Whatever Happened to Those Pro-Democracy Protests in Cuba?

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Thousands of Cubans took to the streets in July to protest the country’s communist government. But since then, two months later, we have heard very little about the pro-democracy movement in Cuba. 

Many of the individuals who led the protests are now in prison, says John Suarez, executive director at the Center for a Free Cuba. Despite that, Suarez says he remains hopeful for Cuba’s future. 

“[T]here’s a profound desire by Cubans for change,” Suarez says, adding that what is needed now “is international solidarity, not just in the United States, but from the democratic world more broadly.”  

Suarez joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss the strength of the pro-democracy movement in Cuba and how America can play a role in moving the Caribbean island nation toward freedom.  

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Also on today’s show, we read your letters to the editor and share a good news story about a simple way you can say thank you to two U.S. military veterans. 

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript. 

Virginia Allen: What happened in Cuba? Over the summer, we saw a wave of pro-democracy protests across the nation. Is this movement still alive or did the communist Cuban regime succeed in shutting it down?

Here to answer those questions is the executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba, John Suarez. John, thank you so much for being here.

John Suarez: Thank you, Virginia. And it’s an honor to be able to share this space with you. The movement is still alive because, unfortunately, the underlying conditions that drive it continue. We have a 62-year-old communist dictatorship that has prevented Cubans from being the authors of the protagonist in their own lives, first and foremost.

And that’s been aggravated over the last couple of years during COVID because this regime has tried to take advantage of the situation to further tighten down its totalitarian grip over the population. And on December 28th, they announced that they were shutting off travel from countries that Cubans normally traveled from on January 1st, including the United States, Dominican Republic, Panama, Haiti, and other places, where many Cubans would get the food, medicines, and other supplies that they need while at the same time, maintaining tourism open from Russia and other places that had much higher levels of incidents of COVID coming in and causing outbreaks in places like Matanzas, which is near Varadero, one of the tourist areas.

So, what the Cubans always want, they weren’t being allowed to get the things they needed. Internally, Cubans aren’t allowed to fish. It’s very difficult for them to do … because of the communist regime strictures.

Farmers can only sell to the state. The state is very inefficient. So, we have a lot of crops that are rotting, and if they would try to sell it to folks in their communities, they would be fined in jail. And so, you have a situation where people are going hungry, crops are rotting, they’re not able to get medicines and supplies from outside. And then to add injury to insult, in June, they announced that they were going to stop the dollar circulating in the country, which most Cubans were getting dollars from relatives in the U.S.

And this was a way to frighten Cubans into turning in dollars they had saved up and would use in the black market over to the government.

So, I think those series of actions by the government aggravated an already difficult situation. Protests had been breaking out in Cuba for many years, but they tended to be isolated. When they were planned, state security would be able to intervene ahead of time.

For example, the summer that you had the George Floyd protest in the United States, a young man was shot in the back in Cuba by the police, by the name of Hansel. He was cremated quickly. The family was complaining that this was an injustice. And when activists tried to organize just the announcement that they were organizing a protest, homes were surrounded, people were detained, and nothing could be done.

What was different on July 11th with the demonstrations that took place was that they were spontaneous. They were not planned. So, state security didn’t have an opportunity to preempt it. And it started in one area, just south of Havana, called San Antonio de los Banos, and it got out over social media.

And this was sort of the game changer, because there are a lot of Cubans these days that have access to social media. They saw the protest taking place in this location in large numbers, and then it multiplied across the island. And you had tens of thousands of Cubans protesting.

Allen: That’s fascinating to hear that role that social media played. That’s powerful.

Suarez: And it started on July 11th, and despite massive militarization repression, I mean, we saw the videos that came out later of paramilitary forces going out with baseball bats being brought off of buses that were brought in, in large numbers, to attack demonstrators.

Other forces dressed in black firing on unarmed demonstrators, video of that also came out. And the nominal president, Miguel Diaz-Canel, who was placed in his current position by Raul Castro, calling for combat in the streets and mobilizing, as he said, communist and other revolutionaries to deal with the protesters.

Despite that, these protests continued from July 11th through July 13th, thousands of people were rounded up. We know of hundreds of prosecutions that are ongoing in political show trial summary, political show trials in many cases where they do not have lawyers representing them. … One of the driving forces behind the protest was a song called “Patria y Vida,” which was co-authored and produced by artists outside of Cuba and inside of Cuba.

Those who are inside of Cuba, like El Funky, Maykel Castillo Osorbo, Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara who appear in the video are all … two are in prison; one’s under house arrest. Luis Manuel Otero, if you might have recalled, yesterday was in Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” in an essay that was penned by Ai Weiwei talking about him.

Allen: And all of those individuals, they were essentially made up of—correct me if I’m wrong, but—the San Isidro Movement was kind of the movement that was going through Cuba and leading this pro-democracy movement. And those individuals, the artists, the individuals that wrote that rap song, they were really at the forefront in driving this movement, correct?

Suarez: Well, I think the music drove the movement. The problem is that the way the regime operates. There’s no free press. The independent press is able to magnify itself or amplify itself, mostly abroad, and some of it gets back into the population.

The artists, though, have played an important role because of what happened last year. The San Isidro Movement organized a series of actions to defend one of the colleagues who had been unjustly jailed, and it escalated into a hunger strike at the San Isidro Movement.

The regime responded by raiding, beating up and detaining all the hunger strikers. But then something curious happened. Hundreds of artists appeared out to the Ministry of Culture on November 27th and that was something that was also unheard of.

And for several hours, hundreds of them just waited, requesting to meet with the minister to present their demands.
One, that these individuals would be freed. And two, that artistic freedoms would be returned to Cuba.

The San Isidro Movement emerges in 2018 when the regime further tightens down an artistic freedoms in Cuba with something called Decree 349, which basically requires any artist doing anything in Cuba to get permission prior to engaging in a work of art from the Ministry of Culture, and that’s what drove this movement into its existence in the first place.

And the Ministry of Culture, when these hundreds of people met, they actually received them. They agreed to have a dialogue, and then as soon as they left, the regime went back to its old pattern of breaking the agreement, slandering the participants. And that created a dynamic that in early February, we saw this song, “Patria y Vida” come out that spread throughout the island sort of virally. And it did play a role in the protest.

But I think the underlying conditions [were] something that was beyond the San Isidro Movement itself, but the San Isidro Movement lent a narrative to it.

Allen: So, the San Isidro Movement is really kind of that grassroots is a little bit more, since you say since 2018, they’ve been really leading this push towards democracy, and then the artist really added fuel to that fire. And I think that’s so fascinating that from the arts movement, from people saying, “I want to have freedom to express myself in song, in art freely,” that that is the thing that specifically in July really, really drove this movement.

Suarez: That’s true.

Allen: Very, very powerful. So, you mentioned some of the artists we know are in prison for the leaders of the pro-democracy movement. Do we know for sure where they are? Have you spoken with any of them safe? Are they still organizing protests? Where do things stand?

Suarez: Well, most of them are in prison. Some are in hunger strikes. Felix Navarro, who’s a very important figure, who had been in prison previously back in 2003. I mean, this movement’s been, there has been a pro-democracy movement in Cuba since the late ’70s that back then was focused more on human rights in the early 2000s with Oswaldo Paya and the Christian Liberation Movement.

There was the Varela Project, in which over 25,000 Cubans signed a petition calling for human right reforms and democracy in Cuba. Felix Navarro was part of that movement that was gathering petitions. And the response by the regime was to engage in a massive crackdown, and the organizers of the petition drive were sentenced. They were from 15 [to] 28 years in prison.

They thought that would get rid of the movement then. Instead, what happened was out of that crackdown arose the Ladies in White, which were the wives, sisters, mothers, daughters of these political prisoners, who then took to the streets and protest, demanding their loved ones’ freedom.

Led by Laura Pollan, they were able to obtain after nine, 10 years, the freedom of all of those individuals that were jailed during the 2003 crackdown. In both cases, Oswaldo Paya Sardinas in 2012 and Laura Pollan 2011, the leaders of the movement died under suspicious circumstances. In the case of Laura Pollan, after everybody was released, and she announced that the movement would continue because it was a human rights movement and that the laws in place had not been changed, therefore, there would be new prisoners of conscience.

A short time after that, she suddenly became ill and, in a hospital surrounded by state security, which her family did not have easy access to, died. In the case of Oswaldo Paya in 2012, he was a victim of an engineered car accident involving state security. So, the consequences are dire. Felix Navarro has been on a hunger strike now for weeks. We fear for his life.

Jose Daniel Ferrer Garcia, another member who had been involved in the 2003 Varela Project, has been missing. And we now know in theory where he’s being held. They’ve released video, but his family has not been able to talk with him or see him. And obviously, the other great concern we have at this time for all these activists [who] have been jailed and also many, many more that newly joined this movement between July 11th and July 13th, is the issue of COVID.

The regime has been underreporting COVID deaths and trying to spin its propaganda as a medical power. But the reality is, we know anecdotally, a lot of people are dying. A lot of prisoners have contracted COVID, and people who never should have been in prison in the first place.

I can give you an example [of] a person that we put out a press release on a couple days ago. Virgilio Mantilla Arango was someone who went to prison this past December for wearing a T-shirt that said, “Supporting San Isidro.”

He went to prison. He got out in early July, then was accused of calling a police officer “shameless” during the protest between July 11th and 13th. [He was] rearrested and now they want to add three years to his prison sentence, accusing him of having pro-freedom posters at his home. That’s the actual formal charge. And there are hundreds of cases like that playing out right now.

Allen: We are talking with John Suarez, the executive director at the Center for a Free Cuba. John, we were hearing so much in the news about the protest in Cuba and what was going on throughout July, and then it just seemed like it was dead silent. Are there still any protests happening at all, and how do you see this movement moving forward?

Suarez: Well, there are protests taking place because it’s the nature of what’s happening, is just causing people to respond. What the regime did in August was to pass a new law called Decree 35, basically threatening people who videotape, who share things on social media with fines and prison, and also encouraging their cadres to physically assault them.

So, if they see somebody taking a video of a protest or some sort of atrocity being committed by the government, there is, one, if you’re caught doing it, you can be fined in jailed. Two, if a regime agent is in the vicinity or someone sympathetic to the regime, you can be physically assaulted and have the equipment you’re using taken away from you. And third, they have said that those people that are caught using critical content will have their internet taken down. So, it’s going to be more difficult to get those images out.

And that’s the other thing that happened, though, and I think it’s important to highlight, is that the timing of this occurred in the midst of other things happening internationally that sort of drowned out what was going on in Cuba.

You had the earthquake in Haiti and then Afghanistan and that sort of dominated the headlines through the rest of July and August. And now there’s an opportunity, I think, to go back and take a look at what’s happening in Cuba. And I mean these political trials, the repression, the images of the shootings and beatings taking place, I think is something that needs to be revisited.

And lastly, there needs to be deep concern over the whole COVID-19 situation. The regime is trying to sell that they have a number of vaccines that they’re trying to use to profit from internationally.

The vaccines have not been peer-reviewed. They’re using them on children as young as 2 years old. Nobody else has been doing that with any of the other vaccines that have been peer-reviewed, and we’re getting information of people who’ve, in the case of Cuba, you have to get three shots of their vaccine, but folks that have done that are still getting sick with COVID. So, the situation is quite grave.

Allen: And what’s the situation with the media there? Are the Cuban people, is the Cuban media able to report accurately what is going on? Are they being repressed? What’s happening there?

Suarez: Cuba’s media is a, it’s a communist dictatorship. The media is controlled by the communist regime. There are independent journalists, but they are not legally recognized, and they have to use creative means to smuggle their stories out of the island, and then try to have them broadcast back in. And obviously the regime has been tightening up their grip over social media to try to shut those avenues down.

Allen: And what do you make of America’s media coverage of Cuba over the last months? Do you think it’s been fair and accurate?

Suarez: I think that between July 11th going forward, I thought the reporting was by and large pretty good. I think that in some cases, I think, such as The New York Times, there was a bit too much emphasis on just the issue of medical, trying to look at it as something to do with medical shortages or just with COVID and not listening to the people’s cries for freedom, for an end to the dictatorship, and also the shouts of “Down with communism.”

So, yes, there was an aspect to it that had to do with the failures in COVID-19, the failures of the regime to address food-security issues on the island. But it goes far deeper than that, because people recognize that it’s the centralized, planned economy, the communist nature of the system, that has created such a difficult situation on the island that needs to change. And they were calling in the streets, and in some cases that was not reported on accurately.

Allen: John, if you would, share with us just a little bit of your own story; why this issue is so important to you and the work that you do at the Center for a Free Cuba.

Suarez: Well, I’m a Cuban-American. My family came from Cuba, had family in Cuba. So, growing up, we would get the calls from the island and hear about the shortages, hear about the fears of not being able to speak freely because your phone call would be cut off. And my family also had visited the island. And again, you get the sense it’s a garrison state, and also living, growing up in Miami, Florida, I also had the opportunity to meet a number of former political prisoners, people who spent 28, 30 years in prison.

In college, I was part of a group called the Free Cuba Foundation, and we were trying to share this information with a wider American audience. One of the things that got me involved, I grew up in Miami. So, I assumed everybody [knew] what was going on in Cuba.

And then in the 1990s, through the Leadership Institute, I went out and worked on some campaigns in the Midwest and first in Nebraska and then in Iowa. And in both cases, I had a friend contact me and say, “Hey, you might want to come out. They’re going to be talking about Cuba.” And the people who were talking about Cuba in one case was a lady by the name of Sandra Levinson, who operated with a group out of New York that was taking young Americans to Cuba, basically to brainwash them and say that Cuba was this wonderful place and that they wanted to repeat that model here in America, which obviously horrified me.

And then, later on in Iowa, there were Cuban diplomats that were also making the rounds in the Midwest to promote agricultural sales with the island, but also to promote their model of government.

And when I saw that, that was something that inspired me to get involved in the Cuban pro-democracy cause, for two reasons. One obviously to help the people in Cuba, but also to very much let Americans know that this is not a model you want to bring to the United States.

It’s disastrous. It has enslaved generations of Cubans that never wanted it in the first place. If we go back to how Fidel Castro came into power, he knew that if he had announced in 1959 that he was a communist, he would’ve never made it into power. So, he was talking about restoring democracy from a dictator who had come to power in 1952.

And while he was talking about free speech, democracy, human rights, and fooling many people in America and in Cuba, he was setting up a police state with the help of the KGB and the Communist Party, and mass executions and they consolidated, and they’ve been there for 62 years and counting.

Allen: What is your message then to Americans? As you know, we have seen this new fascination across America with socialism, and still today, we see people refer to Cuba or try to glamorize it. What would you say to those Americans today?

Suarez: There’s nothing glamorous about the regime in Cuba. It is a regime where you have a very small group of a military hierarchy run by the Castro family that live like millionaires, while 90% of the population lives in absolute misery. And worse yet, not only is there absolute poverty, but you don’t even have the right to complain because if you complain, you’re punished.

There’s a Cuban author, Reinaldo Arenas, who came out of Cuba in the early ’80s, and what he said to it was of the difference between capitalism and communism is that when in capitalism someone kicks you, you can scream. In communism, you have to say, “Thank you. May have another?” And smile.

Allen: So then, I mean, are you optimistic that there can be real change in Cuba, that we can see things move forward in a positive way, and that one day we’ll be able to celebrate Cuba’s freedom?

Suarez: I’m optimistic, because what I saw over those days in July, there’s a profound desire by Cubans for change. What we need is international solidarity, not just in the United States, but from the democratic world more broadly.

The consequences of not backing democracy in Cuba has been dire. We see it the way the Cubans have been able to extend their influence into places like Venezuela, Nicaragua, and the humanitarian disasters that are occurring there. And you have a presence of Cuban troops, Cuban intelligence officers, they are torturing Venezuelans and Nicaraguans today.

And that’s because of the failures in the 1990s, when there was an opportunity for democratic change in Cuba. I mean, on August 5th, 1994, there was a mass uprising in Havana called the Maleconazo. The problem then was that the Clinton administration at that point decided that they feared more a mass exodus of Cuban rafters because of a change of system, and they thought that the Castros’ regime would be able to control the frontiers better than what the consequences would be for that communist regime to continue.

And we saw it a few years later with the rise Hugo Chavez and now Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela. The return of Daniel Ortega, who had been placed there by the Cubans in the 1970s and backed by the Cubans now, as his grip on power has tightened in Nicaragua. We see him rounding on opposition parties. After claiming to have reformed his ways, he’s returned to his old ways.

Allen: What are the steps then that the Biden administration needs to be taking today, right now, to be promoting freedom in Cuba, and is there anything that people like me can be doing to move that forward? Is there anything that the American people can be doing to promote freedom and democracy in Cuba?

Suarez: Sure. Well, first, what can the Biden administration do? One, President Biden did come out with some very strong statements early on, backing the Cubans and declaring the Cuban dictatorship a failed state, and those were very positive statements.

He’s extended sanctions. He’s maintained Cuba on the list of state sponsors of terrorism that was returned to that list by President [Donald] Trump after being removed during the Obama administration. But those are more; they’re not the active steps that we need. So, on the active front, the State Department did push to get a statement by a number of states … recognizing what was going on inside of Cuba.

But I think more needs to be done on that front, on the international front, at the U.N., at the [Organization of American States]. They tried to get something like the OAS, but it was able to be tabled by the Caribbean countries.

But there needs to be more of a diplomatic effort on that side, that’s one. Two, I think they need to highlight, and I understand it’s been difficult because of what’s been the news cycle and with what’s been taking place in Afghanistan. But the issue is that the Biden administration back in July authorized humanitarian flights to Cuba. And one of the things we’ve been calling for is a humanitarian corridor, where the regime doesn’t get its hands on aid going into the island.

The regime’s response was silence. They did not respond to the cargo plane carriers who would be bringing the aid in, and we’re already in September. So, I think highlighting the fact that they’re not really interested in getting aid that would go directly to Cubans, to Cubans. They’re doing it through Russia, China, and Mexico, with their allies, and that’s something that can be controlled by the Cuban military.

The other issue [is] remittances. Currently, there are remittances going into Cuba, but the Cuban military is the one who benefits most. The Cubans, when they send aid to their family, anywhere from 35% to 45% stays with the agencies, which are connected with the government, but then once it gets over there, the military basically has everything in the banking institutions. Dollars immediately go to pesos, and there’s a devaluation there.

So, I think, highlighting the exploitive practices in the military, pushing on the international front, placing a light on what’s going on inside the island with the prisoners. The State Department does have on their Twitter feed, “Jailed for What?”—which is focusing on different specific cases of political prisoners. And that’s currently, you can find that on your Twitter channel. I’d recommend Americans to retweet that.

But in terms of what you can do concretely as an American citizen, write your congressman, write your senator, write The White House about your concerns with what’s going on in Cuba.

I invite you … to join our mailing list, Cuba Brief. Our website is cubacenter.org, and we would also direct you to other groups that are doing fine work there. And I think also if we want to look at the subject of communism, I would also recommend visiting the website of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation that offers a lot of information more holistically. They also touch on Cuba. There’s some great videos there of victims of repression.

There’s a video about Rosa Maria Paya, daughter of the activist Oswaldo Paya, who was killed in 2012. There’s a case of Sirley Avila Leon, who was a local government representative who thought she could do something, and she tried to reopen a school for children, so they wouldn’t have to walk several miles back and forth. They declared her basically a leader, which in Cuba is not a good thing.

And she ended up the victim of a machete attack, and lost a hand and the use of her knees and was not provided proper health care because of her dissident activities and ended up having to come to the United States to be able to even walk minimally again. When she arrived in the airport, her legs were literally hyperextended. And the one hand that she had remaining, they had unnecessarily bound up. So, she lost the use of that hand through atrophy.

So, the doctors here were able to, with physical therapy, get her to gain use of her remaining hand and be able to bend her knees again and walk in a limited fashion. But that was something that happened in 2015 during the detente with the United States.

So, this is a brutal regime. It’s a regime that is killing its own people, silencing its own people to remain in power. And Americans can do something about that concretely by doing some homework, some research, and contacting their elected representatives and saying that they care about this.

It’s 90 miles away from U.S. shores, and it’s been 62 years. It’s enough.

Allen: That’s enough. Well, we thank you, John, for the work that you’re doing at the Center for a Free Cuba to bring us these stories, to inform us, tell us what’s actually really going on. We so appreciate the work that you’re doing. We will put those links in our show notes for your website and the other resources that you mentioned, but thank you so much for your time today.

Suarez: Thank you, Virginia.

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