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Cuba Cracks Down on Protests Amid Worst Economic Crisis in Decades

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 7/12/2021 José de Córdoba
a man standing in front of a building © alexandre meneghini/Reuters

Cuba’s Communist government intensified its crackdown against demonstrators and activists on Monday, deploying security forces across the country and arresting at least 80 people, many of whose whereabouts are unknown, activists said.

Well-known dissidents and civil-rights activists are among those arrested by Cuban authorities. They included visual artist Luis Manuel Otero, poet Amaury Pacheco and José Daniel Ferrer, the leader of Cuba’s most important opposition group, human-rights organizations and dissident groups said.

On Monday, President Biden expressed support for the demonstrators.

“We stand with the Cuban people and their clarion call for freedom and relief from the tragic grip of the pandemic and from the decades of repression and economic suffering to which they have been subjected by Cuba’s authoritarian regime,” Mr. Biden said.

The crackdown comes after President Miguel Díaz Canel urged supporters to recover the streets and public places taken over by demonstrators in an unprecedented wave of protests that shook the communist island on Sunday.

Demonstrators took to the streets of more than a dozen cities across the country, demanding freedom, access to basic goods and adequate healthcare. The government is grappling with a surge in coronavirus infections and deaths, and the country’s worst economic crisis in 30 years, which has resulted in extreme shortages of food, fuel and medicine.

On Monday, police surveillance was heavy in Havana, activists said. Patrols of special police brigades were ubiquitous. Plainclothes police officers, counterintelligence officials and Communist Party militants, some armed with hefty sticks and grouped in rapid-reaction brigades, were also deployed, these people said.

In a televised address Monday, Mr. Díaz Canel blamed the U.S. embargo for the protests. But Mr. Díaz Canel said the government would work to limit electricity blackouts that have made life more miserable for Cubans already struggling to cope with acute food shortages.

The silver-haired president, who took over from Raúl Castro, who retired in 2018, vowed that the government wouldn’t yield to protesters’ demands. “They will have to go over our dead body if they want to overturn the revolution,” Mr. Díaz Canel said.

Historically, the Cuban government has used immigration to the U.S. as an escape valve to moderate political pressures within the island, as happened in 1994 when thousands of Cubans left the island on rafts and improvised boats after a violent protest that led to looting on Havana’s famous seaside promenade.

This time, demonstrators are demanding freedom and an end to the Communist regime.


Video: Protests erupting across Cuba unseen since the 1990s, demands grow for end to dictatorship (MSNBC)

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“Nobody is shouting that they want to leave Cuba,” said Juan Juan Almeida, the son of one of Fidel Castro’s top lieutenants, who now lives in Miami. “They are calling for Díaz Canel to resign.”

The unanswered question for demonstrators—who appear to have lost their deep fear of authority, nurtured during more than six decades of Communist rule—is whether their new boldness can withstand the ferocity of the government’s response, analysts say.

“How ruthless will the regime crack down?” said Brian Latell, a former CIA analyst of Cuba. “They will be very ruthless.”

The protests were unprecedented in a country with tight police control and surveillance on dissidents, analysts say.

“The other notable thing is the lack of fear. Cubans were marching in all those places, young and old, Black and white,” said Mr. Latell, who now teaches at Florida International University.

The government faces an unprecedented situation with few resources, said Ted Henken, a Cuba analyst at Baruch College in New York.

“It was desperation that caused this to boil over and that desperation is not going anywhere,” Mr. Henken said. “It’s not clear that the government can come up with a solution to the country’s multiple crises even if it wanted to.”

The regime may opt to drastically limit or cut off internet access altogether, as a way of curtailing protests, analysts said. On Monday, internet service was spotty across the island.

“You have to juggle like crazy to connect,” Abraham Jiménez, an independent Cuban journalist in Cuba, wrote on his Twitter account. “The regime does not want us to inform and is cutting the signal, the only one we have in the country.”

Mr. Jiménez said people are continuing to protest in Havana suburbs. “The rumba continues,” he wrote.

Earlier this year, Mr. Díaz-Canel also assumed the top job in Cuba’s ruling Communist Party. But many Cubans say that Mr. Díaz-Canel, a longtime party apparatchik, lacks the charisma and mystique of the revolutionary generation of leaders who came to power with brothers Fidel and Raúl Castro.

At first, police didn’t disperse or arrest the peaceful protesters, but videos uploaded later on Sunday showed police wrestling down demonstrators. Other videos posted on social media showed protesters throwing rocks at police cars. Demonstrators also overturned police cars.

“People are at the point when things explode, and when they explode it’s difficult to control,” said Alejandro de la Fuente, a Cuba expert at Harvard University.

The protests began in San Antonio de los Baños, according to local independent media, and appeared to spread to other cities as videos went viral on social media.

“This is the internet at work,” said Mr. de la Fuente. “People are communicating and going out to the street.”

Write to José de Córdoba at jose.decordoba@wsj.com

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