The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cuba harasses, detains activists on eve of planned protest

People hang Cuban flags over the windows of Yunior García Aguilera's home in Havana on Sunday to stop the playwright and activist from communicating with journalists outside. (Eliana Aponte/for The Washington Post)
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Security forces surrounded the homes of Cuban activists on Sunday, the day before a planned march that will test the strength of the protest movement that erupted last summer when Cubans poured into the streets to demand more political freedoms on the communist-ruled island.

The best-known organizer of Monday’s protest, 39-year-old playwright Yunior García Aguilera, had announced he would march alone through Havana at 3 p.m. on Sunday, carrying a white rose in solidarity with Cubans who had been prevented from participating the following day. But hours before he set out, plainclothes police swarmed his block and besieged his building. He tried to signal to journalists from his apartment, displaying a white sheet in support of the protests, and a rose. People dropped giant Cuban flags over the side of the building to cover the windows.

“We all know we can be detained within a few hours,” García Aguilera said in a Facebook Live post on Sunday morning, appearing nervous but calm. “I will face this with dignity. I believe this country will change.”

He called on people around the nation to clap at 3 p.m. to show their “thirst for freedom,” but there did not appear to be a widespread response. “I won’t renounce my ideas,” he told The Washington Post later Sunday. He said, however, he was penned in by hundreds of security forces outside his home. “The lives of my family members are in danger,” he said.

Cuba's communist leaders have long resisted change. Protests show the risk of resisting it.

Cuban authorities had hoped to celebrate the island’s grand reopening to tourists on Monday, following a coronavirus shutdown of nearly 20 months that has crippled an already weak economy. Instead, the day has become symbolic of the confrontation between the government and pro-democracy activists.

Thousands of Cubans, fed up with food shortages, a battered health system and electricity blackouts, spontaneously joined demonstrations last July. They were the biggest protests in six decades.

Activists planned a nationwide “Civic March for Change” on Monday. But with the advance warning, the government has moved aggressively to derail another massive protest. It denied the organizers a permit, claiming they were tied to “subversive organizations” financed by the U.S. government.

In recent days, García Aguilera said, his phone lines and Internet connection were cut. Authorities summoned independent Cuban journalists and activists for questioning and warned they could face charges of public disorder.

On Sunday, the crackdown intensified. Several government critics, including Washington Post opinion contributor Abraham Jiménez Enoa, said that security forces were preventing them from leaving their homes. The Facebook forum Archipiélago, run by García Aguilera and other activists, reported that its moderator, Daniela Rojo, had vanished. Security forces detained another leader of the site, Carlos Ernesto Diaz Gonzalez, in the city of Cienfuegos, according to Archipiélago. The government suspended the credentials of several Havana-based reporters working for EFE, the Spanish news agency.

Journalists who drove to García Aguilera’s apartment building on Sunday morning were driven away by pro-government demonstrators, the playwright said. Several hours later, he appeared at his window, brandishing a white rose, according to reporters at the scene. At one point, he flashed a sign reading: “My house is blocked.” That’s when people on the roof unfurled giant Cuban flags that cascaded down the side of the three-story building, cutting him off from view.

Biden administration faces 'complicated' policy choices as protesters confront Cuban government

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday condemned Cuba’s “intimidation tactics.”

“We call on the Cuban government to respect Cubans’ rights, by allowing them to peacefully assemble and use their voices without fear of government reprisal or violence, and by keeping Internet and telecommunication lines open,” he said in a statement.

Cuban authorities have accused the U.S. government of provoking instability by backing the demonstrations — a charge Washington denies.

“The Cuban government cannot, while respecting its basic obligations, allow the United States to organize and promote a provocation like this,” Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez told foreign diplomats on Friday in Havana. He has said the demonstrators don’t represent a broad grass roots movement, but are a minority.

Activists said they didn’t expect Monday’s marches to be as big as ones that swept the island in July. Security forces broke up those protests and arrested hundreds of people. Many are still in jail.

Hundreds took to the streets in Miami to support Cuban dissidents on Nov. 14, the day before a planned islandwide “Civic March for Change” in Cuba. (Video: Reuters)

Stripped, beaten, forced to shout "Viva Fidel": inside Cuba's crackdown on dissent

Even a smaller turnout, however, could indicate that Cuba’s communist system is facing a new and unpredictable challenge to its legitimacy. The protests have been led by artists and young people who feel little connection to Fidel Castro’s 1959 Revolution. They have organized on social media, taking advantage of citizens’ increased access to the Internet in recent years.

“I don’t think the protesters have to garner as many people as came out to the streets in July to prove their point — that this sentiment has deeper roots than the government would care to acknowledge,” said Michael Bustamante, a Cuba expert at the University of Miami.

Still, he said, the stakes for the opposition are high. If there’s scant participation, it would make it easier “for the government to effectively say, ‘This is a nothingburger.’ ”

Just as much of a concern for organizers was violence by security forces. Activists have urged citizens nervous about participating to show their support by banging pots and pans, wearing white, applauding marchers and boycotting state-run television.

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