HAVANA TIMES – It’s been 62 years since Fidel Castro’s triumphal procession in Havana, 41 years since the Mariel boatlift, 30 years since the Soviet Union disintegrated, 27 years since the Maleconazo uprising, but only three years since Miguel Diaz-Canel became President of Cuba, one year since the hunger strike at San Isidro and just four months since the social outcry on July 11th, which places the current leader in perhaps the greatest political crisis during what some people still call the Cuban Revolution.
After over half a century of very little public protest, a good deal of Cuban civil society has begun to open its eyes thanks to factors such as greater Internet access, the country’s systematic economic crisis, breakthroughs in journalism, art and independent activism, or the appearance of figures such as Luis Manuel Otero and Yunior Garcia (among others), whose proposals and actions have helped to break totalitarian inertia in the country.
With over 600 people behind bars for protesting on July 11th, threats of exemplary trials with over 20 year-prison sentences for some of those who went out to protest on that day, and a Government that leans on repression and terror as its only way out of a tough spot, the citizen-led Archipielago platform called for a nationwide Protest for Change on November 15th, in addition to different cities across the globe.
Enshrined in the Cuban Constitution, dozens of Cuban activists presented the request for authorization of a protest in different provinces, but every local government authority’s response was the same: denied.
Meanwhile, the Government announced military exercises, street events and parties for children, food stalls, and music in the country’s main cities, in the exact places where protestors were supposed to gather. Going hand-in-hand with strict police surveillance of activists, journalists, members of the opposition and citizens who have publicly voiced their dissent against the regime, as well as hate rallies against the protest’s organizers, this stopped the protests from developing in the public space.
Many Cubans had high hopes, so threats and the arrest of the protest’s organizers came swiftly. Writer Pedro Acosta was arrested as early as October 13th for being one of the signees of the initial request for the protest; the same thing happened to Camaguey activists Florentino Areas and Dennis Cancino when they volunteered to hand in the authorization request in their province.
After this call, many political parties, governments and international bodies spoke out in favor of the Cuban people’s right to protest: on October 13th, the US Government asked the island’s Government “to respect the basic rights” of its citizens, human rights organizations Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch condemned the Attorney-General’s veto of the protest; the European Parliament’s liberal political party demanded the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, for members of this body to be present during the protests as observers and, later on, on November 12th, the UK Government asked the Cuban Government to allow the peaceful protest to take place, to stop repressing dissidents and to establish a dialogue with civil society.
A group of international celebrities, led by Nobel Prize in Literature winner Mario Vargas Llosa, signed a letter to support 15N protestors on the island, and the Cuban Conference of Catholic Bishops (COCC) made a call to prevent violence in the country and to encourage an atmosphere where every Cuban can express themselves without being marginalized.
Pro-government political forces also responded. The vice-minister of Culture, Fernando Rojas, wrote on his Twitter profile that “Archipielago is the fairytale of imposing “made in USA” neoliberalism, under the assumption of opposing a non-existent neoliberaism in Cuba”; Diaz-Canel called upon “revolutionaries” to stand up to “any kind of protest designed to destroy the Revolution (…). Close ranks, fight to resolve our problems, struggle creatively, this is part of the battle!”, and the National Assembly of People’s Power issued an official statement accusing the US Government of being behind the protests and supporting “the revolutionary Government’s decision to challenge and stop attacks.”
Meanwhile, Cuban political police began their preventive work with intimidation, threats and firing workers.
On October 20th, professor David Alejandro Martinez Espinosa was removed from his position at the University of Medical Sciences in Cienfuegos for being one of the signees on the protest’s authorization request. The next day, the same thing happened to Cuban doctor Manuel Guerra, who was removed from his position at the Nicodemus Regalado Leon Hospital, in the Calixto Garcia municipality, for having signed the same document in Holguin.
The following week, it was actor Edel Carrero’s turn, when he was fired from Havana’s Theater Center, where he worked as an IT technician. The reason for his dismissal? He couldn’t be trusted in his professional capacity because of his support for the Archipielago platform. Another reported expulsion was the case of Elvisley Gonzalez, who received threats and was removed from his workplace at Transgaviota.
At the same time, State Security made sure to scare Archipielago’s most visible faces. Saily Gonzalez Velazquez, the platform’s coordinator, was threatened with a court hearing for apparently buying flour on the black market for her business. Daniela Roja, who holds the same position on the platform, received a police warning for having allegedly incited “protests and public disorder”, and was warned of the consequences, according to the document, that taking part in the protest might have on her two small children. She was arrested on November 12th.
Archipielago leader, Yunior Garcia, suffered hate rallies at his home over those days, as well as threats for having driven the call for a protest; Santa Clara activists Victor Ruiz and Omar Mena suffered the same fate, as well as Daniel Triana from Havana. On November 12th, three days before the agreed date for the protest, at least 54 attacks had been reported against Archipielago members since the call for the protest went public.
Meanwhile, Cuban authorities took advantage of their absolute control over the media to launch slander campaigns against the activists. They even dusted off an old spy with 25 years of experience for, which led to more jokes than concern for his overdramatic appearances on TV and the lack of evidence to incriminate Archipielago’s leader.
As the day set for the protest drew nearer, the regime upheld its scaled rhetoric: “There are enough revolutionaries here to stand up against any kind of protest that aims to destroy the Revolution, with intelligence, respect and defending our Constitution, but also with energy and bravery,” Diaz-Canel said during the closing ceremony of a Plenary Session of the Cuban Communist Party’s Central Committee.
Meanwhile, protests were announced in at least 120 cities worldwide, on four continents, to support Archipielago’s initiative. Most of these cities were in Europe and the US, especially in Spain, where aside from Madrid and Barcelona, calls for protest were made in Murcia, Valencia, Bilbao, Zaragoza, Sevilla, Gran Canaria, Alicante, Oviedo, Marbella, Vigo, Logroño and Palma de Mallorca.
The first unexpected twist came a few days before the protest: Yunior Garcia announced his decision to walk alone along 23rd Avenue in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood, on Sunday November 14th. This initially caused confusion and even dampened many followers’ illusions who understood it as a sign he was giving up on the protest, which Archipielago debunked a few hours later.
“On Sunday 14th November, I will walk ALONE, in the name of every citizen who has been robbed of their right to protest on 15N by the regime. I will walk in silence at 3 PM in the afternoon, down 23rd Avenue in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood, from Parque Quijote to the Malecon, carrying a single white rose. This isn’t a heroic act, it’s an act of responsibility,” Garcia wrote on Facebook.
Concerned, the Cuban Government once again showed its true colors on Saturday November 13th, when it withdrew press credentials from Spanish news agency EFE, a month and a half after it revoked credentials from the newspaper’s coordinator in Havana.
Authorities warned the news team that they wouldn’t be able to report from that moment on, and they refused to give the exact reason why they had come to this decision, which sparked a great outcry among the international community.
On the morning of November 14th, the playwright’s house woke up under siege by State Security plainclothes agents, who stopped him from marching peacefully. “It’s my human and constitutional right (…), but it seems that they aren’t willing to let me,” Garcia said in a Facebook livestream.
That very same day, protests were held in different scales in cities such as London, Berlin, Santiago de Chile, Queretaro, Helsinki, Quito, Zaragoza, Barcelona, Toronto, Houston, Atlanta and Miami, all showing support for Cuban protestors. Meanwhile, the independent press reported a spike in the presence of police and parapolice forces on the island’s streets.
Cuban authorities made it crystal clear that they wouldn’t let the protestors walk to the Jose Marti Statue in Havana’s Parque Central. However, a group of pro-government youth who call themselves the “Pañuelos Rojos” occupied this space from Saturday, without any setbacks, setting up their tents around the statue and receiving visits from musicians such as the duo Buena Fe or Tony Avila, and then president Miguel Diaz-Canel himself.
On that Saturday alone, CUBALEX legal services reported 53 acts of repression against people who supported the 15N protest.
Priests weren’t exempt from this repression either, as Catholic priest Alberto Reyes Pias complained that he had been threatened with jail if he joined fathers Rolando Montes de Oca and Castor Alvarez, who also confirmed their intention to protest on the 15th.
“If being arrested is the price for sticking to the Evangelical’s sermon, so be it. God willing, we will be accompanied by our people, walking down our streets which are still being held prisoner,” Reyes Pias said in a video mesasge.
Amidst the landscape of growing violence in Cuba, a group composed of over 40 organizations, including Archipielago, the Cuban Alliance for Inclusin, CUBALEX, INSTAR and Civil Rights Defenders, asked “international civil society to demand that the Cuban Government stop the violence, respect its own Constitution and allow the protest as it is the Cuban people’s civil and political right.”
At the same time, twenty human rights activists, artists, religious members, business owners and politicans called upon the international community to condemn the Cuban Government’s attempt to “repress and oppress” civil society and bury democracy, in a statement issued by the Center for a Free Cuba.
The first piece of news to come in on Monday November 15th was the hate rally that a group of people, especially women, undertook since the early hours of the morning in front of coordinator Saily Gonzalez’s house, one of Archipielago’s most visible faces.
Hours later, art historian Carolina Barrero was arrested when leaving her home in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood, whilst her father also received a hate rally targeting her. Another 14 people were arrested on the day; including Pedro Lago Segura, Adrian Napoles Capote, Andy Eduardo Gomez, Bartolo Cantillo, Carlos Rafael Suñol, Elvisley Gonzalez, Diosvany Salazar, Diosvany Ríos Cervantes, Evert Oscar Matos Leyva, Yuri Cargía Caraballo and Maikel Rodríguez Alba.
Seeing the State’s violence, Cuban musician Pablo Milanes stood by Cuban protestors and dedicated his song “Flores del futuro” (Flowers of the future) to Yunior Garcia and every Cuban “he represents and are fighting both in and outside Cuba,” while he expressed his “disdain” for the “mobs” the Cuban authorities are using to repress protestors.
Milanes was joined by jazz musician Chucho Valdes, who compared the Cuban police today to the time of Fulgencio Batista and pointed out that the promises Fidel Castro made in 1959 weren’t being kept, when he said that there would be free elections and freedom of speech on the island. Master Leo Brouwer posted a video showing his support for “every Cuban who is asking for a better Cuba”. “Now that we are doing this,” he added, “it should be done with dignity and respect, without manipulation, hate, and much less with clashes between Cubans.”
Protests continued across the world on the 15th, in cities such as New York, Miami, Washington, Madrids, Lisbon, Rome, Napoli, Oslo, Amsterdam, Brussels, Zurich, Reykjavic, Berlin, Mexico City and San Jose, unlike the fake sense of calm on the island’s streets, that had been hijacked by military forces and cordons of repudiation and fear.
While the regime’s authoritarian strategy managed to thwart the mass protests, new complaints by the international community couldn’t be avoided, including the UN’s “concern”.
On the 15th, The New York Times wrote an article called “As Cuba Crushes Dissent, a Nationwide Protest Fizzles Out”, in which it stated that “In the days before the planned protest, the homes of government critics were surrounded by uniformed police officers, state security agents or government supporters holding picket signs.”
The following day, the Cuban Observatory of Human Rights reported another 300 repressive acts on the island between Novemebr 12th-15th, all of which were related to the peaceful protest called by Archipielago. The most common were home arrest under police surveillance, summons to police stations, threats, interrogations, arbitrary arrrests, acts of repudiation and cut Internet access.
The Cuban Conference of Religious Members board condemned the harassment some of its members had suffered saying: “we will never be able to build the future we all want if we continue to hurt each other, the Homeland is every Cuban’s home.”
Washington also issued a statement on Tuesday to express its disagreement with the Cuban government’s response: “The US praises the bravery and determination of the Cuban people who stood up to government repression to make their voices heard yesterday. The Cuban government once again blocked the Cuban people’s voice instead of listening to it, renouncing a chance for dialogue and positive change for the future of Cuba.”
In an unprecedented event, concerns over what happened on the island reached the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), whose office in Latin America, also said it was concerned “by alleged cases of minors being arrested and reported in Cuba.”
“We are calling on the Cuban government to provide additional verified information about minors allegedly in this situation,” the organization added. “Putting an end to the arrest of under age people is fundamental, across the world, and this includes legal reform to raise the age for criminal responsibility.”
At the same time, the thwarted protest on Cuba’s streets seemed to suffer a coup de grace from its own leadership. While members of Archipielago were reporting the disappearance of their founder and extended (at least virtually) days of protest until November 27th to defend those in police custody and other victims of reprisals, playwright Yunior Garcia boarded a flight and fleed to Spain, on a tourist visa, motivated he said by threats from State Security and the harassment he had suffered at his home since early November 14th.
“The Regime’s strategy was to keep me a prisoner in my home, completely cut off and silenced. The only thing I have is my voice and I couldn’t keep quiet. That’s why I’ve decided to leave Cuba. I haven’t requested asylum, I intend to go back to Cuba,” Garcia said after arriving in Madrid, where he has launched a campaign to report what happened to the international press. However, he still hasn’t managed to convince many activistis and the transnational Cuban opinion, who received the news of the departure of who they considered to be the “captain” of the protests as a bucket of cold water.