Last week marked 32 years since the Berlin Wall dividing communist East Germany from West Germany was pulled down. By the summer of 1990, all of the communist governments of eastern Europe had collapsed and been replaced by democratically elected governments.
Cuba was expected to follow suit. Yet there would be no mass uprising of Cubans against Fidel Castro’s communist government, at least not on a scale large enough to threaten the regime (there was a day of riots – the “Maleconazo” – in the summer of 1994 in Havana). Not until this year.
On 13 July 2021, something unprecedented happened: Cubans took to the streets in large numbers for the first time in 62 years to protest against the government. Images and videos of crowds chanting “libertad” (freedom) and “abajo la dictadura” (down with the dictatorship) appeared on social media. Frustrations – at severe food shortages, electricity blackouts, Covid restrictions and political repression – had created a febrile atmosphere on the island that finally boiled over. The tightening of sanctions by the Donald Trump administration, as well as the shuttering of Cuba’s economy to international tourism, had made an already bleak situation even worse.
The Cuban economy has been mired in economic stagnation for many decades. Much like in the vanished, centrally planned economies of eastern Europe, day-to-day economic policy in Cuba consists of the centralised control of systematically induced shortages. The US economic embargo, introduced in 1960 after Cuba nationalised US-owned Cuban oil refineries, inflicts additional economic hardship on Cuba’s economy.
July’s protests – the first mass uprising since the overthrow of the US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista by Fidel Castro’s rebel army in 1959 – spooked the Cuban government. As events unfolded it cut off the internet, and in the aftermath rounded up thousands of opposition activists as well as ordinary Cubans who had decided to protest. According to Reporters Without Borders, 15 journalists were “threatened, attacked, arrested or placed under house arrest by State Security during or shortly after the anti-government protests”. As of October, many who took to the streets that day still languish in Cuban jails.
While the Cuban government was shaken, opposition activists – those who hadn’t been rounded up – were emboldened. In the ensuing weeks, a group calling itself Archipiélago announced a “Civic March for Change” for 3pm on 15 November 2021. By announcing the date of the planned protest – an unusual step in the one-party state, where citizens can be pre-emptively arrested for the “crime” of “social dangerousness” – the group set the authorities on red alert. But the activists hoped the announcement of a publicly planned protest would build on the momentum generated by July’s protests and ignite a similar uprising.
The Archipiélago Facebook group has around 38,000 members, and is a loose coalition of activists with no particular political line; organisers of the rallies scheduled to take place on the 15 November coalesced around calls for democracy, the release of political prisoners and opposition to violence. Members of the group requested permission from the government to protest on that day but the request was rejected.
As November approached, Cuban state television declared the protest “destined to fail” and denounced the organisers, accusing them of being in the pay of the US (an accusation the government levels at almost all of its critics). “Cuba has never allowed and will never allow actions of a foreign government in our territory trying to destabilise the country,” Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez told diplomats in Havana last week.
Together with strong words, the government mobilised the state’s repressive apparatus. In the days leading up to the protests a heavy police and state security presence was reported in the streets of Cuba’s major cities. Entire blocks were militarised and cordoned off by Cuban special forces, known as “boinas negras” (black berets). At least 40 opposition activists were detained.
Others who planned to protest were placed under house arrest, a tactic long used by the Cuban government to suppress dissenting voices. Daniela Rojo, one of Archipiélago’s coordinators, was arrested on Friday. According to members of the opposition activist group, her whereabouts remain unknown. Víctor Ruiz, an activist in Santa Clara who signed a letter notifying the authorities of his intention to peacefully march on 15 November, was prevented from leaving his home by state security agents. Independent Cuban journalist Luz Escobar, who has been subjected to repeated harassment by Cuban authorities in the past, was also blocked from leaving her home.
Across Cuba there were many similar reports of activists being detained at home or arrested. Leinier Cruz Salfrán, a march planner in Guantánamo, was detained after speaking at an online event organised by CNN en Español. Yunior García, a 39-year-old playwright and leading organiser of 15 November’s demonstration, had announced a plan to march, white rose in hand, down a central street in Havana. He was prevented from leaving his house by state security officials on the day of the protest, who subsequently lowered a Cuban flag over García’s front window to cover a sign he had put there saying “Mi casa está bloqueada” (“My house is blocked”). The entire street where the playwright lives was blocked by a stationary bus manned by state security agents.
On the day of the protest itself, organised flash mobs of government supporters picketed the houses of opposition activists from early in the morning. The crowds were recorded chanting pro-government slogans along with insults and obscenities. Saily de Amarillo, a pro-democracy activist and member of the Archipiélago group, awoke at 5:30am on Monday to find a crowd of government supporters outside her house holding placards and preventing her from leaving.
The president Miguel Díaz-Canel had announced that 15 November, the day of the demonstration, would mark a return to a “new normality” for Cuba as it reopened its borders to international tourists after months of pandemic restrictions. Children were also scheduled to return to school.
As the day unfolded, the president’s version of Cuba – the “tranquillity” alluded to by the government in its appeal for tourists to return to the island – looked to have prevailed. The protests were more subdued than the events of July, with few videos emerging on social media of the sorts of crowds that frightened the government during the summer. Yet this was as much a product of the state’s heavy-handedness than proof that Cubans wish to return to the normalcy alluded to by the president – a normalcy that is synonymous for many islanders with poverty, scarcity and political repression.
Members of the Cuban exile community will undoubtedly be disappointed that the streets of Cuba did not erupt on 15 November. Meanwhile, supporters of the Cuban government, both at home and abroad, will point to it as evidence that the Cuban opposition lacks support on the island.
Yet it would be a mistake to read too much into the numbers who did (or did not) turn out to protest. As Juan Pappier of Human Rights Watch told the New York Times yesterday, the Cuban government resorted to “a strategy of total suppression” to prevent a repeat of the events of July. Anyone caught participating would have faced at least a year in one of Cuba’s spartan prisons, notorious for poor conditions and the physical mistreatment of inmates.
The stakes are high in Cuba when it comes to challenging the government. An atmosphere of fear prevails, something that is difficult to comprehend for outsiders who have never lived under a systematically repressive regime. As the late, gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas phrased it in Before Night Falls, his memoir of persecution and exile at the hands of the communist dictatorship: “The difference between the communist and [liberal democratic] capitalist systems is that, although both give you a kick in the ass, in the communist system you have to applaud, while in the capitalist system you can scream.”