What to know about the ongoing protests in Cuba
Note: Cuba is a subject that evokes a wide variety of viewpoints and emotions, especially in Florida and especially among Cuban-Americans. Today’s “From Florida” episode examines one expert’s views and observations on current events in Cuba, particularly within the context of its relationship with the U.S.
Welcome to From Florida, a podcast where you’ll learn how minds are connecting, great ideas are colliding and groundbreaking innovations become a reality because of the University of Florida.
Lillian Guerra, a professor of Cuban and Caribbean History at the University of Florida, is a go-to source for national media on Cuba – from its history and its politics to the ongoing protests in the country. In this episode of From Florida, Professor Guerra, whose scholarship includes five history books about Cuba, shares her insights about the latest protests, who is behind them and the path forward as she sees it. Produced by Nicci Brown, Brooke Adams, Emily Cardinali and James L. Sullivan. Original music by Daniel Townsend, a doctoral candidate in music composition in the College of the Arts.
Correction: Professor Guerra misspoke in referring to Yunior García’s public challenge of a top Communist official. That incident took place in early 2016 at a meeting of the Brothers Saínz Association, an agency of Communist Youth, with the First Secretary of the Party of García’s home province. Artist Eliécer Ávila similarly challenged longtime Communist and regime spokesperson Ricardo Alarcón several years earlier. The audio also will be updated to make this correction.
Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida where you'll learn how minds are connecting, great ideas are colliding and groundbreaking innovation is becoming a reality because of the University of Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown.
A planned protest in Cuba on November 15 was quickly repressed by government security forces as police took to the streets and key individuals were arrested or barred from leaving their homes. Today, our guest is Professor Lillian Guerra, a professor of Cuban and Caribbean history and director of the Cuba program at UF. She is considered one of the leading experts on Cuban history with five books and numerous awards to her credit and is a widely sought media commentator on Cuban affairs. Today, she's going to share her expertise with us. Welcome, Lillian.
Lillian Guerra: Thank you so much for having me.
Nicci Brown: Last summer, Cubans took to the streets in protest against the government of President Miguel Díaz-Canel. They were the biggest demonstrations in six decades, according to the Washington Post. Could you briefly tell us what led to these protests and what were the key issues?
Lillian Guerra: Well, one is to say that first, the internet made them possible. And that is because the Cuban government allowed Cubans, really as of 2018, to have access to the internet on their phones. They have only the been allowed to have cell phones since approximately 2009. And so that meant that people in the far western province of Cuba, in a small town, were staging a small demonstration around 8:30 in the morning. And it got livestreamed and, extraordinarily, it's catalyzed dozens and dozens of locations across Cuba and about 100,000 to 150,000 people, and that's pretty conservative estimate, came out on the streets and began marching.
They were people from all walks of life and, effectively, I think, what happened because it was so improvised, it was so spontaneous, was that Cubans exploded in the kind of rage and anger that they have been building up for some years now. There's much to complain about, there are very few places to complain and those places have reduced in size and number extraordinarily since about 2016. So, the economic situation is certainly part of their list of demands that need to be addressed. But mainly, the fact that the Communist Party exercises so much control over the economy itself, over their daily lives, over their choices, that's really what they were protesting.
Nicci Brown: And it sounds like the officials, the party, was caught off guard in a way just how ferocious their outpouring was.
Lillian Guerra: Yeah. I think, first most of the members of the top echelons of the Communist Party and the Ministry of the Interior, which is really the security state, along with the armed forces, they tend to just speak to each other. They have really no clue as to what's going on at the level of the barrio and among the public. They have convinced themselves in the kind of echo chambers that they live in that levels of discontent are manageable and that they had everything under control and effectively that was proven a lie. So, they were not just repressive, but they seemed to be ferocious, as you say, in their vitriol, in their condemnation. We saw special troops being deployed that Cubans didn't even know existed. They looked like some kind of thing out of Star Wars, many of my friends said in Cuba, dressed all in black. They used attack dogs. This was in broad daylight. It was also livestreamed and filmed by literally hundreds, if not thousands, of people in Cuba.
And so all that made for a situation that they were unprepared for and that really revealed what I would call the other Cuba that has always been there. And especially has been there in the last 30 years since the fall of the Soviet Union. We now have multiple generations that have only lived the last 30 years and they were out there. But so were old ladies and old men and blacks and whites, and there was a majority of people of color on the streets. It really, again, it was a shock to the world for those who are not constant observers and not lived in Cuba, but I think it was an even greater shock to the Communist Party.
Nicci Brown: So, things seemed to quiet down, and then artists and activists organized a new protest they called the Civic March for Change, but that was quickly shut down. And media reported that police filled the streets. Can you share with us what happened?
Lillian Guerra: Yeah. So, to be brief, I would not say that things quieted down. What happened was about 5,000 people were arrested in the next seven days after July 11. Today about 500 of those people are still in prison. There were already artists and intellectuals who had been arrested. There's a rapper named Maykel Osorbo and Luis Manuel Otero, who is an artist, who'd been arrested much earlier in May. Luis was briefly released and then rearrested before July 11 or at the time of July 11 and didn't actually participate in the protest. So, there are tons of people that were gathered up and silenced through this process. And at the same time, the Cuban government was preparing for another blow. So in August, August 17th, they issued a new law decree which is extremely draconian and which makes criminally liable anyone who posts anything on the internet that the Cuban government determines is subversive of national security or its own interests or those of socialism.
So it's pretty broad. And then anybody who posts, anybody who sees the post and doesn't immediately report it is equally liable. The level of offense is the highest level of offense. So, this was all because, I think, they anticipated that they would have more protests like this. What, again, perhaps they didn't know was that a Facebook Community called Archiepiélago would emerge pretty quickly at the same time around August. And it would immediately garner to itself about 36,000 members, 17,000 of them registered in Cuba. They announced in October that they wanted to have a protest and there were three different cities signed on. This is really unprecedented.
They then issued a letter to the Cuban state saying that they wanted to have the protest authorized. It was a march for civic peace, civic protest, was supposed to be peaceful and they dated it for November 20th. The Cuban government had responded immediately saying no way, in writing — also unprecedented — and stated that the basis for their protest was really espionage and inspired by the CIA and it was a national security threat, so under no means would they approve it.
So, then the Archiepiélago group moved the date to the 15th, which really matters, because the 15th in November the Cuban government had stipulated as the opening of the country. They were opening the airport to tourism. They had claimed that 85% of the population was vaccinated with a vaccine that they claim as well is highly effective. And so, this was supposed to be the inauguration of their return and supposedly lots of people were expecting great things to happen. So, the coincidence was very strategic by Archiepiélago. And what we got as a result was planning on the part of the government to squash any possibilities, not just of the activist coming out, but of the population.
Nicci Brown: So, can you tell us a little bit more about Yunior García, who I believe is one of the key figures that has been involved with this whole movement?
Lillian Guerra: Yes. He is somebody who is a playwright. He graduated from one of Cuba's top art schools. He was known to those of us who observed things closely because when he was still an art student, at a meeting of the assembly of the school, we had a man named Ricardo Alarcón, a very famous member of the Communist Party and a top official for decades and decades. He was addressing the assembly and this kid stood up and started questioning him. And Alarcón was completely taken by surprise. (Correction: Professor Guerra misspoke in referring to Yunior García’s public challenge of a top Communist official. That incident took place in early 2016 at a meeting of the Brothers Saínz Association, an agency of Communist Youth, with the First Secretary of the Party of García’s home province. Artist Eliécer Ávila similarly challenged longtime Communist and regime spokesperson Ricardo Alarcón several years earlier. The audio also will be updated to make this correction.)
And it was about the very thing that he's protesting today, which is the absence of the freedom of speech and the right to express opposition, criticism, and to get away with it and to make an impact on the state through those means and to change the state.
So, here we are almost literally, more than a decade later, and he signed onto Archiepiélago along with a lot of other people. The day of the protests he, as well as major activists, about 400 of them in fact, found that on their doorsteps they had 30 to 50 security agents. And then in addition, they had these orchestrated mobs created and governed by an organization called the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. They exist on every block in Cuba, have since 1960, and were prevented from leaving their homes and then spent hours being taunted.
In the case of Yunior, he was prevented from speaking to the press. He lives in an upper story of an apartment building and they even lowered Cuban flags and other things to prevent him from looking out his window. And at one point, he was able to pull out a white flower and to show that to cameras that were placed in an apartment building adjacent to or directly across from where he was. But that was all that got out.
Nicci Brown: Can you tell us about the symbolism of that white flower? Why a white flower?
Lillian Guerra: Well, all children in Cuba since really 1902, when the Cuban Republic was inaugurated, we learn the poem by Jose Martí which is, "I cultivate a white flower symbolizing unity and harmony, a nation for all" which is exactly this nationalist writer, independence fighter’s mission, his message and his mission. So, all Cuban children grow up with that.
It's a reference directly to this idea of returning to consensus and to democracy, frankly, because Martí was not associated with anything like an authoritarian state. He was associated with racial democracy, with equality and with republicanism. So, the pulling of the white flower really was a dramatic symbol. He had also issued a manifesto prior to the 15th which talked about returning to the vision of Jose Martí and the white flower. And one has to say it was to the great astonishment that by the next morning, Yunior García had left the country.
Nicci Brown: Yes, so tell us more about that. We understand that he is now in Spain.
Lillian Guerra: Yeah. He gave a press conference this morning [Thursday, Nov. 18]. It was pretty dramatic. I would say, before I get to the points about the press conference, when he left almost immediately the Ministry of the Armed Forces and the Ministry of the Interior started circulating photographs of him at the airport attempting in fact, to make him appear as if he had been an agent of Cuban intelligence rather than an activist. And that's one of the things that the Cuban state first, does regularly, tries to discredit activists by claiming they're either agents of the CIA or their agents of state security, you know, so that's an old narrative.
Now, when he did leave nobody knew about it on the island. And it seems that he has fled with his wife. He gave a very dramatic statement this morning saying first that had he remained in Cuba it was very clear to him that he was going to live what many activists had lived until that point before these protests, which is months and months and months of house arrest. And that he wasn't going to be able to handle that, that he would've turned into somebody who was more muerta en vida, that which means dead in life. Cubans use that a lot as a phrase to talk about demobilizing or how they feel demobilized politically and sort of constantly suppressed in their abilities to complain and to do anything about the conditions.
People also use the word zombie, yo soy un zombie, which also means that we eat each other, you know, we distrust each other so much that we cannibalize each other. We pull each other down. So, he said, that's what remained for him. And he also warned that if the world community does not recognize what's happening in Cuba, that there will be eventually a blood bath there. There will be a blood bath because people will continue to oppose the state and we might have more protests like the one in July. And the Cuban government, which does not negotiate, does not apologize, will pull out all the stops the next time.
Nicci Brown: There's a lot of symbolism in these terms that you use. Are you surprised that young artists have been at the forefront of what's going on or is this to you what should be expected?
Lillian Guerra: Well, it definitely should be what is expected. Artists have, especially since the early ‘90s, been able to take advantage of spaces that the Cuban Communist Party's adoption of capitalist reforms allowed them. So, from 1993 until really 2020, Cuban artists were able to write their work and create work and sell it and distribute it without Cuban government authorization.
So, art and the art world became one of these very extraordinary spaces where Cubans artists would speak in part about the other Cuba, would speak about what was happening. Art became, whether it was film or was actually a painting, became kind of an archive. It became alternative journalism. It became a source of entertainment. It became where people looked to see themselves and their lives and what could not be stated in the media. So artists were slammed by a new reality in 2019 when the Cuban government suddenly released Decree No. 349, which reversed all of that and said that suddenly, musicians and artists and filmmakers would have to have the mediation of the state, the authorization of the state, for the production and dissemination of their work.
And that resulted in some pretty unprecedented protests. On November 27, we're going to have the one-year anniversary of the first, really big one, 300 or so artists staged an eight-hour protest in front of the Ministry of Culture, a sit-in. And these were not random people. These were the most prominent, most famous filmmakers, actors out there. People like Jorge Perugorría, who's a very famous actor, Tania Bruguera, who had at that point been subject to months and months of house arrest and there she was back on the front lines. So, this reality here that the artists were leading the charge through this pioneering act, really, I think made it possible for Cubans to follow their example. And now artists have become the primary enemy of the state.
Nicci Brown: Now, U.S. officials have condemned the Cuban government and the show of force and the use of what the U.S. officials are describing as intimidation tactics. Is this response more aggressive than in the past? And why do you think that's happening?
Lillian Guerra: Well, we haven't seen things like these mobs standing in front of people's homes for 40 years. I mean, this is a tactic that was unleashed in 1980, when about 125,000 Cubans registered to leave the country in the Mariel boatlift. And so these mobs, which are organized by the Committees for the Defense of Revolution, carry out what they call meetings of repudiation, where they stand in front of your house, they taunt you. Back in 1980, they were cutting off people's electricity. What makes this very dramatic is the revival of all that against people who don't want to leave Cuba, who want to stay in Cuba, who want to change Cuba that way. And perhaps that's why they're a greater threat.
And we see as well that the intimidation factor was tremendous because Havana looked like it was an abandoned city on the 15th. It wasn't just the protestors who were intimidated or those who would've been out there. It was everybody, nobody wanted to leave their house. So, the economy was paralyzed. You looked at Santa Clara, you saw the military and the security forces out on the main plaza of the city. And the same was true of other cities. So, people weren't even leaving their homes. I mean, it was like the country's on lockdown, something we haven't really seen since the death of Fidel Castro. So, this I think is something that, it's a turning point, really.
Nicci Brown: And to that point, the risk of being locked up in jail for not just months but years for things like protesting are stories that we're hearing.
Lillian Guerra: Or using the internet to become part of a Facebook community. A lot of independent journalism has been happening on the internet. We have newspapers circulating on the internet. We have people who live in Cuba who livestream on YouTube interview shows like this one and they have thousands and thousands of viewers. The Cuban government can't control this other than to shut down Wi-Fi. And, of course, it has to live economically through Wi-Fi. It has to provide these services to its own industries and to the tourist sector. So, it really finds its hands tied and as a result, what they've tried to do is launch a campaign against what they call “media terrorism,” which is to engage in the kind of acts that I just described, where you listen to a radio program on YouTube, where you engage in debate, you read news that's being produced in Cuba by interdependent journalists who are also cordoned, had their Wi-Fi cut, have been jailed, have been under house arrest. I mean, so we have a kind of oppositional culture rising there that I think is going to be very difficult to stop.
Nicci Brown: Last summer the Cuban government promised to institute economic reforms. Has that happened?
Lillian Guerra: Well, they have done this kind of promise repeatedly. The issue here is that the Cuban state relies on its ability for it to survive, on its ability to monopolize the wealth in the country through its own state-owned businesses. So, you have state capitalism effectively. Eighty-two percent of the economy is in the hands of one major conglomerate, called GAESA, that is run by the Ministry of the Armed Forces. The Ministry of the Armed Forces generals, their role is largely to be the CEOs and chief executive and financial officers of these corporations. Their partners are often foreign investors. They're major free trade zones outside Havana in addition to the tourist sector of the economy.
So, if the economic autonomy of the people, entrepreneurialism, were to really take off it would inhibit the state's ability to control people politically. I mean, if you don't owe your livelihood to the government, then you're kind of fearless. You don't have to go to rallies. You don't have to worry about your Committees for the Defense of Revolution, what anybody thinks, and you don't believe in socialism. You believe in entrepreneurialism and small-time capitalism and relying on one another. So, I think that the government for the last 30 years has relatively or regularly rather opened up the private sector, the non-state sector, and then it shut it down again. And it is repeatedly done that. So, it has to, on the one hand, provide self-employment opportunities because it cannot employ everybody. On the other hand, it doesn't want people to succeed. And so that's the catch-22, that's always a part of the state, this situation.
Nicci Brown: And Florida, of course, has a large Cuban population, and we have seen protests here. Many people have family and friends in Cuba. What's the reaction that we've seen so far, as I mentioned, there have been some protests and where do you see that going?
Lillian Guerra: Well, I think that, first and foremost, and I speak as somebody who was born in the United States of Cuban-exiled parents who arrived in '64, I think we have to recognize that Cubans on the island are fully capable of negotiating with the Cuban state. We have to support them in their ability to do that and we have to support their voices. And that includes voices that we might not agree with. There are many Cubans on the island who are extremely angry at the state because it says it's socialist and then the Communist Party effectively does not invest in education or health care. Instead it invested in its own industries and that kind of behavior mimics big-time corporate capitalism on the Walmart scale. So what Cubans are asking for on the island is very diverse because there are many different kinds of demands and really they've never had the opportunity to voice them or to galvanize groups.
I think that it's hard for the right wing in Miami to put down their own or put aside their own interests for the sake of change in Cuba. And when I say that, taking a hard line and sticking to the same policies we've had for 60 years will get Cuba nowhere. The embargo, in particular, hurts mostly the Cuban people because it allows for the Cuban state to monopolize the resources in the country and decide how to distribute them. It gives them an excuse and a banner to wave about how the United States is really responsible for their poverty and their lack of food, et cetera.
And this also, the fact that the right wing will often continue to say that we must, in fact, harden the embargo or prevent Cubans from visiting the island or prevent Cubans from sending all the money that they want to the island, if they want to. Under Obama, that was possible, the normalization of status, and has become virtually impossible. When Cubans take these positions in the United States, they really enable the Cuban government to continue to be in power and to have its power undiminished.
So, we also have a lot of people on the left who want to denounce the Trumpists and will do that without any regard for what the implications are. So, then they take the position of the Cuban state and then they support what they say and they don't look beyond the Cuban state's discourse and justifications for its rule to the reality that that state has created.
Nicci Brown: So, you mentioned two hard-line approaches, I guess, or extreme approaches. What do you think should happen or could happen to help move things forward? And do you think it will?
Lillian Guerra: First of all, I think that we need to start ending the isolation of the island and we need to do that through a variety of means. First, the Trump administration, in its last breaths, put Cuba back on the list of terrorist states or states sponsoring terrorism, which is really absurd. All he did was really to pound the voters who had voted for him on the back, those who support hard-line stances, there is nothing more hard line than claiming that Cuba is in league with North Korea or Iran. It could barely feed its people and the Cuban government has no interest in sponsoring terrorism. Their leadership is more interested in lining their own pockets, frankly. So, what that particular condition does is it prohibits anybody in the state of Florida like myself or the library here from having academic exchanges and intellectual exchanges, bringing students to Cuba, using our research funds to do research in Cuba.
Those are the things that change Cuba, that empower intellectuals in Cuba, that provide alternative sources of information and pluralistic understandings of what academics are all about and pluralism in general. So that's first because we have a law in the state that says that if Cuba's on that list, then we can't do anything. We can't engage in those kinds of activities.
I think secondly, we need to re-establish people-to-people exchanges, which enabled in the last year of the Obama administration about 100,000 Americans to visit Cuba, who would otherwise never have gone. And they established in the short time that they went, many of them, business-type arrangements with small entrepreneurs in Cuba, setting up entrepreneurial businesses where a product was designed in Cuba and made in the United States and then distributed. And then they were able to share the profits. That’s technically illegal again.
So, you can't have this kind of collaboration, even in small businesses, across borders. And we should, because of course that empowers the entrepreneurial class. It creates economic autonomy for the citizenry, the very things that the Cuban government disdains and does not want to happen.
I also think we need to restaff the embassy. We need to have full of consular services. Right now, if you have a visa to come to the United States and you've had that visa from before COVID you can't. You have to go to a third country to get anything processed. And we don't even have from Biden a sense for how they're going to establish whether people have been vaccinated appropriately or not upon arrival. We've done that for other folks, coming from Brazil for instance, big hotspot, upon arrival here, they get vaccinated again because we don't trust the Brazilian vaccine, okay.
Well, we need to have these kinds of guidelines. We need to have a statement from Biden and just simply saying, ‘Well, we side with the protestors and what's going on is wrong,’ does nothing. It does nothing. I also think that Biden needs to stop worrying about gaining the Republican vote or the South Florida Republican vote because he is never going to gain it. Whatever he does, whether he does nothing or he does something, he is never going to have an audience in that community. They will always condemn him. And just as they did with Obama, Where he has a lot of room to work is with younger generations of Cubans, people who don't vote or would vote if they had a reason to vote. And if they see changes that immediately impact their family's lives on the island. And I think that those changes would be immediate as they were when Obama made normalization a possibility.
Nicci Brown: Are you hopeful those changes might happen?
Lillian Guerra: I am very hopeful. I think, you know, the best way we can ensure a change in Cuba is to galvanize the forces that already exist there and to flood them with us. I mean, we are great diplomats for change and for pluralism and what we understand, even when we're wrong about what happens in Cuba, we're inaccurate in our understandings of Cuban society, when we arrive in Cuba and we're faced with that, we have conversations with Cubans who are the greatest teachers about their reality. So, the Cuban state, really, I think we would like and we need to call the Cuban state's bluff on a number of things that they say that we will never do. One of which is to really open up our relationship with the islanders.
Nicci Brown: Lily, thank you for being our guest today. It's been a pleasure having you here and hearing more about your thoughts.
Lillian Guerra: Thank you so much. I'm so glad you did this.
Nicci Brown: Listeners, thank you for joining us for an episode From Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown, and I hope you will return for our next story of innovation From Florida.