‘We have to shake things up’: young people in Cuba could unleash a day of protests

HAVANA – The line begins during the day and runs into the evening. In the dark, before dawn, hundreds of people wait. Four women sleep on cardboard boxes, sharing a thin sheet. Others chat to stay awake. A nurse arrives after a 24-hour shift and takes her place.

Each one has a ticket to enter a Cuban government supermarket, which is the only place where you can find basic products such as chicken, ground meat and toiletries. At 5:27 a.m. Wednesday, a man in a frayed baseball cap handed out ticket number 302.

“If you don’t queue, you don’t buy anything,” says a 35-year-old cook who arrived at 6 pm the day before and who does not want her name published for fear of reprisals.

Even in a country that has long been accustomed to a shortage of everything from food to freedoms, it has been a remarkably bleak year in Cuba, with restrictions by COVID-19 making life even more difficult under the newest and greatest. severe sanctions from the United States.

Now, a young generation of dissidents, many of them artists and intellectuals who depend on the internet to spread their ideas, called for a protest for Monday, a bold move with little precedent in Cuba. They hope to rekindle the marches that filled the streets last summer to demand food, medicine and freedom, and to confront a government that for the first time is not made up of the respected veterans of the 1959 communist revolution.

A few days before the “Civic March for Change” began, the organizers appeared to be softening the demonstrations out of fear of violence. Organizers have encouraged people to hang white sheets outside their homes, clap at 3:00 pm, and find other creative ways to demonstrate if they don’t feel comfortable going outside.

Despite the usual ups and downs of the island’s progress, experts agree that Cuba is on the cusp of something important, although the movement behind the protests is unlikely to bring down the Communist Party that has been in power for more than 60 years.

“We are witnessing an unprecedented counterrevolutionary movement in Cuba,” said Carlos Alzugaray, a former Cuban ambassador to the European Union and academic who considers himself a “critical” supporter of the government.

It is a crucial moment for the Cuban government. A generation of young people who grew up under Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl now faces Miguel Díaz-Canel, a staunch veteran of the party who became president in 2018. At 61, he represents a younger generation of the Communist Party of Cuba, and is the person in charge of taking it to the future.

Díaz-Canel blames Cuba’s economic woes on the prolonged US embargo, which has intensified in recent years. The government of Donald Trump restricted travel to the island, cut remittances and further blocked the island from the international financial system, affecting its foreign exchange inflows.

He has proven as willing as his predecessors to crack down on dissent. When protesters took to the streets on July 11, Díaz-Canel encouraged party members to persecute them. Government supporters chased the protesters with sticks.

About 1,000 people were detained and 659 remain in jail, according to a tally by civil rights group Cubalex.

Following the announcement of the rally scheduled for Monday, the Cuban government launched a massive media campaign against it, insisting that its leaders are pawns of the United States.

The playwright Yunior García has become one of the leaders of the movement. He is one of the founders of Archipelago, a Facebook group with some 35,000 members that promotes discussion and debate. The group is the main promoter of the concentrations scheduled for Monday in cities across the country.

“I think the role of art is to wake up,” he said. “We have to shake things up so that people with dignity who are part of this society decide to change things.”

The Cuban government has publicly criticized Garcia, saying the workshops he attended abroad, such as one on how dissidents could forge alliances with the Cuban military, amounted to planning a popular uprising. Garcia said he was researching to develop a script.

García acknowledges that he has met with US officials in Havana, but said he went to record a podcast and discuss the effects of the trade embargo.

The playwright has reported that his internet access and telephone services are routinely interrupted, and recently he found a decapitated chicken outside his front door, a religious curse that he considered a political threat. State security has visited his mother-in-law three times at work, he added.

“They have used every tool at their disposal to intimidate us,” Garcia said.

Garcia said Thursday that he would march alone, in silence, on Sunday. He also urged others to take all peaceful measures they could on Monday, so as not to provoke a reaction from the police.

Their announcement, posted on Facebook, made it unclear whether the rallies would continue to take place. Raúl Prado, a filmmaker and one of the platform’s coordinators, said that the protesters would protest “as far as circumstances allow.”

If there is no police car parked in front of his house that prevents him from leaving on the 15th, he will march to demand the release of political prisoners and demand human rights, Prado said.

“There is no other way to achieve change,” Prado said. “If it is not us, then that responsibility will fall on our children.”

At least two Archipelago coordinators have been fired from their state jobs for their participation in the group, which Díaz-Canel has denounced as a Trojan horse for a US-backed regime change.

“The embassy of that country in Cuba has been playing an active role in the efforts to subvert the internal order in our country,” Díaz-Canel said in a recent speech.

The US government invests $ 20 million a year in projects aimed at promoting democracy in Cuba, money that the Cuban government considers an illegal attack on its sovereignty.

However, Archipelago members interviewed by the Times denied having received money from the United States government, and stressed that Cuban problems must be solved by Cubans.

“Archipelago is not a movement, not a political party or an opposition group,” Prado said. “He does not have a particular political line.”

The group of young and modern Cubans behind the Facebook group stands in stark contrast to the island’s classic dissidents, who tend to be older, unknown to most Cubans, and deeply divided into factions.

The arrival of the internet, which reached Cuban phones three years ago after the diplomatic agreements reached with the Barack Obama government, was a game changer. With widespread access to the internet, ordinary citizens are aware of anti-government activities, and are quick to publish their own complaints as well.

Hal Klepak, emeritus professor of history and strategy at the Royal Military College of Canada, said the scale of opposition the government has faced this year is unparalleled in Cuban history since the revolution.

“No one had imagined tens of thousands of people on the streets,” he said. “It is visible and by Cuban standards it is noisy. It’s something we’ve never seen before ”.

But the question remains whether ordinary Cubans will attend Monday’s protest, bearing in mind that the government declared it illegal, and that its organizers have lowered the tone of their calls.

The protest was scheduled for the same day quarantine rules are lifted, tourists are welcomed and children go back to school. The wave of deaths from COVID-19 that helped fuel the July protest has largely subsided, and 70 percent of the country is now fully vaccinated.

Abraham Alfonso Moreno, a gym teacher who had ticket number 215 in front of the government store at 5:00 am, said he did not protest in July and that he would not protest on Monday either. “In the end it is not going to solve anything,” he said.

I was more on the lookout for allergy pills.

Marta María Ramírez, a feminist, pro-democracy and gay rights activist in Havana, mentioned that people who rushed to protest in July were more concerned about food than democracy, but that could be changing.

“The first cries were not for freedom. The first cries were for peremptory needs: food, medicine and electricity, ”he said. “Freedom came later.”

Frances Robles contributed reporting.

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