Protests in Cuba
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Protests in Cuba: calling things by their name

Cubans have taken the streets back for themselves, as a people who are often invoked but rarely seen, writes the island journalist Carlos Manuel Álvarez

El País
A man is arrested during protests in Havana on July 11.
A man is arrested during protests in Havana on July 11.YAMIL LAGE (AFP)

There is an overturned police patrol car in the middle of the street, with two young black men on top of it. They appear to be shouting something they have been whispering all their lives. The throat turns the individual into a citizen, as the place where the idea and the body converge. The word “protest” explodes in their throats and ours, failing to reach the mouth or the tongue and making euphony the main ideological category of civic discourse.

In the photo, the young man on the left waves a Cuban flag, with red stains on one of its white stripes. Signs of destruction are all around him, with storefronts covered in ash, bricks strewn around, and poor people filling up the street. The traffic light is green, which may explain why the men seem to keep moving within the image, in these roads awash with astonishment and fury, becoming a symbol of the massive July 11 demonstrations that took place all over Cuba, in nearly every municipality and city, or at least in more municipalities and cities than anyone who has lived and died under the long shadow of Castro can remember.

On that day, people may not have known exactly what they were demanding, but they didn’t need to; the point was asking in the first place. They proved something simple and powerful, challenging authoritarianism and doing what they have always been told they cannot do – taking the streets back for themselves.

These protests also put language firmly in its place. “The people united will never be defeated,” shouted many, borrowing a line from Latin America’s past struggles for democracy. “The streets belong to revolutionaries,” countered Communist Party officials, but the words hanging in the air at the protests belong to no one. The people, so often invoked and seldom seen, had taken back spaces to make them truly public. President Miguel Díaz-Canel called for civil war. “Fighting orders are given. Revolutionaries to the streets,” he said, pounding the table without much conviction.

The authorities’ reaction is nothing more than an insistence on an idea abandoned by the facts

What has provoked all this? There are many catalysts we could mention. An absence of political leadership, the mishandling of Covid-19, the associated deaths and the wider impact on the health system, and constant shortages of goods. Or we could speak about repression: political prisoners and the constant surveillance of dissidents and artists. But above all, there is a state that acts like a corporation, paying for work in a worthless currency while people try to survive on the dollars they can scrape together.

State propaganda accuses the demonstrators of being mercenaries, an elite squad armed with sticks and stones, dressed in threadbare clothes, and with hungry faces. Meanwhile, Miami Mayor Francis Suárez foolishly calls for military intervention in Cuba. He feigns concern for those who protest, playing to a domestic audience, and gives the Havana regime an argument juicy enough to sustain its Cold War house of cards a little longer. The idea of American intervention is part and parcel of the government’s propaganda, as is the economic embargo – a strategy condemned by many of us not only as illegitimate but also as inefficient.

Díaz-Canel called for an end to the embargo on Monday, and also tried to discredit the protests by referring to Mia Khalifa, the former porn star who in previous days has tweeted about the health situation on the island. “They went to all the Youtubers and all the influencers they could find on social media, including a certain artist with certain characteristics who started by supporting the blockade. It seems that later they pressured her, and she ended up...um...saying that I am a tyrant and some of those...um...um...epithets,” said the president, stumbling over his words, his Communist morality sullied.

Knowing that the people who took to the streets are the same people who watch TV, and that he cannot keep calling protesters mercenaries with financial backing as they walk around with empty pockets, Díaz-Canel added: “At no time have we wanted to bother you, dear people.” The protests not only targeted the security forces of Castroism and the headquarters of the Communist Party, but also ransacked the dollar stores that can only be accessed by those who receive remittances from abroad, and which clearly set out who’s who in Cuba, and what class they belong to.

Security forces disguised as civilians went out to beat people up. This strategy is a copy of the paramilitary methods used in Colombia to quell or manipulate protests, most recently over the tax reform plans by Iván Duque’s government, and it should be enough in itself to reveal the true political sign of Cuba’s military caste.

Information is now scarce and confusing, and full of speculations. The internet has been cut off. We need Cuba’s story to be told not only by Cubans. We need the experiences that foreigners have had over the island’s history to be subjected to critical judgment, and they in turn must subject Cubans’ false sense of exceptionalism to scrutiny. However, no utopian dream is worth more than any of the bodies that have disappeared, imprisoned or even shot.The authorities’ reaction is nothing more than an insistence on an idea abandoned by the facts. Brecht said that politics is the art of thinking in other people’s heads, but I think it is feeling in other people’s hearts.

Carlos Manuel Álvarez is a Cuban writer and journalist.

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