As Cuba crushes dissent, a nationwide protest fizzles
By Frances Robles
Demonstrators largely stayed off the streets of Cuba on Monday during what had been a highly anticipated nationwide march, with the police, state security agents and even civilians fanning across the country to prevent dissidents from leaving their houses.
The show of force demonstrated the vast security apparatus at the government’s disposal in quashing dissent. It also underscored the challenges the opposition faces in Cuba, where fear of a crackdown often overpowers activism.
For months before the planned demonstration, government critics had sought to reignite the popular discontent that erupted into protests over the summer. But uniformed police officers, plainclothes state security agents and government supporters holding picket signs surrounded the homes of dissidents, human rights activists said.
“My house has been under siege for three days,” Manuel Guerra, a doctor in Holguín, in eastern Cuba, said in a text message. “Cuba is in mourning.”
In a highly unusual move, Cuban activists had announced plans for a “Civic March for Change,” a nationwide rally set for Monday afternoon to protest the lack of freedom under a Communist Party that has ruled the island for more than six decades.
The organizers, many of them young artists, had hoped to ride on the momentum of the marches in July in which thousands of Cubans demanded food, medicine and liberty. In recent days, fearing violence, they toned down their plans.
On Sunday, a leader of the movement, Yunior García Aguilera, had planned to march alone holding a white rose, but government supporters prevented him from leaving his house, videos posted on Facebook show. At one point, he peeked through the blinds of his apartment window with a white flower in his hand — until someone on a higher floor lowered a huge Cuban flag, blocking the view.
“This community is not going to allow a media show,” one of García’s neighbors shouted in his face, according to a video posted on Facebook.
For weeks, the government had been denouncing García in the state-run news media, dimming the prospects of others joining the protests, according to María Antonieta Colunga Olivera, a journalist. “They have torn him to pieces on Cuban national television, and they have discredited him in every possible way,” she said.
Colunga, too, has come under government scrutiny. She said a police car was stationed outside her home in Havana all day Sunday, a practice the government has increasingly used as an intimidation tactic. A state security agent visited Monday, she said.
On Monday, dissidents shared videos and photographs of police officers and government supporters surrounding their homes. A few filmed themselves taking to the streets dressed in white as an act of protest. At least 40 people were arrested, according to Cynthia de la Cantera, a Cuban journalist who was helping two social justice organizations keep track.
In Santa Clara, Saily González, an activist, posted a video of herself hanging white sheets outside her house as a symbol of freedom, as people who support the Cuban revolution shouted her down with insults, in what is known in Cuba as an “act of repudiation.”
Alexander Figueredo Izaguirre, a doctor in Bayamo, said security officials had been in his neighborhood since Sunday. Photographs taken that day showed an empty street with two police and military vehicles parked on the corner.
“Here in Bayamo, they have everything militarized,” Figueredo said.
The Cuban government declared the protest illegal, and the state-run news media has repeatedly characterized the dissidents as puppets of Washington.
“Cuba has never allowed and will never allow actions of a foreign government in our territory trying to destabilize the country,” Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez said last week.
State news media focused on the country’s positive developments: the return of in-person classes and the reopening of tourism. The protest, the government media said, was “destined to failure.”
“We are facing a manipulation of our reality,” the state newspaper Granma said.
The plans for the protest come during a year marked by severe food shortages and a health care system strained by the coronavirus pandemic. The number of Cubans fleeing to the United States has also been on a noticeable rise. By early November, only a month into the fiscal year, the U.S. Coast Guard had already recovered 248 Cubans at sea, compared with 49 for all of last year.
But the government made clear that it was in no mood for dissent.
Juan Pappier, a Cuba researcher at Human Rights Watch who has been closely following the protests, said anyone caught participating would have faced a year in prison, while anyone accused of throwing a rock — even without evidence — could be sentenced to 10 years, he said.
Hundreds of people are still in jail from the protests that erupted in July.
“I think there’s a strategy of total suppression — not even repression,” Pappier said.
Yoani Sánchez, a blogger and activist, said the show of force illustrated how frightened the Cuban government was of people demanding freedom of expression. But she questioned whether the government could continue to dedicate extensive resources on street corners across the country.
“Fear changed sides,” Sánchez said during her morning podcast. “How? Cuban officials have deployed an intense campaign of threats, surveillance and cuts to the internet that demonstrate only one thing, ladies and gentlemen: the terror, the panic, they have of losing power.”