A massive protest movement broke out in Cuba on July 11, 2021. Food, medicine, and electricity shortages exacerbated by the COVID pandemic were pushing an already desperate, oppressed, and impoverished nation to the brink of rebellion.
Demonstrators used the internet—which has only been legally available in the country since 2018—to coordinate action in large and small cities across the island.
"Freedom…I felt free. I have never experienced in my life something so spectacular and wonderful. You had to have lived it to understand," one Cuban citizen, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution from the Cuban government, told Reason.
In the face of widespread protests, the Cuban government arrested hundreds of protesters and shut down the internet.
Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel appeared on state TV to call for the violent suppression of the protests against "counter-revolutionaries."
In Miami, members of the sizable Cuban-American community planned to load their own fishing boats with supplies to make the 90-mile journey to the island themselves but were deterred by the U.S. Coast Guard.
So they set off fireworks in international waters off the coast of Cuba instead.
"I think what people don't understand is that the problem in Cuba stems from the fact that people can't do anything for themselves," says Martha Bueno, a Cuban-American activist. "You're only allowed to make money if the government says it's OK. And that's how the government throttles people. They'll throw you in jail if you decide to try and feed your family on your own."
Bueno started the group People 4 Cuba following the protests. They assemble packages of dry foods and medical supplies and then pay people $35/pound to smuggle them onto the island. They've shipped more than 800 pounds so far, but she says it's become more difficult in recent months as the Cuban government has cracked down harder on smuggled medical supplies.
"The big reason that we have to smuggle it into Cuba is because if I send it legitimately… the Cuban government will take that and then sell it in the stores," says Bueno. "I wanted people to receive it, people who needed it to be able to receive it without paying. And I especially won't help the Cuban government. I refuse to fund raise, pay for, and then give it to them so that they can sell it in the stores. I'm not that kind of girl."
In one of her most popular tweets, Bueno, an outspoken libertarian, wrote this: "When my Father was 21 he was sentenced to 6 years in prison for attempting to leave his country (Cuba). A year into his sentence my fearless mother broke him out of jail. You might want to trade your freedom for safety, but I sure as hell don't."
Daniel Lugo, who helps Bueno with shipping logistics, came to America from Cuba 22 years ago. He says that even though the communist dictatorship has survived for 63 years, the courage and independence of Cuba's youth give him hope that change is finally coming.
"There is a new generation of Cubans or young Cubans that have not been brainwashed," says Lugo, referring to the many young people who turned out on the streets and actively criticize the government on social media. "So that's our hope and we want to help."
But the Cuban citizen who spoke to us anonymously for fear of retribution from the government says that the regime, led by President Miguel Diaz-Canel, still has an ironclad grip on power and is able to quash the demonstrations at will by cutting off the internet and electricity, withholding supplies, and arresting and deporting dissidents.
"Everyone is living in desperation," she says. "The parents who have children that have been unfairly taken prisoner…Nobody wants to go to jail…Everyone wants change. But that's a difficult step to take."
Sebastian Arcos, associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, calls the July 11 protest "by far the most important, largest…most widespread and…openly political" protests in communist Cuba. His father was a political activist imprisoned for years by Castro and who later died of cancer after being denied treatment by the regime's politicized health care system.
He points to the protests last summer as evidence that the internet is eroding the state's power. It allowed the July protests to spread farther than has ever been seen under the communist regime, which he says is slowly but surely crumbling.
"Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the regime has been slowly decomposing," says Arcos.
He says the pillars that upheld it are crumbling: Ideology, a charismatic leader, and ability to mobilize crowds.
"Right now, no one believes in the Marxist ideology in Cuba, not even the people in the regime," says Arcos. "They say they believe it. But they drive BMWs…They are practicing capitalism while they preach socialism or communism to the rest of the population. No one believes in [Marxism]."
He points to the death of Castro and the lack of sizable numbers of counter-protesters as evidence that the other two pillars are also crumbling. But he says that the process of reform in totalitarian communist states often involves cycles of opposition and repression.
"The regime is now engaged in pure naked repression…what they're trying to do is trying to rebuild the terror, the state terror that Fidel Castro successfully built in the early 60s," says Arcos.
The Cuban government blames the dire situation on the trade embargo the U.S. has on the country, which Bueno says is a scapegoat.
"It's not the embargo that causes Cubans to face these problems. It's the Cuban government that causes them to to face these problems. Cuba's an island, and yet people are banned from fishing," says Bueno.
The Cuban woman we spoke with said that many people know that it's the Cuban government's fault they are going hungry but are afraid to acknowledge it.
"People are afraid that you'll turn them into the state security, and they tell you: 'Look you shouldn't be talking about that come here.' So, in other words there's a lot of fear about repression that's there … They don't want to speak the truth because they're afraid," she says.
The Cuban government looks to have regained control after stopping a second protest in November. But Arcos say that the status quo can't hold.
"Every time they arrest a 16-year-old and sentence someone to 25 years in jail, they are creating entire final families and neighborhoods of opponents," says Arcos. "They are feeding the opposition by increasing the repression."
Produced by Zach Weissmueller.
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