Cuba: the beginning of the end?
The unprecedented wave of protests that erupted in Cuba in July 2021 was the result of a series of profound economic and social changes, and could be heralding political change at least as significant. For the first time, in a regime of total control based on mutual surveillance and denunciation, people managed – largely thanks to the novel penetration of mobile technology and social media – to coordinate action, stage massive protests and give them enough visibility to encourage others to join. If these protests were to leave as a legacy the loss of the fear on which the post-revolutionary regime was based, they could foreshadow far-reaching political change.
Some will say it started with a song: a song vindicating the right of Cubans to think for themselves, straightforwardly criticising the post-revolutionary regime that has lasted 61 years and counting, and demanding immediate change. All the ideas that would soon fuel an unprecedented wave of protests were already contained in this song, starting with its name, ‘Patria y vida’ (homeland and life), contrasting with the worn-out battle cry of ‘Patria o muerte’ (homeland or death) that was the trademark of the Cuban Revolution.
The words of the song provided the key to understanding the protests that would erupt in July: ‘Silence has been broken, we are not afraid, the deception is over’. And they clearly touched a nerve: on the evening of 18 February, a day after the song was released, state media interrupted their programming to air Cuba’s national anthem, glorifying death for the homeland, and called on people to applaud and join in.
Art against authoritarianism
Totalitarian and authoritarian figures often have an unnatural fear of artists. They are usually solemn, too full of themselves, and lack any sense of humour, which makes them particularly vulnerable to irony and satire. This is why in so many authoritarian contexts laughter becomes a form of resistance and art turns into a conduit for the critical thought that cannot be expressed elsewhere.
In Cuba, criticism through art flourished in the past few years, particularly following the 2016 death of Fidel Castro, the glue that kept the ageing post-revolutionary regime precariously together. Not surprisingly, the regime responded harshly to artists unhesitatingly shoving the truth in its face with words, sound and images spread on social media and on city walls, for all to see.
Starting in 2009, economic reforms that made it possible for people to run small businesses encouraged artists to open new spaces, often inside their homes, to create and show their art outside the official circuit. To restrain the increasingly vocal art community that developed as a result, in 2018 the government issued decree 349, aimed at regulating independent art production, limiting the places where artistic performances could be held and censoring some forms of expression.
This precipitated events. Later that year, a group of artists opposed to the decree, led by performance artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, formed the San Isidro Movement (MSI). MSI would go on to stage a variety of protests, notably by Otero Alcántara himself, who among other actions performed a striptease to draw attention to lack of internet privacy. MSI intensively produced visuals that it shared on social media and held concerts, film festivals, public debates, poetry recitals and sporting events.
In November 2020, rapper Denis Solís, an MSI member, broadcast live on Facebook the moment when he confronted a Revolutionary Police officer harassing him and trying to enter his home without a court order. Soon afterwards, he was arrested by state security officials, held incommunicado for more than a week and denied the right to a fair defence. He was prosecuted under charges of ‘contempt’ and ‘insulting a police officer’, tried behind closed doors, sentenced to eight months and transferred to a maximum-security prison. All this was accompanied by the usual stigmatisation campaign on official media portraying him as a terrorist.
Fellow artists held a sit-in and hunger strike to demand Denis’s release, and on the night of 26 November, the police raided MSI’s premises and evicted 14 people, including six who had been on hunger strike for a week. A social media blackout was imposed during the operation.
On 27 November, an unprecedented crowd of about 300 people gathered outside the Ministry of Culture to demand freedom of expression, the right to create art freely and an end to police harassment. After several hours, 30 of the artists were able to speak with the vice minister of culture. Negotiations led nowhere, though, and were followed by a surge in house arrests and arbitrary detentions of Cuban artists.
The protest gave birth to 27N, a group of intellectuals, filmmakers, performers, journalists and activists demanding respect for the freedom of expression and an end to censorship and harassment of artists, free thinkers and dissenters.
The lyrics of ‘Patria y vida’, released in February 2021, paid tribute to MSI, some of whose members appear in the song’s video. The faces of the artists and activists were soon plastered all over the walls of city streets, and in no time the song had become an anthem of Cuban dissent. Denis Solís was released from prison after completing his sentence on 12 July, a day after the protests began.
The mobilisation wave rose on 11 July 2021, a Sunday like no other in San Antonio de los Baños, a rural town of about 50,000 inhabitants 33 km southwest of Havana. It rapidly spread to at least 50 cities and towns throughout the island. The demonstration effect was key: when people watched the small mass of protesters they realised that, contrary to what they had been told, protesting was within the realm of the possible. The authorities recognised the way that protests can become real-world memes, detaining the person who broadcast the first protest live on Facebook.
DEMONSTRATIONS THROUGHOUT CUBA, 11 July 2021
A number of slogans are clearly audible in the videos that protest participants recorded in San Antonio de los Baños and shared on social media on 11 July: ‘Patria y vida’ was joined by ‘We are not afraid’, ‘Down with the dictatorship’ and ‘We want vaccines’.
Unlike past protests that may have been instigated from outside Cuba, these were truly homegrown – a result of Cuba’s recent economic liberalisation and shifting social dynamics. Political and economic grievances, both structural and short-term, converged towards a tipping point.
People marched against growing inequality, inflation, food and medicine shortages, power outages and the government’s inability to get a handle on the COVID-19 pandemic: cases would soon reach a new peak, with Cuba’s once-famed health system now characterised by shortages of oxygen and medicines, insufficient medical staff, overcrowded hospitals and collapsed funeral services.
People also claimed their fundamental civic freedoms: the rights to associate freely, express their opinions and show dissent, including through street protest.
The new generation on the streets obviously had no memory of pre-revolutionary times, or even of the early – heroic – stages of the revolution: from their perspective, the post-revolutionary regime under which they have lived all their lives was simply an expired status quo with nothing to offer them. Their socio-economic demands and political aspirations were intertwined in the certainty that the ruling regime had deprived them of so much that it had even stripped them of their fear.
Another novelty was the emergence of a left-wing critique of the authoritarian regime, based on a vision of a society in which social equality is not sought at the expense of political freedom, all hopes lost that the regime could recognise its own failings rather than blame it all on the US embargo. Any expectation that change could come from within the regime itself seems to have gone; as a result, among those demanding change today are not only the regime’s long-standing bitter enemies, including those protesting in Florida and even disturbingly demanding a US military intervention, but also many who grew up in its midst and still share the ideals it was founded on.
People also protested for the simple reason that they realised they could. A major difference with previous attempts at starting mass protests was the novel penetration of mobile phones and social media: mobile internet only arrived in Cuba in 2018, and WhatsApp quickly became the default means of communication.
While in previous years there had been a steady increase in small-scale protests, most of them had been reactive, unplanned, erupting in poor neighbourhoods, often when people lining up started complaining that the queue was too long, or because there was nothing left when they finally got to the front. Now people had in their hands an easy way to organise, to coordinate actions and – most importantly – to showcase their boldness, encouraging others who might otherwise not have dared. They could show their actions to the world – and to their fellow citizens. Gone were the days when any attempt at protest could be easily isolated, as nobody else would know about it and people would remain convinced that the majority still backed the regime.
VOICES FROM THE FRONTLINE
Carlos Manuel Álvarez is a young Cuban writer and journalist, director of the digital media outlet El Estornudo.
The slogans that people are raising in the streets demand everything and seem to demand nothing. That’s basically all you can say when you go out to protest for the first time in 60 years. People say ‘freedom’, ‘down with the dictatorship’: it doesn’t get a lot more concrete than that.
But I am struck by the level of organisation and the deep sense that people know exactly what they want. These are people who have never protested before. Regardless of the things they are demanding, people are recognising that they can do something that they had been told they could not do, and that they themselves thought they would never do. This is completely unprecedented. I am absolutely certain that, in addition to the euphoria of going out to protest and what it means to flirt with freedom as they have done – which is an irreversible feeling, as once you have tasted it is very difficult to forget – they have found that they recognise themselves in one another and that they can create a sense of community.
There will be no going back on the degree of awareness that 11 July created among Cubans, regarding what they are capable of doing. Regardless of the content of their demands, the main point of the protests is that people realised that they could protest.
This is an edited extract of Carlos Manuel Álvarez’s interview with Confidencial. Watch the full interview (in Spanish) here.
A repressive response
The government immediately responded with its own mobilisation: President Miguel Díaz-Canel called on ‘revolutionaries’ to flood the streets in support of the government, and state security forces arrested dozens of protesters, portraying them as lackeys of the US government.
The government unleashed violence, including pepper spraying protesters, backed with home raids to detain or kidnap those suspected of being the leaders of protests, surveillance, attacks on and detentions of journalists and internet shutdowns. Although it tried to prevent the circulation of any information that it couldn’t control, videos and testimonies of the repression showed what the state was up to.
While most protests were peaceful, there were some incidents of rock throwing and looting of luxury shops where goods can only be bought with foreign currencies, beyond the reach of most Cubans. But the scale of arrests, which ran into the hundreds, was out of proportion to the relatively small prevalence of protest violence.
Criminalisation kicked off right away: three days into the protests, representatives of the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Interior Ministry went on state television to say they were investigating those responsible for organising the protests as well as alleged crimes committed by protesters. While denying reports of disappearances, state officials continued to stigmatise protesters by referring to the protests as ‘riots’.
VOICES FROM THE FRONTLINE
Originally from Cuba, Armando Chaguaceda is a professor at El Colegio de Veracruz in Mexico and a researcher with the Mexican civil society organisation Gobierno y Análisis Político.
There has been an activation of citizen demands in three forms. First, sectoral demands: from self-employed workers, from mothers in impoverished neighbourhoods, notably from Afro-Cubans who occupy buildings because they have no housing, demands for medicines, and so on. In other words, sectoral demands that do not put the political regime in question. Second, civic demands that do constitute a demand of the right to have rights. Third, humanitarian demands, in the midst of the pandemic, regarding how to channel and distribute aid.
All these demands converged in the context of 11 July, where we saw the novelty of protests that were massive – there was talk of several tens of thousands, and up to 180,000 people – territorially distributed, diverse in terms of the participants’ identities, largely civic – because they did not only demand goods and services but also claimed the right to have rights – using a wide repertoire of symbols, and generally peaceful, with the exception of some instances of violence (basically looting of stores) which occurred largely following government repression.
As protest has democratised – because more groups are resorting to it, and many more people are participating in them – so has repression. Once reserved for dissident groups, repression has expanded to an enormous scale: more than 1,000 people are now in prison or awaiting trial – and these are the numbers recorded, there may be many more – and very high sentences have been imposed, including on minors. The state is repressing people from vulnerable sectors – young, female, Black, poor – who have come out to protest peacefully.
This is an edited extract of Armando Chaguaceda’s participation in a webinar organised by the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Latin American Studies. Watch the full webinar (in Spanish) here.
As early as 13 July, repression claimed a fatal victim: Diubis Laurencio Tejeda, a 36-year-old man, died during a clash with the police in the Arroyo Naranjo municipality on the outskirts of Havana. As of 15 July, Amnesty International reported that there were at least 136 people who had been detained or whose locations were unknown. On that same day, the United Nations (UN) Committee on Enforced Disappearances urged the Cuban state to immediately search for and locate 187 persons reported missing and protect their lives and physical integrity. On 16 July, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called for the prompt release of all those detained for exercising their civic freedoms.
On 17 July, the civil society organisation Prisoners Defenders denounced systematic violations of due process in the summary trials being held against detained protesters. In one such trial on 21 July, photographer Anyelo Troya was convicted for ‘public disorder’ and sentenced to a year in prison. Other charges frequently used to convict activists and protesters were those of ‘spreading an epidemic’ and ‘incitement to commit a crime’. MSI’s Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara was detained and charged with ‘resistance’, ‘attempted attack’ and ‘contempt’.
On 19 July, the Inter American Press Association called on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to grant precautionary measures to protect and safeguard three media professionals who had been detained on 11 July; they were released after 10 days, following rough interrogation, but remained under house arrest and faced charges of ‘public disorder’ for covering the protests. The Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the harassment and detention of several journalists, and stated that dozens were blocked from leaving their homes to report on the protests.
On 23 July, the IACHR expressed concern over serious human rights violations committed during the protests and pointed to the climate of fear and self-censorship that prevailed, with relatives of disappeared people afraid even to report their family members as missing for fear of reprisals.
The government acted to limit the online space. In August, it passed a decree limiting the use of social media and the internet. It made it a crime to incite acts that ‘alter public order’, ordered internet providers to cut access to users who ‘spread fake news or hurt the image of the state’, and imposed steep fines on those providing telecommunications services without official authorisation. The government clearly understood the difference social media had made.
One month on from the start of the protests, reports indicated there had been 837 detentions, including of 33 minors, with around half taking place on the first and second days. At least 44 detainees had been released on house arrest pending further investigation, but several prominent activists had been rearrested. Family members of prominent exiled activists were harassed and pre-emptive detentions took place, for instance ahead of Independence Day in October.
A report issued by Human Rights Watch that month provided further details of arbitrary detentions and abuse and ill-treatment of detained protesters, including gender-based violence, affecting hundreds of people in multiple locations, suggesting this was part of a coordinated and systematic government policy.
VOICES FROM THE FRONTLINE
A Cuban living in Mexico, Johanna Cilano is a lecturer at Universidad Iberoamericana León and the co-director of the CSO Gobierno y Análisis Político.
After what has happened during these days, nothing will ever be the same again, even if this wave of protests is contained and it retracts – because of repression, because of fear, because of the show trials that seek to punish the leading voices of the protests. What happened represents a call for the creation of mechanisms to channel dissent. It requires the recognition that internal dissent exists, independent of any external influence or conditioning, and that it must be channelled. It can no longer be made invisible, because otherwise it will continue to bubble up recurrently. Nothing will ever be the same again, not even emotionally, for the citizens who experienced that moment of collective activation and action.
This is an edited extract of Johanna Cilano’s interview with CNN Chile. Watch the full interview (in Spanish) here.
What the future holds
The anger hasn’t gone away, and nor has the state backlash. In September, the activist group Archipiélago announced plans to hold a Civic March for Change in Havana on 20 November, with other groups announcing protests in various locations on the same day; the government responded by scheduling nationwide military exercises from 18 to 20 November, and then by intimidating, harassing and denying permission to those seeking to reschedule their protests. Those stating they would march regardless were summoned for warnings and some were detained; they also faced continued vilification by state media.
In acting this way, the government clearly indicated that it intended to continue to handle dissent as it had for decades, as if nothing had changed.
But something might have changed. If there really is a significant segment of the Cuban population that has freed itself from the yoke of fear, it might be that things cannot go back to the way they were. The loss of fear could turn into a key driver of change, given the system managed to close off civic space completely through a preventive system of targeted repression based on massive social control rather than outright violence. This was a system based on mass surveillance, in which every single citizen was a potential spy and informer on their own relatives and neighbours – a system that had fear and mutual distrust at its very core. Can such system survive once people let go of fear and start trusting each other, building a community beyond the official channels of political socialisation?
The demands that motivated the protests remain painfully alive, as the government has proved itself unable to meet them. The question is not whether protests will resurface, but when; and not whether the state will succeed in repressing them indefinitely, but at what point it will find itself unable to do so any longer. The recent wave of protests may very well foreshadow the end of Cuba’s post-totalitarian regime or, as others might call it, the promise of a new beginning.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The Cuban authorities must free imprisoned activists, including detained artists, and guarantee the fundamental rights of the freedoms of association, expression and peaceful assembly.
The international community must demand accountability from the Cuban government for its repression of dissent and treatment of those in detention.
Progressive, rights-oriented civil society around the world, and particularly in Latin America, must shed its double standards over the repression in Cuba, and show unconditional solidarity with its Cuban peers under siege.
Cover photo by Agencia EFEC