The flame that set up the protests had been flickering for a while. Sparks have flown since last year, the social discontent more apparent than usual. It happened with the San Isidro Movement demonstrations, the actions of the 27N Movement and other isolated incidents of violence against the opposition. They all set the stage for Sunday. The mass protests destroyed the often-used accusations by the regime than anyone against it is a paid CIA agent.
Those who came out in defiance included the woman I saw leaving her old apartment building in downtown Havana to confront a group of police officers who were beating a man with their batons. The man was screaming, “You are doing this to me just because I want to live and eat.” That’s exactly what moved people to the streets. The woman stood in front of the officers and yelled at them about the lack of medicine and food, about her covid-19 diagnosis, about the ambulance who had to pick her up a few days ago. “Do you think this is a country? Is this the trash you are defending?” she asked them. The man and the woman were handcuffed. They were taken away while a group of people chanted, “Freedom, abusers, freedom!”
We Cubans can’t stand this regime anymore, and our frustration is boiling over. A country with severe shortages of food and medicine, with a collapsed health care system under covid-19, plus power outages and increased political repression, has finally exploded. And this just compounds decades of mismanagement and authoritarianism.
The many peaceful demonstrations on Sunday by Cubans demanding basic rights and freedoms, demanding the simplest things that can be expected in life — a plate of food, access to medicine — faced repression by troops in antiriot gear, police and agents in plainclothes who opened fire and beat and arrested demonstrators.
The repression and images of bloodied faces that circulated online were the result of President Miguel Díaz-Canel’s reaction to the popular demands. Speaking on national TV, he gave fighting orders: “To the streets, revolutionaries,” he said as the security apparatus was deployed.
But the bravest Cubans were the ones who lost their fear and took to the streets: those from the poorest, most marginalized neighborhoods, those for whom living in Cuba has become even harder than usual. This time it wasn’t a handful of artists and opposition activists who have been “instrumentalized,” as the regime likes to say. The protests happened spontaneously, something this inept government can’t hide.
Cubans have moved on from complaining in whispers inside their own houses and nodding in disapproval in the streets to taking real action. The protests have shaken up the regime. I don’t think things will be the same in Cuba anymore: The game has changed, and a new set of rules could change our future.