The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion By suppressing protest, Cuba’s government displays its fear of the people

Protest organizer Yunior García Aguilera shows a white rose through a window at his home in Havana on Nov. 14. (Eliana Aponte for The Washington Post)
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The Cuban freedom movement did not succeed in staging the massive “Civic March for Change” it had planned for Monday. Having been put on notice several weeks ago that opposition leaders wanted to take to the streets, the Havana regime of President Miguel Díaz-Canel prepared and carried out an impressively sophisticated repressive strategy. Over the weekend and on Monday, plainclothes government agents and uniformed security forces alike flooded parks and sidewalks across the island. Police parked their cars outside the homes of known dissidents. Hostile crowds gathered “spontaneously” to trap them inside, shouting insults.

Surely one of the more poignant images to emerge from these events was that of the proposed march’s best-known organizer, 39-year-old playwright Yunior García Aguilera, peering through the window of his besieged Havana apartment, a white rose in his hand. This was the flower with which he had planned to march, alone if necessary, through the streets of Cuba’s capital on Sunday, in lieu of what had become the impossible task of going out the following day. Mr. Garcia displayed it as a gesture of defiance — and of peace. The allusion is to a famous poem in which José Marti, Cuba’s literary and political national hero, metaphorically offers such a flower both to a friend and a “cruel” tormentor.

Though the Cuban regime may portray the suffocation of the planned march as evidence of its strength and the freedom movement’s weakness, the opposite is true. No, its opponents were not able to carry out a more organized reprise of the sudden uprising in the streets that shook Cuba on July 11. Yet the vast, expensive mobilization the government required to prevent it showed, albeit backhandedly, that the sentiments aroused and expressed four months ago are too powerful and widespread to be contained otherwise. That is a disastrous failure for a government whose legitimacy rests on its claim to speak not only for the Cuban people but also for downtrodden masses everywhere.

Following the July 11 uprising, Havana sought to appease the increasingly restive public through minor reforms, such as greater latitude for small private businesses and tweaks to the legal provisions that allowed it to hold dissenters without charges. At its heart, though, the one-party state remained intact: The planning for Monday showed most Cubans were not deceived. Certainly a confident government, based securely in the support of its people, would not have behaved as the Cuban regime did this week. Yoani Sánchez, a dissident journalist, put it well on her morning podcast: “Fear has switched sides” in Cuba, she said. Before July 11, the people feared the government. Since that date, the government has feared the people. And Nov. 15 will be remembered as a date that confirmed its fear is great indeed.