Cuba: a year on from historic pro-democracy protests
On the first anniversary of the protests that shook Cuba on 11 July 2021, there was no repeat of the previous year’s events. The authoritarian regime did everything in its power to prevent protests: throughout the year, it relentlessly repressed and criminalised any expression of dissent, holding hundreds of protesters and activists behind bars, sentencing dozens to long prison terms and rewriting the Penal Code to codify as a crime every organisational and mobilisation tactic used to express dissent. However, the root causes of the 2021 protests remain, and discontent will undoubtedly resurface.
On 11 July, on the streets of Cuba, nothing happened. This non-event was the main news of the day because it came on the first anniversary of the biggest act of defiance by Cuban people in decades, in what became known as the 11J protests.
Around the world, it’s normal for protest landmarks like this to be marked by further acts of defiance. So was the lack of protests a triumph for the authoritarian regime that has ruled the island for more than 60 years, and a defeat for the popular movement for democracy?
The possibility of an anniversary wave of protests was a fixed idea in the minds of the government, which put all its resources into preventing it. The year since the protests saw a ruthless repression of activists and protesters. Hundreds were subjected to summary trials and dozens received long jail sentences. Well-known activists experienced systematic harassment. They were placed under de facto house arrest, leaving them unable to take to the streets, and their communications were cut off. A regressive reform of the Penal Code codified as a crime every single tactic used by people to express their discontent.
To shield the regime from dissent, all tactics used by activists have been turned into crimes of public disorder and crimes against state security.
In a way, 11 July 2022 was the day when protests should least have been expected. The Cuban diaspora and international solidarity movements mobilised in commemoration abroad, but within Cuba, those who had not yet joined the ongoing Cuban exodus knew this was a day of danger. In recent times they have focused instead on surviving, trying to free the hundreds in detention and strategising for the future.
Last year, it all started with a small demonstration in San Antonio de los Baños, a town to the east of Havana. The pandemic and a protracted economic crisis were both ravaging Cuba. Localised and spontaneous protests of an ‘apolitical’ nature had become relatively common, as people started erupting in frustration while standing in long queues in futile attempts to access increasingly scarce basic goods.
But something was unusual about the small mobilisation in San Antonio de los Baños: people complained not just about the food or medicine they were unable to find, but pointed to the deeper political causes of their discontent. Inspired by a hit Cuban rap song released earlier that year, they voiced a demand, ‘homeland and life’, that reversed the old slogan coined by Fidel Castro, ‘homeland or death’.
Defiance proved contagious. As news of this mobilisation spread through social media, people elsewhere saw that protesting was indeed possible. Many shrugged off a lifetime of fear and joined the mobilisations, which grew to become the largest anti-government protests in decades.
Estimates of protest numbers ranged between 100,000 and 500,000, an impressive mobilisation in a regime as closed as Cuba’s, where social control and fear exert a powerful deterrent effect.
Along with straightforward demands for food and medicine, the ‘homeland and life’ motto was insistently heard, as were slogans such as ‘system change’, ‘down with the dictatorship’, ‘down with communism’, ‘yes it’s possible’, and, loud and clear, ‘freedom’. A time-honoured slogan was embraced by people who defied the authoritarian regime’s claim to speak in their collective name: ‘the people united will never be defeated’.
Repression took many forms. Barely an hour into the initial protest, internet cuts began in San Antonio de los Baños. They could not stop the spread of discontent, however, only delaying the sharing of images and videos of protests and their repression.
Internet services were shut down or remained very limited across the island from 12 to 18 July. Cuba’s sole telecom company blocked text messages containing keywords such as ‘freedom’ and mobile phone service was intermittently cut.
Within hours, President Miguel Díaz Canel gave a TV speech calling on ‘revolutionaries’ to win the streets back. Pro-government civilian brigades were unleashed on protesters, alongside plainclothes security agents and uniformed police that first pretended to ‘guard’ the protests but soon proceeded to disperse them with batons, pepper spray and rubber bullets. Elite military troops were deployed and in some instances live ammunition was used against protesters. At least four people suffered gunshot injuries.
That evening, police and military came into neighbourhoods with armoured cars and raided the homes of known dissidents, journalists and artists. People suspected of having participated in or merely sympathising with the protests were beaten and arrested. At least two are reported to have been victims of extrajudicial executions.
At least 20 journalists were arrested while doing their work, although most were released without charges or with administrative sanctions.
In the absence of official information on those arrested, civil society organisations Cubalex and Justicia 11J took it upon themselves to document detentions. They have so far registered 1,484 detentions and verified 1,297, the overwhelming majority of whom were people with no connection to any political, civil society or media organisation. Under one in 10 had any such link.
Civil society subsequently reported that a small proportion of detainees had been released without charge, while a few others were subjected to criminal proceedings and soon acquitted. Many more were released without charge after receiving an administrative sanction involving payment of a fine. But the largest number have been subjected to summary criminal trials or are still waiting to be tried. According to civil society research, at least 700 currently remain in custody. Mistreatment and torture of detainees have been documented.
On 24 July 2021, the government announced that 59 people had been given prison sentences in 19 cases. More than 50 have now been sentenced to 10 years in prison, and a similar number received six-year sentences. Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and Maykel Castillo, two members of the San Isidro Movement artists’ group, were respectively sentenced to five and nine years in prison for political offences including ‘insulting the symbols of the homeland’, ‘contempt’, ‘public disorder’ and ‘defamation of institutions and organisations, heroes and martyrs’.
As the protests unfolded, a criminalising narrative was quickly pushed by the government to justify detentions. The president and other top officials vilified protests on social media, referring to them as ‘riots’ and ‘disturbances’. Protesters were characterised as common criminals, consistent with the government’s claim that there are no political prisoners in Cuba, although this was undermined by the simultaneous assertion that the protests had been orchestrated by the USA. The government also claimed, contrary to evidence, that all due process guarantees were being respected.
The government’s narrative was amplified in mainstream media, all of which are subordinate to the ruling Communist Party, the only legal political organisation in Cuba.
🇨🇺A un año del #11J— Demo Amlat (@DemoAmlat) July 4, 2022
El precio de ejercer el derecho a la manifestación en #Cuba
El 11 de julio de 2021 se registraron las protestas populares más grandes de la historia reciente de la Isla. La respuesta del régimen fue reprimir, apresar y castigar con condenas ejemplarizantes pic.twitter.com/3SOMY6t0Of
Tightening the screws
The government also changed the law to make any repeat of 11J much harder. In January 2022, Cuba’s Supreme Tribunal proposed a bill modifying several articles of the Penal Code. This was presented as part of a series of reforms required by the new Cuban constitution, approved in 2019. However, unlike other such changes – such as a quite progressive new Family Code – no public consultation was held on the Penal Code reform.
The new Penal Code was approved by the Cuban parliament on 15 May, barely 10 months after the 11J protests. It goes into effect in August.
While including some positive elements, such as reinforced sanctions for corruption and gender-based violence, it tightens restrictions on civil society, imposing severe penalties for providing information to foreign organisations or individuals and banning foreign funding. It exposes independent journalists, activists and dissidents to punishment as ‘mercenaries’ if they receive money from foreign donors.
Dozens of new crimes were introduced regarding the use of information and communication technologies, including those of ‘propaganda against the constitutional order’ and ‘dissemination of false news or malicious predictions with the aim of causing alarm, discontent or disinformation’.
Many newly defined crimes entail jail sentences of between 10 and 30 years. Instead of eliminating the death penalty, which has not been applied since 2003, the new Penal Code authorises its use for several additional ‘exceptional’ crimes, mostly related to state security.
Voices from the frontline
Marta María Ramírez is a Cuban journalist and feminist activist.
The argument provided to justify the reform of the Penal Code referred to the previous constitutional reform: once the constitution was updated in 2019, a reform of the Penal Code was required. It was also justified by the need to ‘modernise’ legislation and codify crimes that the previous code, which dated from 1987, did not recognise, such as environmental crimes, cybercrime and gender-based violence.
But from my perspective, this reform can only be understood in reference to the July 2021 protests and their predecessors.
To shield the regime from dissent, all tactics used by activists have been turned into crimes of public disorder and crimes against state security, and foreign funding of civil society organisations and the media is criminalised. The aim is to stifle dissident media, because how is a media not aligned with the state to be financed in Cuba?
Penalties for various crimes have also increased. Not only has the death penalty been retained, but the range of crimes it can be applied for has increased. The age at which a person is decreed criminally responsible is among the lowest in the world. What kind of modernisation is this? For some reason it was decided not to submit this reform to any kind of consultation.
If we analyse the production of laws in recent years, it is clear that this has been systematically aimed at shielding the regime, which has gone beyond controlling actions to try to control thought as well. This protective shield is completed with the new Penal Code, which seeks to prevent a repetition of last year’s protests and silence all dissent.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Marta María. Read the full interview here.
Only one way out?
Denied a voice, Cubans are voting with their feet – in numbers. Following the protests, a record number of people left the island, pressured by lack of opportunity and the growing certainty that options are increasingly narrowing down to two: prison or exile. A coded expression has become popular: ‘X is traveling to see the volcanoes’.
While the poorest Cubans have continued to make dangerous sea crossings, with the number of people in rafts surging, many are now taking advantage of a recent Nicaraguan policy allowing visa-free entry to Cubans. They are flying to Nicaragua and then taking perilous ground journeys towards the USA. People are willing to spend their life savings on smugglers and face incredible dangers to escape. The US government has reported the arrival of around 140,000 Cubans at the country’s southern border since last October.
Others have less choice. Abraham Jiménez Enoa, a Havana-based journalist who wrote for The Washington Post, was repeatedly threatened, kidnapped and arrested by state security. After he covered the 11J protests, the authorities gave him a choice: get a passport and leave Cuba immediately or stay on the island forever. He now lives in Spain.
Many journalists, artists and academics, as well as high-profile activists supporting family members involved in protests and demanding to know where their detained children are being held, have been forced out in a similar way.
The calm before the storm?
One year on from 11J, sustained repression, including the approval of the draconian Penal Code, along with the massive wave of emigration, have combined to create a climate of apparent calm in Cuba.
But the grievances that motivated the 11J protests have not remotely been placated; if anything, they have deepened. Protests will undoubtedly resurface at some point in the future – and it could happen on any random day, without warning.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The Cuban authorities must free imprisoned protesters and commit to guaranteeing the fundamental rights of the freedoms of association, expression and peaceful assembly.
Democratic states with diplomatic and economic links to Cuba should push for the release of political prisoners and the opening up of civic space.
Progressive, rights-oriented civil society around the world, and particularly in Latin America, must side with Cuban civil society activists under siege.
Cover photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images