The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion For a few hours, the world got to see Cubans’ desire for freedom

Protesters in Havana on July 11. (Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters)

For decades, Cuban leader Fidel Castro and his successors have ruled by fear. The streets “belong to the revolution,” Castro said, and anyone marching against the government risked arrest and prison. On Sunday, at least for a few hours, people overcame their fear and reclaimed their streets.

This was a genuinely street-level outpouring of anger and frustration. Widespread shortages of food and medicine have been the worst since the Soviet collapse and loss of subsidies in the 1990s. Cuba’s command economy is moribund and broke, tourism revenue gutted by the pandemic, and remittances from abroad curbed by U.S. sanctions. People forage for hours a day to find enough to eat. Electricity blackouts are rolling across the island. Last week came a record-smashing spike in coronavirus infections. Shocking images were spread from Cárdenas, in Matanzas province east of Havana, showing patients piling up in hospitals, some lying on benches in waiting rooms, on the floors of the corridors or in the street. Health care was supposed to be a pride of the Cuban revolution. The disaster came despite Cuba’s claim to have created two highly efficacious vaccines. Only 15 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated. On social media, the hashtag #SOSMatanzas soon became #SOSCuba, shared by celebrities and others, but when other nations offered to ship humanitarian aid to the needy cities, Cuba’s government refused the help.

On Sunday, the anger boiled over in the town of San Antonio de los Baños, south of Havana, where protesters took to the streets. Social media users rapidly shared videos, and demonstrations exploded elsewhere, unprecedented in a police state ruled by a Communist Party with a monopoly on power that curtails free speech and assembly. The protests were not only about vaccines and food; demands were also made for political freedom and an end to dictatorship. Fidel Castro died in 2016, and his brother Raúl retired from the presidency in 2018 but remains influential. Their handpicked successor, President Miguel Díaz-Canel, reacted to the demonstrations with predictable thuggishness, announcing he was sending “revolutionary” citizens to the streets to confront the protesters, and blaming everything on the United States and the U.S. trade embargo. By evening, Cuba’s state security began arrests and beatings; Internet access was throttled.

Fidel Castro’s revolution has become a tropical dystopia: an island of rich soil where people are hungry; a population of creativity and determination locked in a political straitjacket; an aging dictatorship that clings to power without legitimacy. President Biden was correct on Monday to issue a restrained statement repeating support for the Cuban people and their desire for freedom. He should consider actions to ease the humanitarian crisis, such as reversing Trump-era restrictions on remittances. Above all, Cubans should know that the outside world is watching with admiration as they attempt to shape their own destiny. Their regime should know the world will be watching if it tries again to block the peaceful expression of the people’s will.

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