There is a government man playing love songs in the park. Orlando Fuentes has a table, an awning against the harsh Caribbean sun and a sound system from which Silvio Rodríguez’s Cita con Ángeles floats. One woman says she can’t listen, that it’s a beautiful song ruined by being played at too many government rallies.
After 16 months of pandemic and a week of unprecedented protests, the Cuban government wants to calm the anger. Music is played in parks across the country.
“I call for solidarity and that hatred does not take over the Cuban soul, which is a soul of goodness, affection and love,” tweeted the president of Cuba, Miguel Díaz-Canel.
Only a few days earlier he had called his supporters to the streets to confront those protesting against food and medicine shortages, rising prices and power outages that lasted hours, people whom he had called “vulgar, indecent and criminals ”.
The protests began last Sunday in the town of San Antonio de los Baños, on the outskirts of Havana. Residents complained of blackouts lasting more than eight hours.
Videos of people chanting “freedom,” which spread rapidly on social media, on a mobile Internet that Cubans have only been allowed to use for the past three years. Protests broke out across the island. Police cars overturned and stones were thrown. Some of the hated MLC stores, where necessities are sold only in foreign currency, were looted.
Hundreds of arrests were made, often documented in harrowing videos. Nothing like it had been seen in Cuba since the 1959 revolution, shaking the population and the government. Raúl Castro, Fidel’s 90-year-old brother who retired as first secretary of the communist party last April, returned to advise.
Meanwhile, across the Straits of Florida, Miami Mayor Francis Suárez suggested that the US government consider air strikes.
Ana, a museum curator in her twenties, doesn’t want to give her real name. He was at his home in his 10 de Octubre neighborhood last Sunday when he heard a noise. “Outside were the people of my neighborhood demanding their rights,” he told me. This was around 3 in the afternoon.
“We were 60 people when we left,” he said. “There were policies but everything was peaceful. People said ‘we want medicine, we want food’. We walked towards the center, about 7 km. People had left without water, without money, without their identity documents. “
Ana arrived at El Capitolio, the vast building on the outskirts of Old Havana that is a copy of the United States Capitol. There, he says, he met the police in numbers: “We also felt the presence of the rapid response brigades. They are members of the state security but are dressed in civilian clothes. They were the first to provoke. “
He continued advancing towards the Malecón, the cornice of Havana. “There we face the special brigades, special units of repression. Next to the Museum of the Revolution there were masses of people dressed in civilian clothes with sticks in hand ”. She estimated the protesters at 2,000. “There was pepper spray. There was a lot of violence. “
In every Cuban kitchen there is a pressure cooker. This is how the population makes its basic rice and beans. Most are old and worn, everyone knows how dangerous they are.
Five years ago, Barack Obama tried to ease the pressure on Cuba and sweep away what he called the “last vestiges” of the cold war. He got off Air Force One at the Havana airport and asked: “What about Cuba?” – What’s up Cuba? He reopened the US embassy, but drew the line by ending a 60-year-old embargo that Cubans call “The Blockade.”
His successor took a different approach. Donald Trump banned the visit of cruise ships, persecuted companies that traded with the island, put Cuba back on a list of state sponsors of terrorism and, most importantly, nullified the ability of the diaspora to send money to their families
Cuba, meanwhile, is crumbling. After 62 years of revolution, agricultural lands have returned to shrubs, sugar mills are metal skeletons, train tracks are rusting. It still has its school system, its arts, and its legendary healthcare service, but they all exist within a fading infrastructure, hungry for money and technology.
Driven by Obama’s détente, but having lost the financial backing of Venezuela, the communist rulers of Cuba bet on tourism. An economic wing of the armed forces built a large number of hotels. But then the pandemic hit and the economy contracted 11% in 2020.
The state refuses to give up control of imports and exports, now more concerned about the destabilizing effect of US capital than any invasion. The problem is that without tourists, the government cannot pay its bills abroad, so not enough food reaches the country.
Cuba created its own vaccines against Covid, but the virus is now spreading through the population. The drugs are marketed on the WhatsApp and Telegram groups. Sixty vitamin C tablets cost $ 32, although the price depends on people’s access to US dollars or euros. The poorest, on the wrong side of the black market for currencies, pay the most. The message boards are heartbreaking. Recently, a young woman asked what she needed to prevent her breasts from producing milk: her baby had died of Covid.
When asked about the protests, almost all Cuban observers say, as Canadian lawyer and resident Gregory Biniowsky put it: “I am really surprised that it took so long.”
Wimar Verdecia is a cartoonist and graphic artist. He attended a protest last November that, while it only brought together 300 artists outside of Cuba’s Ministry of Culture, is now considered a turning point in a country where such protests are prohibited.
He went to witness the march on Sunday, watching her pass through Centro Habana, impressed but not surprised by the number of young people who participated. “All young people want to migrate because it is a country where there is no future, where you cannot think of a prosperous and dignified life.”
But the videos show that it was by no means just the participation of young people. Magazine editor Maykel González Vivero, who said she was mistreated by police, wrote on Twitter about “a woman over 60 years old … wiping blood from her nose.”
Images of police dragging protesters by the neck have shocked the country. Many protesters disappeared without a trace at police stations and interrogation centers. On Friday, Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, called for the speedy release of all detainees.
Concerned about the videos circulating, the government cut off the internet for much of the week, put those injured with thrown stones and looting on television, and created a segment in the news dedicated to the false rumors circulating.
But state media chose not to show images of the protesters, unless windows were smashed or cars rolled over. A group of protesters who showed up at the television station to offer their views were pushed away by a screaming crowd.
Such a response has led to a withering response from many of Cuba’s most famous cultural figures. Leo Brouwer, Los Van Van, Haydée Milanés, Leoni Torres, Adalberto álvarez, Carlos Acosta spoke. Members of Elito Revé’s orchestra wrote: “Violence is the last resort of the incompetent.”
In this country that takes enormous pride in its arts, and whose artists are often silenced if they cross paths with the authorities, it felt like another first in a week full of them.
On Thursday Joe Biden finally stepped in. He called Cuba a “failed state” and made it clear that he would not be following Obama’s example.
In the past, in times of great difficulty on the island, say after the collapse of its sponsor, the Soviet Union, Cubans flooded the United States to the north. Alejandro Mayorkas, the US Secretary of Homeland Security, last week scuttled that idea, saying that those who went to sea would be returned.
It seems that the United States is sticking to Trump’s plan. “What do they really want?” asks Carlos Alzugaray, former Cuban ambassador to the EU. “They want big riots and the collapse of the Cuban government? Do you really want that? What happens next? “
The truth is that Obama’s détente is really dead. In the 10 de Octubre neighborhood, Ana avoids the police, although she says she did nothing wrong. “I have a cousin who, for 72 hours, we didn’t know where he was. Yesterday we learned that he is in prison, accused of inciting public unrest ”. She says there are still a lot of missing people. “I have to be attentive because the police have come several times. I don’t have a police record, so I don’t know what they came for. “
No one knows what will come next, or at least no one I spoke to. Instead, they spoke of fear and sadness in the country. When asked, people would shake their heads and say, “It’s too much” or even cry.
In the park, Orlando Fuentes told me he was there, playing music, to “remind people that we are here.” He was referring to the government. Silvio Rodríguez, Cuba’s greatest troubadour, kept singing: “Guardian angels fly, always jealous of their votes, against abuse and excesses.”