The Broken Mirror: Democracy and Despotism on Both Sides of the Florida Straits, 2021 (Part I)
I was not even born when Fidel and Raul Castro's rebel army defeated strongman Fulgencio Batista's forces on New Year's Day 1959. And here I am, at the age of 61, writing once again about yet another economic and political crisis tearing through my tyrannized homeland. Ay, Cuba!
Last Sunday, July 11, 2021, the inconceivable happened in Havana and 20-odd other cities and towns. Thousands took to the streets in a spontaneous and seemingly uncoordinated fashion to protest the communist government's failure to provide food, medicines, COVID-19 vaccines -- not even the subpar Chinese and Russian brands are available -- and other necessities. Protesters, the vast majority of whom were young, marched peacefully through city streets and boulevards demanding food and medicines while chanting calls for the resignation of President Miguel Diaz-Canel, the end of the communist dictatorship and freedom: "Libertad! Libertad! Libertad!" A smaller number of protests erupted the next day.
This is unprecedented. Since 1960, only once before had Cuban citizens staged mass street demonstrations, actions suppressed by the communist state, whose constitution almost comically recognizes "the rights of assembly, demonstration, and association for legal and peaceful purposes" (Title V, Art. 56).i That previous demonstration happened on another sizzling summer day, on August 5, 1994, when hundreds marched down Havana's streets, most visibly along El Malecon (seawall). That protest turned into a riot which police forces and the so-called Rapid Response Brigades quickly quashed; despite their somewhat dignified name, those brigades are simply state-organized bands of civilian thugs who revel in beating up dissenters and egging their homes.
This Sunday's protests were far larger and more widespread, from the western town of San Antonio de los Banos, where they began, all the way east to the city of Palma Soriano.
Word about the protests spread on the internet and through various social media. Back in 2007, the ruthless head of the Ministry of the Interior, Ramiro Valdes, had warned against the internet which he dubbed "the wild colt of technologies (that) can and must be controlled." Since last Sunday, the world has witnessed a veritable technological stampede and the state's violent efforts to lasso, break and push protesters back to the stable.
The Cuban government, as I have been saying for years, is a failed state, unable to provide for the basic needs of the population, including adequate supplies of food -- 70% of which must be imported -- medicines, which are sorely lacking despite the government's claims that it is an international medical power, and housing, much of which is in disrepair. Havana, once called the city of columns, has become a city of scaffoldings, permanent ones at that.
Among the few things that work well on the island is the complex system of internal espionage and repression housed under the Ministry of the Interior, which is charged with security and public order. The system begins at the block level with neighborhood watch organizations called Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, or CDRs. It includes the National Revolutionary Police, or the NRP. What about defunding them, too? Amazon, it turns out, sells NRP shirts for $23.99. Come on, Jeff Bezos, your father Miguel had to flee Castro's Cuba at the age of 16. You may want to respond to Pitbull's personal plea for you to help the Cuban people. Both the CDRs and the NRP fall under the much-loathed Ministry of the Interior. It is puzzling, thus, that Cuba's repressive apparatus was seemingly caught off guard, allowing the protests to go on for several hours.
When it came, the government's response was brutal, and effectively so. Rapid response brigades punched and dragged protesters, including women and children; police officers and Black Wasp special forces that seemed to have stepped out of a Star Wars movie beat and arrested several hundred protesters. Over 100 demonstrators have disappeared for days, and the U.N., the Organization of American States and numerous international organizations are demanding their immediate release.
There are reports of a handful of deaths, but Cuban authorities have only confirmed one fatality, that of a 36-year-old man shot by police on Monday. In an information release, the Ministry of the Interior said that it mourns his death. Whether they meant it or not, the anti-government movement has a martyr, Diubis Laurencio Tejeda, whose life mattered.
To be continued.
Luis Martinez-Fernandez is author of "Revolutionary Cuba: A History." Readers can reach him at LMF_Column@yahoo.com. To find out more about Luis Martinez-Fernandez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www. creators.com.Copyright 2021 Creators Syndicate Inc.