The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cubans, broken by pandemic and fueled by social media, confront their police state

Police cars were overturned in the streets of Havana amid protests Sunday against the communist government of Cuba. (Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images)

Alfredo Martínez Ramírez was browsing his gray iPhone 6 in his Havana apartment Sunday when he saw the footage on Facebook Live.

Ordinary people in the country’s interior had taken to the streets to protest the communist government and its failure to protect the population from a failing economy, energy shortages and the ravages of the coronavirus.

Martinez gasped. For months, the 29-year-old civil engineer and activist had joined small protests led by artists and intellectuals, but they had not gained broader traction. This was different.

“It was the moment so many of us had waited for,” Martinez said. “There were people who were not political, not intellectuals. The marginalized. People from different social classes. Everyone, just desperate, just fed up, standing together and screaming for freedom. Because the people are hungry, and they have lost their fear.”

Thousands of protesters took to the streets in Cuba from Havana to Santiago on July 11 in the biggest anti-government protests in decades. (Video: Reuters)

Cubans hold biggest anti-government protests in decades; Biden says U.S. stands with people

Cuban soldiers and police patrolled the streets of the capital Monday, the day after the apparently spontaneous eruption of the broadest unrest seen in Cuba since the early years of the revolution, and the security presence was increased in other major cities. Many dozens of protesters were detained Sunday and overnight, were injured, or went missing. Smaller demonstrations broke out again Monday in parts of Havana and the interior.

In seeing the images of fearless masses overturning police cars and standing defiant in the face of official force, dissidents in Cuba and the exile community in South Florida embraced a historic moment they had long sought. But analysts say Cuba’s powerful intelligence and security apparatus — which has not only successfully enforced a police state at home for six decades but helped support allied regimes in Venezuela, Nicaragua and beyond — will probably prevent the protests from spiraling rapidly into a Caribbean version of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Yet even if authorities can quell the current unrest, the breadth of the protests suggests the most significant threat to the government since the collapse of the Soviet Union — and one that could grow. The new generation of Cuban leaders, meanwhile, is meeting the test without the experience or mystique of the Castros. Fidel, the father of the communist state, is now five years dead. His brother Raúl, 90, has gone into retirement.

Cuba’s Castro era to end as Raúl announces he will step down from Communist Party post

President Miguel Díaz-Canel, a handpicked successor who lacks his predecessors’ historical weight, now faces a convergence of problems that will not be easily fixed. One of the most challenging: how to manage the island’s social media explosion, which greatly expanded in 2019 with the arrival of 3G mobile phone service, an opening that Díaz-Canel was widely seen at the time as having championed. Its power was visible Sunday as citizens were mobilized by social media and trained their cameras on police as they bloodied protesters.

“Telephones are now the guns of the Cuban people,” said Abraham Jiménez Enoa, a Cuban dissident journalist.

The demonstrations come amid the country’s worst economic crisis since the Special Period of the early 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The pain of the economic screws that were tightened by the Trump administration — and have not been loosened under the Biden administration — has been dramatically compounded by the accelerating pandemic.

Food shelves in government stores across Cuba are increasingly bare. What few goods are available in hard-currency shops require hours-long waits in line — lines so long that they have increased the risk of the spread of the coronavirus. Blackouts are worsening. So are fuel shortages. Coronavirus infections are spiking to new heights: Reported cases have doubled in less than two weeks, to nearly 7,000 a day.

The ability of Cuba’s closest allies — Russia and Venezuela — to aid Havana will be tested by their own challenges at home, leaving Díaz-Canel with a limited toolbox and a ticking clock.

Arturo Lopez-Levy, a Cuba expert at Holy Names University in California, sees a “watershed moment.”

“This is the first time in 62 years that we see protests that are not localized,” he said. “I think it’s still within the universe of something they can control and survive. But if they do not act fast to address the economic and pandemic challenges, this situation could threaten their power.

“Maybe not today. But if they can’t control this, where will the government be in three or four months?”

Cuba protests: Scenes of angry confrontations

President Biden, who the Cubans had hoped would reinstitute the Obama-era thaw in relations, has showed little intention of scaling back the Trump measures that curbed travel and ended cruise ship stops. On Monday, he gave little reason to think that might change.

“We stand with the Cuban people and their clarion call for freedom and relief from the tragic grip of the pandemic and from the decades of repression and economic suffering to which they have been subjected by Cuba’s authoritarian regime,” he said in a statement. “The Cuban people are bravely asserting fundamental and universal rights. Those rights, including the right of peaceful protest and the right to freely determine their own future, must be respected.”

In a sign of how alarmed the government was Sunday, Díaz-Canel called on Cuba’s “revolutionary” citizens to confront the protesters — a call that led to clashes in the streets.

At a news conference Monday morning, Díaz-Canel denounced the protesters as “vulgar criminals” who he said had attacked police and looted stores.

Cuba watchers called that a mistake — a suggestion that he did not grasp the bread-and-butter issues pushing people into the streets.

But Díaz-Canel’s tone was less bombastic than the day before. He decried “those who seek to discredit the revolution and fracture the unity of our country,” but he also presented ministers who offered technical updates on efforts to confront Cuba’s challenges. Officials said they would improve the response to the country’s escalating coronavirus outbreak by turning schools and hotels into isolation centers and emergency hospitals. They said the energy problems that have caused worsening blackouts were being worked out.

Díaz-Canel denounced a “nonconventional war” and a digital space that have challenged the revolution. He said agitators were trying to portray him as a “tyrant” when the real culprit behind the acute food and fuel shortages — which in recent weeks have been some of the worst ever seen on the island — was the U.S. embargo.

In a tweet, Cuba’s foreign minister suggested the U.S.-funded efforts with dissidents was behind Sunday’s protests. In recent weeks, Cuba has denounced the links between dissidents and the Mexico-based Cuba program director at the National Democratic Institute, a congressionally funded nonprofit. “The resurgence of the economic siege policy in the midst of the pandemic, together with interventionist operations and misinformation by the US government are the main threat to the integrity of the Cuban people,” Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez tweeted.

Political scientist Philip Brenner, a professor emeritus at American University who has written extensively on Cuba, warned that “calling out for civilians to be some kind of police force is only going to create more problems.”

“They cannot just blame this on the Americans anymore,” he said. “The government needs to be smarter than this.”

The repressive response — broadcast to the world via social media — is a public-relations nightmare for an authoritarian state sensitive about its international reputation. Cuba had been enjoying accolades recently for achieving breakthroughs in its homegrown coronavirus vaccine.

Against the odds, Cuba could become a coronavirus vaccine powerhouse

The protests went beyond frustrations over food lines and power outages, venturing into a challenge to the government itself. Protesters could be heard chanting “patria y vida” — homeland and life — a play on the communist slogan “Homeland or Death” that has become a social media phenomenon among Cuban artists, musicians and dissidents.

The Cuban government’s grip on power is considered significantly firmer than those of its regional allies, Venezuela and Nicaragua. Its military and intelligence agencies are deeply intertwined in the Communist Party apparatus, and its people have lived under the communist system for more than half a century. The U.S. embargo indeed inhibits imports of spare parts, fuel and equipment, and is broadly resented across Cuba.

Some analysts fear that the protests could push the government toward more repression rather than less, especially if it perceives a serious threat.

On Monday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) raised the specter of the thousands of Cubans who headed for South Florida in rafts after the last major protest in Cuba, in 1994.

“Regime in Cuba will now threaten that a rafter or Mariel style crisis ‘is inevitable’ if the US doesn’t stop encouraging protests & return to Obama policy,” Rubio tweeted. “We must not cave to blackmail & [President Biden] must warn them that encouraging mass migration will be considered a hostile action.”

What made Sunday remarkable was Cubans such as Anthony Dehesa, a 23-year-old Havana student, who protested for the first time in his life. He’d learned of the spreading demonstrations from social media and WhatsApp groups. He said that what he saw energized him.

“I wanted to go out, I wanted to tell the world what is happening,” he said. “My friends agreed, and we took a car and went to the Malecón,” Havana’s famous seafront esplanade.

He didn’t know what to expect, he said, but as they walked toward central Havana, they heard people shouting “freedom” and joined in.

“I knew we were doing the right thing: Everyone was feeling what I am feeling,” he said.

The pandemic, he said, has worsened the severe challenges of living in Cuba for him and his mother. He said inflation, food and fuel shortages, and a lack of opportunities pushed him to protest.

“I don’t respond to any political party or movement,” he said. “I am neither a traitor nor am I against my country. I just want the situation to improve. …

“We need an urgent change of the government or system. It is not about communism or socialism, it is about allowing the people to live. Why did Fidel achieve the revolution? Because people did not agree with the system they were living under! It is the same as we are living today!”

Miguel, a 31-year-old who works in a restaurant that serves sandwiches, pizzas and spaghetti — part of the country’s struggling and strictly controlled private sector — also protested for the first time Sunday. His income, he said, has fallen by more than half as Cuba closed its borders during the pandemic, and he’s grown accustomed to standing in lines starting at 6 a.m. for basics such as chicken and oil — sometimes to only leave empty-handed.

He said he was terrified as he walked quietly with the other protesters, refraining from yelling or chanting against the government.

“It’s very hard to be the first person to go out and protest,” he said. “But if someone does, all of Cuba will join.”

Ana Vanessa Herrero in Caracas, Venezuela, and Christine Armario in Miami contributed to this report.

Read more:

As sanctions bite in Cuba, the U.S. — once a driver of hope — is now a source of pain

Biden wants to re-thaw relations with Cuba. He’ll have to navigate Florida politics.

Cubans are using social media to air their grievances — and the government is responding, sometimes