Cuban Protests Demand Freedom, Food, Covid-19 Vaccines
Thousands march in Havana and other cities amid a hard-currency shortage and rising coronavirus infections
By José de CórdobaUpdated July 12, 2021 8:27 am ET
Thousands of Cubans took to the streets in a wave of demonstrations in Havana and at least 14 other cities throughout the Communist island, demanding an end to the 62-year dictatorship and protesting the lack of food and Covid-19 vaccines.
“We are not afraid! We are not afraid!” people shouted as they marched through the streets on Sunday, videos posted on social media showed. “Freedom! Freedom!”
The protests are unprecedented in a country with tight police control and surveillance on dissidents, analysts say.
In a televised address on Sunday, President Miguel Díaz-Canel blamed the protests on the U.S., which he said seeks to economically strangle Cuba and bring about a social explosion.
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“Revolutionaries to the street,” he said, asking government supporters to rally support and take back control of the streets. “The order for combat has been given,” he said.
The Biden administration said it was deeply concerned by the government’s response.
“We stand by the Cuban people’s right for peaceful assembly. We call for calm and condemn any violence,” said Julie Chung, the State Department’s senior official in charge of Latin America.
Mr. Díaz-Canel took office after Raúl Castro retired in 2018. Earlier this year, Mr. Díaz-Canel also assumed the top job in Cuba’s ruling Communist Party. Many Cubans say that Mr. Díaz-Canel, a longtime party apparatchik, lacks the mystique of the revolutionary generation of leaders who came to power with brothers Fidel and Raúl Castro.
Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez said Mr. Díaz-Canel visited the city of San Antonio de los Baños, about 20 miles from Havana, to rally pro-government supporters. On his Twitter account, Mr. Rodríguez showed a video of pro-government demonstrators marching in Havana behind a Cuban flag shouting: “These streets belong to Fidel,” a reference to the late Cuban leader.
Demonstrators showed determination. Some gathered in front of Communist Party buildings, chanting “Cuba isn’t yours!”
At first, police didn’t disperse or arrest the peaceful protesters, but videos uploaded later on Sunday showed police wrestling down a demonstrator. Another video showed protesters throwing rocks at a police car as it sped off. A third showed two overturned police cars in a street in Havana.
“The streets have been taken over by the military and armed civilians,” independent journalist Abraham Jimenez wrote on his Twitter account. “I saw many people beaten and arrested.”
As demonstrators sought to broadcast the protest live with their cellphones through social media, Cuba’s authorities cut internet service on multiple occasions on Sunday.
Kentik, a U.S.-based network monitoring company, reported countrywide internet outages. Young Cuban civil-rights activists have used social media, which appeared on the island only recently, to organize protests and reach a far wider local audience than would have been the case a few years ago.
The protests come as Cuba’s economy contracted 11% last year. The island was slammed by the coronavirus pandemic and its vital tourism industry collapsed as a result. Remittances that many Cubans rely on also fell.
Amid a hard-currency shortage, Cubans must stand for hours in line to buy basic goods such as chicken or bread or even to take a bus. The island is also increasingly plagued by hourslong energy blackouts. In recent days, coronavirus infections have surged, according to Cuban authorities, throwing the island’s vaunted health system into crisis.
Covid-19 infections have skyrocketed over the past month. The stress on the health system, particularly in the Western province of Matanzas, led to an international internet campaign to channel medical aid to Cuba, using the hashtag #SOSCuba. But aid gathered for Cuba under the campaign was rejected by the Cuban government, angering many on the island.
“People are at the point when things explode, and when they explode it’s difficult to control,” said Alejandro de la Fuente, a Cuba expert at Harvard University.
The protests began in San Antonio de los Baños, according to local independent media, and appeared to spread to other cities as videos went viral on social media.
“This is the internet at work,” said Mr. de la Fuente. “People are communicating and going out to the street.”
In many of the places, the videos showed, people shouted “Patria y Vida,” or “Fatherland and Life,” the title of a hip-hop song created by dissident Cuban artists that has become the anthem of discontented people, especially the young. The name of the song is a blunt challenge to the Cuban revolution’s slogan of “Patria o Muerte,” or “Fatherland or Death.”
In Havana, Luis Manuel Otero, a performance artist who participated in the song’s video recording, called on Cubans to go to the city’s famous seaside promenade, the Malecón, to join him in the protest.
“I’m going to the street, I’m going to the Malecón, no matter what the cost,” Mr. Otero said on a video posted on Facebook. Other videos posted on social media showed hundreds of people marching in the Malecón and then to other streets in Havana.
The Cuban government is likely to increase its repressive tactics in the face of this unprecedented wave of protests, says Jorge Castañeda, Mexico’s former foreign minister.
“But if the army comes in and either fires on civilians or joins protests, then it’s game over for the regime,” says Mr. Castañeda. As a first line of defense, the regime is likely to use party militants in plainclothes, known as rapid reaction brigades, to repress demonstrators, he said.
A video posted on social media Sunday showed a group of men carrying hefty sticks getting ready to go out into the streets to contain protesters. Photographs later showed a similar group of men armed with sticks beating protesters.