Now, the renewed economic vise is one factor generating a stream of protests against the government. José Daniel Ferrer, the most prominent opposition leader on the island, and head of the Patriotic Union of Cuba, known as UNPACU, had been attempting to distribute food and medicine to the needy out of his group’s headquarters and his home in Santiago de Cuba. Mr. Ferrer, who suffered through an arduous spell in Cuba’s prisons in 2019, was also among those jailed for dissent in the 2003 “Black Spring” arrests of the followers of Oswaldo Payá, champion of the Varela Project, a citizen initiative calling for a referendum on democracy in Cuba. Mr. Payá was killed in a suspicious car wreck in 2012, and Mr. Ferrer has joined with Mr. Payá’s daughter, Rosa María Payá, in the Cuba Decide movement seeking democratic change.
Mr. Ferrer had turned UNPACU’s headquarters into a food bank and medical clinic for about 200 residents, who were harassed and interrogated by state security as they used the facility. On March 20, Mr. Ferrer and about 60 UNPACU activists, and some others, went on a hunger strike, which is still ongoing by 39 of them on the island and five abroad, to protest the interference and, more generally, the six-decade-old dictatorship founded by Fidel Castro and still influenced by his brother Raúl. The security forces have cut off communications to the UNPACU office and surrounded it.
The island has seen months of protest. Last November, the government cracked down on the activities of an artists’ collective, the San Isidro Movement, whose members dared to speak out against the arrest of one of their own. Then in February, a protest anthem created by a collaboration between musicians on the island and in Miami went viral. “Patria y Vida,” or Homeland and Life, a play on Fidel Castro’s famous cry of “Patria o Muerte,” is fiercely critical of the regime. “No more lies, my people ask for freedom, no more doctrines” the lyrics declare, to a chorus of “it’s over.” The video has 4.2 million views on YouTube and was being distributed on flash drives on the island. It was met with a barrage of attacks by Cuban state media. It struck a chord.
Cuba’s current leaders should see Mr. Ferrer’s hunger strike not as a threat but as a symptom of a deeper crisis, both economic and political. They have never tolerated dissent, but are unable to extinguish it. If they stick with the old ways — a centrally planned socialist economy and authoritarian, one-party state — the island will sink deeper into despair.
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