The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Cuba, it turns out, security forces really are everywhere

Cubans disrupt traffic on Nov. 28 in a protest near the Ecuadoran Embassy in Havana to express discontent with a new rule that requires Cubans to have a visa to visit the South American country. (Desmond Boylan/AP)
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HAVANA — The protests that erupted Friday in Havana at airline offices and outside Ecuador's Embassy were a rare occurrence in this tightly controlled society, where street demonstrations and anti-government activism are essentially forbidden.

As such, the protests were an opportunity to see the Cuban government's extensive security apparatus in action. In a part of the world where police often respond to demonstrators with riot shields, tear gas and clubs, the Cuban government showed how it can squelch any disturbance with subtle psychological messaging and a chess-game approach to controlling the streets.

The protests flared up after the Ecuadoran government announced a new visa requirement, effective Dec. 1, in an attempt to stop Cubans from using their country as a springboard to the United States. For those who had laid down their life savings for an airline ticket, the rules had suddenly changed, potentially leaving them unable to travel or get a refund. They were incensed.

It didn't really matter to Cuban authorities that the immediate target of the protesters' ire was Ecuador, not the communist government. Cuban officials have long insisted they cannot afford any unrest that potentially gets out of hand, lest the Americans use it as an excuse to intervene. The government keeps a tight lid on any anti-Castro activity, and dissident groups like the Ladies in White who attempt weekly protest marches are hauled off and handled roughly.

But Friday's event was different because it wasn't planned. And it was loaded with risk, since it was driven by Cubans determined to leave, just like the 1980 occupation of the Peruvian Embassy that led to the Mariel boatlift.

By late morning Friday, when it became clear that airlines were not offering refunds, an angry crowd of several hundred gathered outside the Ecuadoran Embassy in the city's Miramar neighborhood, demanding visas and chanting, "Give us our money back!"

Uniformed Cuban police officers flooded the area, but more impressive was the deployment of plainclothes security agents. They seemed to appear out of nowhere, some dressed in sneakers, ripped jeans and gold jewelry, making them nearly indistinguishable from the protesters. Others appeared to be moving casually among the crowd.

Only the uniformed police were armed, and they had no helmets, clubs or other riot gear, let alone armored vehicles. Instead of projecting force with a show of weapons or equipment, the Cuban agents with their sheer numbers gave the impression that they were everywhere, and the situation was never out of their control.

Calmly, methodically, Cuban police and security agents began carving up the neighborhood around the Ecuadoran Embassy like a chessboard, closing streets and isolating the cluster of protesters from onlookers or anyone who might consider joining them.

Now the protesters were hemmed in. They were free to leave, but not to return. After that it was mostly just a game of attrition.

Government trucks arrived with metal barricades to fully seal off the area. More plainclothes officers and security agents poured in, then soldiers and special forces troops, nearly all of them unarmed.

By late afternoon, it began to rain, and many of the protesters gave up at that point, knowing the embassy would be closed over the weekend. A smaller number refused to leave.

"We had to go to the bathroom right in the street, in front of the police," said Yalena de la Oz, 30, who said she spent Friday night in the street with other protesters who insisted they wouldn't go until they had visas. She has a flight to Quito on Dec. 2.

The government kept its barricades and police lines in place through the weekend, knowing it would need them Monday.

By Monday before dawn, de la Oz was back along with several hundred others demanding a response from Ecuadoran officials. By then, the barricades were so extensive that the protesters had to stand two blocks from the embassy. There were easily as many police and soldiers as demonstrators. Entire families sat on the sidewalks with their packed suitcases.

The crowd finally dispersed Monday afternoon when Ecuadoran Embassy officials said they would begin issuing visas to Cubans who had already purchased flights. Cheers went up as some in the crowd went running to make photocopies of their passports and plane tickets.

Cuban migration to the United States has surged to its highest levels in decades this year, partly on fears that better ties with the United States will mean an end to the unique immigration benefits they received under the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966.

U.S. and Cuban officials met in Washington on Monday for regularly scheduled talks on migration issues but remained at an impasse, as the U.S. side said the Adjustment Act isn't up for discussion. The presence of some 3,000 U.S.-bound Cuban migrants stranded in Costa Rica has put new focus on the issue; the migrants were stopped when Nicaragua recently closed its southern border to them.

On Tuesday morning, a few hours after the meeting in Washington, Cuban authorities said they will reinstate the exit visa system for many categories of doctors, saying the measure was needed to stop a brain drain that is undermining the island's public health system. Cuban physicians will have to apply for permission to travel abroad starting Dec. 7, just as they did before 2013, when the government lifted its widely despised exit visa requirement.