The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cuban government, dissidents head toward Monday confrontation

Yunior Garcia Aguilera, playwright and one of the organizers of a protest march set for Monday, during an interview at his home in Havana on Nov. 12.
Yunior Garcia Aguilera, playwright and one of the organizers of a protest march set for Monday, during an interview at his home in Havana on Nov. 12. (Ramon Espinosa/AP)
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The pounding, suspenseful music warned of something dangerous. A man in a white lab coat appeared on screen to recount his participation, along with Cuban dissidents, in training seminars on how to subvert the Cuban military.

He is a doctor, he explained, an oncologist who also has served for the past 25 years as a secret agent of Cuban security. His assignment as “Agent Fernando”: to infiltrate the counterrevolutionary movement he charged is directed and paid for by the “great enemy of the north.”

The doctor was the star of one of a crescendo of televised exposés by the Cuban government in recent weeks, designed to discourage participation in the islandwide “Civic March for Change” that Cuba’s blossoming opposition movement has called for on Monday. Demonstrations in support of the march are planned in Miami and many world capitals.

Hundreds took to the streets in Miami to support Cuban dissidents on Nov. 14, the day before a planned islandwide “Civic March for Change” in Cuba. (Video: Reuters)

The villain of the television piece was Yunior Garcia Aguilera, the bespectacled, 30-something actor and playwright who has become the most prominent current face of the dissident movement, in which Cuban artists have played a major role. He participated in a 2019 university seminar in Spain — which Agent Fernando apparently also attended — at which two academics discussed their work on the Cuban armed forces.

The Biden administration has described the movement as the tip of a turning point in Cuba. It sparked unprecedented peaceful demonstrations by thousands on July 11 that were violently put down by Cuban security and led to hundreds of arrests.

Because “circumstances have changed” on the island, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria last Sunday, President Biden has held off on unveiling his long-awaited policy toward Cuba as he considers “the best way forward.” The Cuban government’s response to the Monday march, he and other officials have indicated, will play a role in how the administration proceeds.

Sullivan dismissed suggestions that U.S. politics was also driving the delay in implementing promised reversals of at least some of the Trump administration’s harsh policies toward Cuba.

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But as the administration struggles to pass a broad domestic agenda with a razor-thin congressional majority, officials readily acknowledge they cannot afford to offend. An economic embargo and isolation of Cuba’s communist government have enjoyed bipartisan support for decades, led by Cuban American lawmakers and interrupted only by President Barack Obama’s brief diplomatic outreach.

Cuba is “complicated,” a senior administration official said recently. “The ongoing policy review is one where the President of the United States has asked us to find a third way . . . that allows us to transcend what has been a pendulum between Republican and Democratic administrations that have no consistency.”

“That third way is very elusive on Cuba, particularly after what happened on July 11,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. The Cuban government’s behavior, showing “that they’re in survival mode, and that the way to survive is cracking down . . . is making it difficult for us.”

Measures already drafted, which the administration hopes to announce before the end of the year, include a reauthorization of remittances and U.S. citizen travel to Cuba — in both cases more than the paltry amount Trump allowed but less than were authorized under Obama. A Biden promise to guarantee Internet connectivity on the island, avoiding government shutdowns of social media, which has played a major role in opposition mobilization, has run into technological and legal problems.

More sanctions, along the lines of those imposed by Biden on the Cuban security services and their leaders after July 11, are also expected.

A number of Cuba experts and some Democrats believe that the “open hand” Obama extended toward Havana showed results in expanding economic and civic, if not political, freedoms. They argue that the administration’s attempts to calibrate the policy are doomed to failure, as is its desire to woo the powerful Cuban American voting bloc in Florida, lost last year to Trump, in next year’s midterm elections.

Biden, said American University professor and administrator William Leogrande, is “making excuses for not having the political courage to do anything.”

“Democrats who think they can outflank the Republicans in Florida on the Cuba issue are kidding themselves,” Leogrande said in an interview. “Some of the Republican elected officials are calling for U.S. military intervention in Cuba. You can’t really get to the right of that.”

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Both the administration and the Cuban government have framed the impending Monday protest according to their own perceptions.

To Washington, the willingness of long-cowed citizens to demand freedom and the government’s violent response in July have proved that a new day has dawned in Cuba after decades of oppressive communist rule. Many attribute it to U.S. pressure and believe now is not the time to let up, although most U.S. allies — and many anti-government activists in Cuba — oppose the embargo as counterproductive and harmful to the Cuban people.

To Havana, which has banned the march, the protests are the product of the same U.S.-backed attempts at regime change that have been tried, and unsuccessful, for decades.

“Wake up from your dream,” Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said last week. “It won’t work.” Speaking to roomful of assembled foreign diplomats in Havana, he said the Monday march was “a destabilizing operation designed in Washington, with financial and material resources [that] government facilitates, with operators residing in U.S. territory and agents in their service in Cuba.”

The goal, he said in an hour-long diatribe, was “a desperate and foolish attempt to try to present Cuba as a failed state.”

Rodriguez threatened legal action against Facebook, which he said had allowed Archipielago, the civic rallying site started by Yunior Garcia Aguilera, to falsely inflate its number of followers in Cuba.

He hailed Cuba’s development of its own coronavirus vaccines, which along with isolations and lockdowns appear to have dramatically reduced the infection rate, and noted that the United States offered no help to Cuba when it was in the throes of the pandemic.

Early this month, Rodriguez said, the U.S. State Department had sent an emissary to Cuba’s embassy in Washington to offer a donation of 1 million vaccine doses. Cuba, in an account that U.S. officials largely confirmed, refused, saying it no longer needed U.S.-produced vaccines and suggesting they be donated elsewhere.

The United States has continued to foment counterrevolution on the island, Rodriguez said. Washington, the regime has charged, was behind the alleged “counterrevolutionary” training of Garcia Aguilera at the seminar in Spain and other similar gatherings.

A State Department spokesperson, asked to comment on the 2019 seminar at Saint Louis University in Madrid, said that the U.S. Agency for International Development “and other U.S.-funded programs are often free and open to the public, as cost should not hinder a person’s participation in an event or educational or professional development.” USAID did not respond to questions about the specific seminar.

U.S. officials maintain that CIA attempts to overthrow the Cuban government were ended decades ago. The Biden administration, following in the footsteps of its predecessors, has budgeted $20 million this year to fund “democracy promotion” programs and provide humanitarian assistance in Cuba, money that it says is distributed to nongovernmental organizations.

Meanwhile, expectations of a massive turnout at the Monday march appear to be dwindling as the government has warned it will not tolerate what it charges is “counterrevolutionary” and “terrorist” action.

“The authorities are orchestrating a big campaign in the media and intense repression against organizers and activists,” Manuel Cuesta Morua, a Cuban historian and one of the activists organizing the protests, said via WhatsApp. “There are threats of prison, people losing their jobs, cuts in Internet, homes surrounded by security forces, arbitrary detentions and jail sentences, or requests for sentences that will set an example.”

Radio Marti, the U.S. government broadcasting facility into Cuba, warned U.S. citizens there to “avoid protests” Monday and “take into account the potential of a large police presence” in the streets.

In a move upping the ante for confrontation, the government has designated Monday as the beginning of Cuba’s post-pandemic era, opening its borders to the foreign tourists, whom the island’s struggling economy depends on, for the first time since last year, reopening schools, and inviting patriotic Cubans to hold “normalization” parties in the streets.

Garcia Aguilera, in a Facebook post Thursday, appeared to acknowledge the current reality. “I won’t be the one to prevent the rest of the protesters inside Cuba from exercising their rights”on Monday or any other day, he wrote. “I only invite you, respectfully, not to do anything that jeopardizes your physical integrity and that of other people. . . . Our goal is to end violence, not to multiply it.”

He had decided, Garcia Aguilera said, that he would conduct a “solo” march on Sunday, walking alone down a main avenue of central Havana, carrying a white rose, “on behalf of all citizens whom the regime has deprived of their right” to protest the following day.

On Sunday morning, however, as a steady rain fell in Havana, Garcia Aguilera said on Facebook that he might not march. His home was surrounded by state security, he said, his family was fearful, and journalists gathered outside were being pushed away. But he called on all Cubans, whether inside or out, to start “applauding” at 3 p.m., sending a signal of solidarity that no one could say was against the law.

His plans have sparked a lively debate on Cuba’s still wide-open social media platforms, where some have congratulated his bravery while others have dismissed him as a grandstander and questioned his assumption of leadership among a wide range of opposition factions — many of which predate his own.

Regardless of what happens Monday, Cuesta Morua said he believes the movement will continue “in some fashion.”

“There is a combination of social dissatisfaction, eagerness for freedom, new energy in a young generation that has no connection to the revolution, and hope for a better future for the country,” he said, describing a momentum that has little to do with U.S. policy.

“The sense of an ending of one historical cycle and the opening of a more democratic one is already rooted in society,” Cuesta Morua said.

Mary Beth Sheridan in Mexico City contributed to this report.