Why Cubans took to the streets in all-but-unheard-of protests

By Monday morning the streets of the Havana neighbourhood of 10 de Octubre were cleared.

The only sign of the previous night’s violence were the elderly men in ragged work clothes sweeping the last of the dust from the road’s surface, leaving only splotches of grey where thrown bricks had fallen.

And yet this street, heading south towards the outskirts of Havana towards the beautiful Church of Jesus del Monte perched on a hilltop, was the site of all-but-unheard-of protests in the Cuban capital on Sunday.

Other protests were held across the country, after the first rallies began just outside Havana in the town of St Antonio de los Banos. The protesters shouted “Libertad” – freedom – and “Patria y Vida”, fatherland and life, a play on revolutionary slogan Patria o Muerte, which states the revolutionaries’ willingness to die for one’s homeland. “We are not afraid,” they also chanted.

Videos and news of the protests spread via social media, sparking further demonstrations across the 1,250km country.

Thousands marched

In the province of Santiago de Cuba, people marched in the town of Palma Soriano. There were reports of disturbances in Santa Clara, in the centre of the country, and in Cardenas, the town hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

The protests spread so fast that the government appeared to be caught off guard and President Miguel Diaz-Canel broke into all programming – including the Euro 2020 football final – to call for people to spill onto the streets to defend the revolution.

Surrounded by heavy security, he had appeared on the streets of St Antonio de los Baños, where he called the protesters “provocateurs” and suggested they had been fooled into the actions by counter revolutionary forces backed by foreign powers. “We call upon all the revolutionaries of the country, all the communists, to take to the streets,” he said when he later appeared on television.

Ramiro Valdes, an 89 year old who fought alongside the Castros and had risen to be vice president before retiring earlier this year, tweeted that the protesters were “delinquents in the service of empire, carrying out the instructions given by their owners”. Given the vast majority of the protesters were young, his comment showed a stark, generational schism opening up in Cuba.

Diaz-Canel’s appearance in St Antonio de los Banos was clearly designed to be an echo of the last major protests in Cuba, in 1994 during Cuba’s special period, when the economy collapsed after the withdrawal of financial support from the Soviet Union. Then-President Fidel Castro had appeared on Havana’s famed corniche, the Malecon, to talk down the protesters.

Echoes of that time’s hunger are apparent now.

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