WOLA, Washington Office on Latin America
Unlike the events on July 11—when thousands of Cubans took to the streets and largely spontaneous demonstrations spread rapidly across the nation—the demonstrations scheduled for Monday, November 15 did not take the Cuban government by surprise. Members of the civic group Archipiélago, the main organizers behind this demonstration, had notified authorities back in October of their intention to march on on this date to call for the release of political prisoners and protesters still detained after the July 11 protests, and to advocate for the respect of the rights of all Cubans and the resolution of differences through democratic and peaceful means. The government was prepared and for weeks, they harassed, intimidated and smeared the organizers of the march. On Monday, “acts of repudiation,” heavy surveillance by state security agents, and cripplingly policed streets made sure streets in Havana—and the six other provinces where the new set of demonstrations were to take place—remained empty. Fear and the physical impossibility to leave their homes are the main reasons for the low turn-out of Cubans on November 15.
The proposed demonstrations came after the events of this summer, when Cuban authorities sought to contain the largely peaceful demonstrations that occured on July 11, using tear gas and excessive use of force, which resulted in the death of one demonstrator, Diubis Laurencio Tejada, and the arbitrary detention of several hundreds of people—many of which remain deprived of their liberty in violation of their right to due process under the Cuban constitution and international law.
While the Cuban government has the right to protect itself against foreign interference—and the concerns about U.S. involvement with opposition groups are understandable—it should not infringe on the human rights of its citizens. The human rights enshrined in the Cuban constitution are universal, and need to be guaranteed to all, regardless of political preferences. Article 56 of the Cuban constitution grants its citizens the right to demonstrate, but the government deemed the November 15 march illegal, alleging that it was attempting to undermine the socialist order and that the organizers had financial ties to the U.S. However, just as the Cuban government allows and encourages pro-government demonstrations, it should respect the freedom of expression and the right of assembly of those who disagree with it.
State media have focused their coverage on the country’s reopening to tourism and the return of elementary students to school after months, which also occurred on November 15. In the case of the protests, it has once again been social networks, independent journalists, and foreign correspondents who offer information about what is happening on the island to those attempting to be heard.
On November 15 itself, images showed largely empty streets, except for police and military vehicles. Some of the organizers complained their homes were surrounded by state security agents, police officers in plain clothes, and government supporters chanting slogans and insults so they couldn’t go out. Others said they were warned by police that they would be arrested for contempt if they forced their way onto the streets. According to the New York Times, at least 40 people were arrested, although the Archipiélago group claims this number is closer to over 100.
Between Sunday, November 14 and Tuesday, November 16, Yunior Garcia Aguilera, the best-known member of Archipiélago, was prevented from leaving his apartment, as he had planned to stage a solo march through Havana that day carrying a white rose, as a sign of peaceful demonstration. Security forces and government supporters surrounded his house, and his phone and internet services were interrupted. He was seen waving a white rose from an apartment window while displaying a sign reading “My house is blocked,” when government supporters hung a giant Cuban flag from the roof of the building covering his windows to keep him from communicating with anyone outside. The flags were still there Monday and a guard stood at the door, while the phones of García and other coordinators of Archipiélago group remained without service. After no known communication from him since early Tuesday, Garcia Aguilera announced on Wednesday that he had arrived in Spain with his wife, in circumstances that remain unclear.
Growing social movements are a sign of a rapidly changing Cuba
In November 2020, a coalition of about 300 people made up of artists and industry workers (which later became known as 27N) met in front of the Ministry of Culture to request a dialogue with the highest authorities after state forces stormed the headquarters of the Movimiento San Isidro (MSI) in Old Havana on November 26. During this raid, authorities evicted those who had declared a hunger strike, with some refusing even liquids, in protest of the detention and the judicial process against one of its members (rapper Denis Solís). In January 2021, after the government had shown no interest in engaging in dialogue with civil society, a number of the participants of the 27N gathered in front of the Ministry of Culture only to continue to face the authorities’ unwillingness to listen. In April, people once again gathered in Calle Obispo to protest in a show of support for the leader of MSI, Luis Manuel Otero Alcanta, after authorities forcibly interrupted his hunger strike to take him to the hospital.
The civic march for change, and more broadly the Archipiélago group, inserts itself in a rapidly changing Cuba. During the past year, groups like MSI and 27N have seen increasing support among the youth, whom have been finding spaces both online and in public spheres to call for an end to violence as a response to artistic expression that is not aligned with the Cuban Communist Party (PCC), to demand respect for fundamental rights, and an end to political repression.
Although the July 11 protests were not the first expression of political disagreement to have happened in the past year, they were definitely the first of such scale, and they marked a before and after in the realm of public dissent with the status quo in Cuba. It was no longer only artists and intellectuals, but the broader citizenry protesting as thousands of Cubans took to the streets. The demonstrations were a manifestation of both economic and social grievances that are deeply intertwined. Protesters were seen asking for food and medicine, deeper economic reforms that would improve Cubans’ daily lives, and more freedom and political change.
How Current Conditions Contributed to Displays of Dissent
The island, which had kept the COVID-19 pandemic under control in 2020, saw infections skyrocket this summer, with daily COVID-19 cases tripling in the course of a few weeks and deaths spiking to record highs, which pushed health centers to the point of collapse. On top of that, Cubans are currently facing serious shortages of basic goods and medicine. In addition to that, a series of economic reforms introduced by the Cuban government this year (such as currency reunification, which most observers agree were necessary) have not only created additional harsh impacts in the short-term, but were implemented at a particularly difficult time. These factors have triggered inflation and increased the frustration of the Cuban people. One of the main sources of discomfort is the dollarization of the economy and the difficulty to access food and basic necessities— a process that had been marketed since the end of 2019 in foreign currencies—which have placed a larger sector of the population in a very precarious economic situation and amplified already existing inequalities. The return of long power blackouts, that take Cuba back to the 1990s and the so-called special period, add to Cubans’ irritation and uncertainty. When procuring food and basic goods becomes the number one concern for a family, it shifts from being an economic crisis to being a social crisis.
The Biden-Harris administration has voiced support for the Cuban people’s right to protest and has condemned the ongoing repression, yet it continues to downplay the role of U.S. sanctions in fueling Cuba’s humanitarian crisis by not acknowledging that sanctions contribute to the severe and undue suffering of the Cuban people. Supporting human rights in Cuba and empowering the Cuban people also means removing the barriers that exacerbate the economic, health and social crisis. Restrictions on remittances, including caps on the amount and measures that have made it impossible to wire remittances from the U.S. to families in Cuba, have limited the purchasing power of many, banking regulations have made third country purchases more difficult, and onerous rules governing medical sales have had an especially devastating impact during the pandemic.
While the Cuban government managed to avoid mass protests with a wave of repression and heavy security presence that discouraged the participation of the ordinary citizens that powered the summer demonstrations, the desire of young Cubans to be heard has not disappeared. On Tuesday, Archipiélago issued a statement celebrating the bravery of all those that protested in one way or another, and extending the Civic “March” for Change until November 27—a date which is no coincidence—calling for the release of political prisoners; respect for the rights of all Cubans to assembly, demonstration, and association; the end of acts of repudiation and all violence among Cubans for political reasons; and the beginning of a transparent process for the resolution of differences through democratic and peaceful means.
Cuban authorities should refrain from violence and repression, and immediately release those detained unfairly. In order to move forward, it is important for the Cuban government to recognize the need for a peaceful dialogue that includes the plurality of voices we are currently seeing among Cuban citizens, including artists, journalists and civil society actors among others in order to truly allow freedom of expression. For its part, the Biden-Harris administration has a responsibility to take concrete and swift actions that will alleviate the humanitarian and economic crisis beginning with the removal of specific licenses required to send medical supplies, restrictions on sending family and donative remittances, and restrictions on travel.