This is no small act for a people who for generations policed their own actions and words out of fear — of being detained or imprisoned, losing their jobs or homes, getting harassed. Beyond a tiny circle, no one could be trusted with the truth that so many tucked deep inside their hearts — that equality and shared prosperity never existed in Cuba. The system operates by caging people in and breaking them down in the name of communist orthodoxy and self-preservation.
“No más mentiras,” they yelled. No more lies.
And they dared to cry out “Down with Díaz-Canel” — Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel.
The spontaneous protests rang out loudly here in Miami, where police shut down streets in front of the Versailles restaurant, the city’s ground zero for gossip, outrage and debate about Cuba. Cuban Americans celebrated and shouted hours of encouragement for Cubans on the island, a rare moment of solidarity.
Across the Florida Straits, Díaz-Canel, viewed largely as an apparatchik, dug in. He called protesters “vulgar criminals” and unleashed the police and plainclothes henchmen to counter the crowd: “To the streets, revolutionaries.” It is unknown how many were injured and detained but there were reports and videos on social media of violent confrontations, shots fired and people being hauled away. The government also shut down the Internet to stifle the protests.
Even by Cuban standards, this year and last have been miserable. The Cuban economy shrank by 11 percent. Tourism has been ravaged by the pandemic. Remittances from overseas, the lifeblood of many Cubans, plummeted, in part because of new restrictions under the Trump administration.
Hunger is widespread, and people wait in line for hours to buy basic staples that may never show up (old-school communism). A second wave of the coronavirus is swamping the island, and Cuba’s homegrown vaccines are rolling out too slowly to beat it back. Meanwhile, the health-care system is collapsing, fuel is ultra-scarce, blackouts are a daily occurrence and water shortages are common.
Currency reforms have sent inflation soaring. Cuba cannot produce enough of its own food, or much of anything else. And enterprise is essentially nonexistent. The last time Cuba was in such dire straits was during the “special period” in the 1990s after the Soviet Union collapsed.
Cuba’s problems are baked into a system of government that does not work for most people — and Cubans took to the streets on Sunday to hold their government accountable. The knee-jerk government response to any problem — blame the U.S. economic embargo for Cuba’s distress — has lost its hold.
As often happens in grass-roots protests, young people, boosted by social media, are the movement’s motor. Chief among them is the San Isidro Movement, a collection of artists and activists who have demanded greater freedom of expression. They have emboldened many Cubans to stand up for their rights.
The group has also paid the price. Some have been arrested and detained, watched and harassed, which is not hard in Cuba, where ambiguous charges such as “delinquency” can be applied to just about any behavior the government doesn’t like. Luis Manuel Otero Álcantara, a leader in the collective, spent a month in the hospital after going on a hunger strike. On Sunday, he called on people to gather at Havana’s Malecon, its famous sea wall.
Earlier this year, a powerful song, “Patria y Vida,” featuring some of these activists, went viral. The artists pilloried the government, slamming the dictatorship with a directness that previously might have seemed unthinkable.
While the song might have steeled listeners’ courage, it also put the government on notice. In the protests on Sunday, and in the streets of Miami, it sounded like an anthem.
The activist-singers turned the famous Castro slogan “Patria o Muerte,” meaning “Homeland or Death,” on its head. The song title means “Homeland and Life.”
“It’s over now,” they sing. “And we’re not afraid. The deceit is over.”
Where this eruption of anger, desperation and passion will lead, I don’t know. The Cuban government has mastered the art of snuffing out protest. But it’s hard not to hope this marks the start of a long-overdue revolution. The thousands who took to the streets, knowing what they were up against, delivered a loud, clear message to the regime and to the world.
“Patria y Vida.”