In Cuba, cravings for food and freedom can spark rare day of protest

HAVANA – The line begins during the day and extends into the night. In the darkness before dawn, hundreds of people wait. Four women s...


HAVANA – The line begins during the day and extends into the night. In the darkness before dawn, hundreds of people wait. Four women sleep on boxes, sharing a thin blanket. Others argue to stay awake. A nurse arrives after a 24-hour shift and takes her place.

They each hold a ticket to enter a Cuban government supermarket, which is the only place to find basic items like chicken, ground beef, and toiletries. At 5:27 a.m. Wednesday, a man wearing a frayed baseball cap hands out ticket number 302.

“If you don’t stand in line, you don’t buy anything,” said a 35-year-old cook who arrived at 6 p.m. the day before and refused to have her name published for fear of reprisals.

Even in a country long accustomed to shortages of everything from food to freedom, the year has been remarkably bleak in Cuba, with Covid-19 restrictions making life under new U.S. sanctions even harsher.

Today, a young generation of dissidents, including many artists and intellectuals who rely on the Internet to disseminate their ideas, are calling for a demonstration on Monday, a bold initiative unprecedented in Cuba. They hope to restart the marches that filled the streets last summer to demand food, medicine and freedom – and confront a government that, for the first time, is not made up of veterans of the 1959 Communist Revolution. .

Just days before the start of the “Civic March for Change”, organizers appeared to tone down protests for fear of violence. Organizers encouraged people to hang white sheets outside their homes, clap at 3 p.m. and find other creative ways to protest if they don’t feel comfortable taking to the streets. .

Despite the Cuban dance of a step forward-two steps back to the opening, experts agree that Cuba is on the cusp of something big, although it is unlikely that the movement behind the protests brings down a Communist Party that has been in power for more than 60 years.

“We are witnessing an unprecedented counter-revolutionary movement in Cuba,” said Carlos Alzugaray, former Cuban ambassador to the European Union and academic who considers himself a “critical” supporter of the government.

This is a crucial moment for the Cuban government. A generation of young people who grew up under Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl now face Miguel Díaz-Canel, a longtime supporter of the party who became president in 2018. At 61, he represents a younger generation of the Cuban Communist Party, and the person charged by seeing it in the future.

Mr. Díaz-Canel attributes Cuba’s economic woes to the long-standing US embargo, which has intensified in recent years. The Trump administration has restricted travel to the island, cut remittances and further excluded the island from the international financial system, reducing its inflows of foreign currency.

He has shown himself to be just as willing as his predecessors to suppress dissent. When the demonstrators took to the streets on July 11, Mr. Díaz-Canel encouraged party members to rush after them. Government supporters chased the protesters with batons.

Some 1,000 people have been arrested and 659 remain in jail, according to a count by civil rights group Cubalex.

Following the announcement of the protest scheduled for Monday, the Cuban government launched a massive media campaign against it, insisting its leaders are pawns of the United States.

Yunior García, playwright, has established himself as one of the leaders of the movement. He was among the founders of Archipiélago, a Facebook group of around 35,000 members that promotes discussion and debate. The group is the main promoter of the rallies scheduled for Monday in cities across the country.

“I believe the role of art is to awaken,” he said. “We have to make things happen so that the worthy people who make up society decide to make a difference. “

The Cuban government has publicly criticized García, saying workshops he attended abroad, such as the one on how dissidents can forge alliances with the Cuban military, amounted to planning a popular uprising. Mr. García said he was researching a screenplay.

García admits meeting with US officials in Havana, but said he went to record a podcast and discuss the effects of the trade embargo.

His internet and phone services are cut off regularly, he said, and he recently found a beheaded chicken outside his front door, a religious spell he saw as a political threat. State security even visited his mother-in-law three times at work, he added.

“They used all the tools at their disposal to intimidate us,” García said.

Mr García said on Thursday he would walk alone, in silence, on Sunday. He also urged others to take all possible peaceful measures on Monday to avoid provoking a police backlash.

His announcement, posted on Facebook, did not reveal whether the rallies would still take place. Raúl Prado, director of photography and one of the platform’s coordinators, said the protesters would protest “as circumstances permit”.

If no police car is parked in front of his house preventing him from leaving on the 15th, he will march to insist on the release of political prisoners and to demand human rights, Prado said.

“There is no other way to achieve change,” Prado said. “If it’s not us, the blame will fall on our children.

At least two Archipiélago coordinators have been fired from their state duties due to their involvement in the group, which Mr Díaz-Canel has denounced as a Trojan horse for US-backed regime change.

“Their Embassy in Cuba has played an active role in efforts to overthrow the internal order of our country,” Díaz-Canel said in a recent speech.

The US government spends $ 20 million a year on projects designed to promote democracy in Cuba – money the Cuban government views as illegal attacks on its sovereignty.

But Archipielago members interviewed by The Times denied receiving any money from the US government and stressed that Cuban problems are Cubans alone to resolve.

“Archipiélago is not a movement, a political party or an opposition group,” Prado said. “He has no particular political line.”

The group of young and hip Cubans behind the Facebook group contrasts with the island’s classic dissidents, who were often older, unknown to most Cubans, and deeply factionalized.

The advent of the internet, which hit Cuban phones three years ago after diplomatic deals with the Obama administration were made, has been a game-changer. With the Internet now widely available, ordinary citizens are aware of anti-government activity and are also quick to post their own complaints.

Hal Klepak, professor emeritus of history and strategy at the Royal Military College of Canada, said the scale of opposition the government has faced this year is unprecedented in Cuban history since the revolution.

“No one had ever imagined tens of thousands of people on the streets,” he said. “It’s visible, and by Cuban standards, it’s noisy. It’s something we’ve never seen before.

But the question remains whether ordinary Cubans will attend Monday’s protest, given that the government has declared it illegal and its organizers have toned down their calls.

The protest was scheduled for the same day the quarantine rules are lifted, tourists are back and children are about to return to school. The wave of Covid-19 deaths that helped fuel the July protest has largely subsided, and 70% of the nation is now fully vaccinated.

Abraham Alfonso Moreno, a gym teacher who at 5 a.m. held ticket number 215 outside the government store, said he did not protest in July and would not do so on Monday either. “In the end, that won’t solve anything,” he said.

He was more obsessed with finding allergy pills.

Marta María Ramírez, a feminist, pro-democracy and gay rights activist in Havana, said people who rushed to protest in July were more concerned about food than democracy, but that could change.

“The first cries were not for freedom. The first cries were more urgent: food, medicine, electricity, ”she said. “Freedom came after. “

Frances Robles contributed reporting.

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Newsrust - US Top News: In Cuba, cravings for food and freedom can spark rare day of protest
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