arrival in Cuba, to stay in touch and live stream their marches, counteracting government media. The government's handling of Covid-19 was another sore point: deaths per million inhabitants surged to at least six times the world average this summer, and by August one in five tests was positive.

President Díaz-Canel responded harshly, however, giving a live TV address in which he blamed the US and described the protesters as mercenaries hired to destabilise the country. He called for supporters to fill the streets in defence of the 1959 Cuban revolution, saying: "The order to fight has been given – into the street, revolutionaries!"

This week's dissidents have said they want to counter that crackdown. “Today's activity is more than anything else moral support for our people... to show them that they are not alone," one protester on Sunday told Reuters.

A Facebook group is behind many of the protests

One of the biggest promoters of rallies this week has been Archipiélago, a Facebook group with about 35,000 members devoted to a "plural Cuba". Its leaders say about half of those members are actually in the country.

"We are a platform for citizen action and not an ideologically predetermined party organisation," the group’s leaders said on 10 November. "We constantly generate proposals aimed at meeting our objectives: the release of all political prisoners and the search for a democratic solution to the national problem.

"We will always respond to authoritarianism with civility, decency, firmness, creativity and autonomy."

Foremost among its founders is Yunior García, a 39-year-old playwright who says the government has "used every tool at [its] disposal" to intimidate and confine him, including by cutting off his internet and phone lines.

"My home is under siege," Mr García told France 24. "The building is surrounded by undercover agents passing themselves off as residents, as they usually do. This should come as no surprise to any Cuban."

The Cuban government has accused Mr García of being a US agent based on his attendance of rebellion workshops abroad and a meeting with American officials in Havana. Mr García says that the former was research for a script and the latter was to record a podcast.

Cuba’s leader says protests are a US plot

Looming over all of this is Cuba’s 62-year-long standoff with the US, which has imposed a continuous trading embargo since 1960 that has buffeted the Cuban economy and its people ever since.

President Barack Obama attempted to loosen restrictions, but they were reimposed by Mr Trump in 2017. Last year he went even further, forcing the money transfer company Western Union to close offices that had provided a lifeline to relatives of Cuban emigrants abroad for more than 20 years.

Given the long history of American attempts to depose Cuban leaders, which range from the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 to CIA assassination plots using exploding cigars and poison pens, it is no surprise that the Communist Party blames this year's protests on the US as well.

Indeed, the US government still spends $20 million a year (£14.9 million) through the State Department and the US foreign aid agency to "promote democracy" in Cuba. Between 2009 and 2012, the US secretly built an entire social network called ZunZuneo, known as "Cuban Twitter", in order to undermine the Communist Party.

Cuba cracks down on dissent ahead of protest march

Meanwhile, news outlets set up by the US's sizable community of Cuban exiles have used the growth of internet access to reach a new audience on the island. Some stay relatively neutral, while others are devoted wholly to criticising the government.

However, there is no evidence that most protesters have anything to do with the US. Archipiélago members told the New York Times that they had never received any money from the US government, and some in the movement have called for a unilateral end to the embargo.

‘Let’s face it, fear won’

It is unclear whether future protests will gain traction or how the dissidents will take their campaign forward after Monday.

Reports on Monday indicated that the Communist Party had largely contained the protests. Human rights groups said that protest leaders were being intimidated and harassed, with Mr García confined to his home.

Several activists post videos online of pro-government crowds surrounding their homes, chanting "mercenaries" and "traitor". Some journalists were also told ahead of time to stay indoors.

“We’re seeing an increase in the number of people who are being detained, and an escalation in the use of intimidation and threats of violence,” said Cubalex founder Laritza Diversent.

Videos posted in Archipiélago did show some small and scattered marches, but the overall mood was despondent. One member posted footage showing protesters being approached by police officers, saying: "We just got stopped!"

Another said: "Let’s face it, fear won."

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