Miami Herald, August 26, 2021 06:55 PM \
President Miguel Diaz-Canel
With the world watching as Cubans protested on the streets all over the island on July 11, Cuban leader Miguel Díaz-Canel took what some experts believe was a decision that will come back to haunt him: He gave a “combat order” to fellow revolutionaries to squash those calling for freedom and the “end of the dictatorship.”
In the aftermath of images of police repression and pro-government mobs hitting protesters with clubs going viral, there has been a rare wave of criticism from government insiders, state journalists, and prominent figures in the arts, pointing to a crisis of governance in the communist island that no other leader has faced in six decades.
Diaz-Canel recently told journalists working for state-sanctioned outlets that he doesn’t regret the order to crack down on anti-government demonstrators. But the fact that he felt the need to gather the journalists at a meeting Saturday to justify his decision is the latest example of a damage-control campaign to restore his dwindling popularity and political standing.
“I made a call to the people that day because it seemed to me that it was the right thing to do and that I do not regret or will not regret,” he said in a video of the meeting that was later edited and televised this week. “We had to defend against demonstrations that were not peaceful at all. And that is a false story that they have also put out there.”
But even in the controlled setting of the Palace of the Revolution, and among some of his more staunch defenders, he could not avoid criticism.
A young journalist who works on Editorial de la Mujer, or Women’s Publishing, stood up and told him that political troubles call for “political solutions… not only, or not police actions.”
“President, you acknowledged that apologies should be given wherever an excess was committed,” said Lirians Gordillo. “We also need to tell those stories because nothing can harm this country more than an injustice or an excess that is not recognized out loud.”
A day after his controversial statement on July 11, Diaz-Canel appeared on television to walk back his words and strike a more conciliatory tone. But a month later, his “combat order” and the violent repression that followed, including hundreds of documented detentions and summary trials, are still causing him trouble.
Sweating despite the air conditioning at the Palace of the Revolution and stumbling over his words a couple of times, the leader acknowledged Saturday that there might have been “some excesses.” He said those cases would be investigated but denied that there are protesters who are “disappeared or have been tortured.”
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Cubalex, all human-rights organizations tracking the arrests, have documented cases of mistreatment and protesters whose whereabouts are still unknown.
“Díaz-Canel has lost all credibility,” said a source close to the Cuban government who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation. “That day he appeared on TV and said what he said, all hopes among the younger generations that he would be a reformer were destroyed in 20 minutes. And from then on, he has continued to screw up.”
Shortly after images of the violence spread on social media, prominent Cuban musicians and other members of the island’s artistic community, including Leo Brouwer, Adalberto Alvarez, Elito Reve and members of the legendary band Los Van Van, posted candid criticism on social media.
Brouwer said he never imagined that security forces would attack peaceful Cubans.
“Impossible to be silent,” said Alvarez. “The beatings and the images I see of the violence against a people that took to the streets to peacefully express what they feel hurt me.”
“The streets in Cuba belong to the Cubans. I can not do less than be by your side in difficult times,” he wrote on Facebook.
In a stunning rebuke of Díaz-Canel’s response to the crisis, a former Cuban ambassador who frequently defends the government’s views on foreign media said Cuban authorities could not ignore its citizens’ legitimate demands.
Carlos Alzugaray, a former ambassador to the European Union, wrote an opinion column criticizing the government’s “clampdown” on protesters “so repressively, while pursuing the same endless propaganda communication strategy as ever despite its demonstrably diminishing returns.”
While he repeated the government line that the U.S. embargo is the source of Cuba’s economic troubles, he added they were “in no small part also the result of governmental inadequacy and poor policy.” And, he added, the Cuban government was “proclaiming that ‘the embargo is the problem’ and talking down the protests as ‘interference from outside’ in an effort to cover up its own errors.”
The message, however, does not appear to be getting through at the top levels of the Cuban government.
Last week, the government published a draconian law to criminalize expressing dissenting opinions on the internet. Diaz-Canel seems to be on a personal crusade against social media, which he called a “colonial tool” that promotes hate.
The Cuban leader has not been treated kindly by his fellow Cubans on social media, where he is constantly derided, when not made the butt of jokes and memes. A vulgar insult repeated by thousands of people during the demonstrations has now become attached to his name on Google search.
After Raúl Castro picked him to succeed him in 2018, Diaz-Canel has faced one crisis after another. Widespread shortages and blackouts, and controversial decisions like selling food in U.S. dollars that the population does not earn, have made him an unpopular figure and the target of the demonstrators’ anger.
From the beginning, his position has been tenuous. As a non-Castro, he doesn’t have the credibility of the so called históricos, those who fought for the revolution in the 1950s in the Sierra Maestra mountains. But he still needs to cater to Communist Party hardliners. And he is expected to carry out long-delayed reforms like the currency unification that has angered ordinary Cubans even more.
“He might as well become a one-term president, since he was left all the ugly stuff to make the country survivable” in financial terms, said John Kavulich, the president of the US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.
Still, Diaz-Canel was named the Party’s First Secretary in April this year, after Raul Castro’s official retirement, a powerful position he could have used to stop the repression of protesters “if he had the will,” the source close to the island’s government said.