The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cuban security forces throttle planned nationwide protest

Cuban police officers guard the Capitol building in Havana on Nov. 15. (Eliana Aponte/for The Washington Post)
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Cuban authorities foiled a planned nationwide protest on Monday, arresting some dissidents, trapping others inside their homes and flooding the streets with security forces to prevent a repeat of the spontaneous demonstrations that stunned the communist government last summer.

A group of artists and young activists had called for the Civic March for Change to demand more political freedoms and the release of political prisoners. The group, which organized through a Facebook forum called Archipiélago, had hoped to galvanize citizens’ frustrations over an economic crisis and one-party rule. Those grievances boiled over in July in the biggest demonstrations in six decades.

But the government rejected a permit for the latest march and launched a media campaign to discredit the organizers. On Monday, the protest route in Old Havana was largely empty, except for police and military vehicles. Before the scheduled march, swarms of police officers in plain clothes encircled the homes of activists and independent journalists, preventing them from leaving. Government loyalists fanned out across Cuban cities, yelling taunts outside the homes of opposition figures.

“If the streets are militarized, the main opposition leaders can’t go out, and the press can’t go out, it will be difficult to do anything,” Abraham Jiménez Enoa, an independent journalist who contributes opinion pieces to The Washington Post, said in a telephone interview Monday before the planned protest. A day earlier, security forces had surrounded his Havana apartment building.

“There is an enormous deployment of police and use of repression,” he said. “We are living a state of siege.”

The government’s swift shutdown of the protests indicated it still had firm control over the party and security bureaucracy — despite President Biden’s assertion that Cuba was a “failed state.”

The best-known protest organizer, 39-year-old playwright Yunior García Aguilera, was trapped in his apartment, surrounded by security forces and government supporters, and his telephone and Internet were cut off. On Sunday, he had planned to stage a solo march through Havana, carrying a white rose. But he was reduced to waving the flower from an apartment window while displaying a sign reading “My house is blocked.”

Even that protest was quickly ended, when people stationed on the roof dropped a giant Cuban flag over the side of the building, covering his windows.

The government’s smothering of the protests “is a reality check,” said Richard Feinberg, a Cuba expert who served on the National Security Council during President Bill Clinton’s administration. “Expectations in some quarters that the regime was fragile, panicked and about to collapse seem to be well off the mark.”

Cuba harasses, detains activists on eve of planned protest march

Cuban authorities had planned to reopen the island to tourists on Monday, in hopes of reinvigorating an economy devastated by 20 months of covid-19 restrictions. But the images transmitted from the island suggested anything but a Caribbean holiday.

José Carlos Melo, a 26-year-old activist in Havana, said he woke up Monday to find his phone cut off from Internet access and security officials outside his residence.

“There’s two of them in a car,” he said. “They’ll stand in the doorway and won’t let me out, and they already told me that if I become violent they’ll arrest me for contempt.”

One video posted on Twitter, from the city of Holguin, showed men in plain clothes shoving a woman in a white dress and several other people into an unmarked van. “Down with the communist dictatorship!” yelled someone near the person recording the video.

The heavy security presence discouraged the participation of the ordinary people who powered the summer demonstrations. Citizens surged into the streets across Cuba on July 11 to protest food shortages, blackouts and a medical system overwhelmed by the pandemic. “Freedom! Freedom!” they shouted.

Security forces broke up those marches and arrested hundreds of people. Since then, the government has promised to legalize small- and medium-sized businesses, one of the most dramatic economic reforms in years. The pandemic has ebbed after a massive vaccination campaign.

Yet many Cubans are struggling after the gross domestic product plunged 11 percent last year, due largely to the pandemic and U.S. sanctions.

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

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday condemned Cuba’s “intimidation tactics” leading up to the march, and called on the government to allow people to freely assemble and “use their voices without fear of government reprisal.”

Cuba’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodríguez, retorted on Twitter: “Antony Blinken should learn once and for all that the Cuban government’s sole duty is to its people and rejects, on its behalf, the U.S. interference.”

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

Activists had urged residents nervous about participating in Monday’s march to instead show their support by banging pots and pans, wearing white and applauding demonstrators.

But there was little evidence of citizens taking up even that modest show of defiance.

Carlos Alzugaray, a retired Cuban diplomat, predicted the authorities would ride out the protests. “There is a cost to be paid by the government for being — let’s call it heavy-handed — today,” he said in a phone interview. “But it can go away.”

Nonetheless, he said more protests were likely in the future, unless the government changed tack. “Some of the problems that the Archipiélago people claim are real,” he said. He pointed to a failed dialogue with culture ministry officials last year in which activists sought more intellectual freedom.

Norges Rodríguez, co-founder of YucaByte, a Florida-based website on Cuban affairs, said more demonstrations were inevitable from a new generation of Cubans with little connection to Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution. “In the last few months there are new faces appearing all the time” in the dissident movement, he said. “They are people who, a year ago, didn’t publicly express disagreement with the regime.”

Before the scheduled march, veteran opposition leader Manuel Cuesta Morúa predicted the protest movement would continue no matter how many people turned out Monday. He noted that Cubans of all ages and professions had taken to the streets in July.

“While society is self-democratizing, the state is becoming more authoritarian,” he said. “They’re walking in opposite directions.”

He was detained Monday while trying to leave his home to join the protest.

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