Cuba braces for unrest as playwright turned activist rallies protesters

HAVANA, Nov. 12th The Cuban playwright Yunior García has shot to fame over the past year, but not because of his art. The 39-year old has become the face of Archipelago, a largely online opposition group that is planning a string of pro-democracy marches across the island on Monday.

The Communist Party has banned the protests – which coincide with the reopening of the country after 20 months of coronavirus lockdowns – arguing that they are a US-backed attempt to overthrow the government.

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García and other organisers say the protest is simply to demand basic rights for all Cubans. Over syrupy black coffee and strong cigarettes in the living room of his Havana home, García said he hoped to channel the “peaceful rebelliousness” that he believes all Cubans have inside them.

“I believe in a diverse country and I think we have to completely do away with the one-party system which limits too many individual rights,” he said.

Such talk is anathema to Cuba’s rulers who are already struggling to contain a simmering social crisis that earlier this year triggered the largest anti-government protests for decades.

Super-charged US sanctions, the coronavirus pandemic, a surge in social media use and a younger generation hungry for change have left the Communist party reeling.

The Biden administration has continued with Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy, which since 2017 has hammered the island with more than 200 sanctions aimed at choking hard currency inflows.

The result has been an economic crisis that rivals the so-called Special Period, after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“The Special Period was a piece of cake compared to this,” said Umberto Molina, 71, waiting in line outside a pharmacy. “There was medicine and you didn’t have these never-ending queues.”

In July, mounting frustrations exploded onto the streets in an unprecedented rash of protests – and a hardening of positions. Cuban Special Forces beat demonstrators and hundreds were imprisoned. Washington responded by imposing new sanctions.

“When the Cuban government feels more threatened by the US, its tolerance for internal dissidence goes down,” said William LeoGrande, professor of government at American University in Washington DC.

“All governments, when they feel under attack, become less tolerant of internal opposition,” he added, pointing to the US Patriot Act following 9/11.

This week, foreign minister Bruno Rodríguez vowed that the protests would not go ahead. “We will not allow it,” he said. “We will use our laws, our constitution and the strictest adherence to the principles of our socialist state of law and social justice.”

On Thursday, García said that he would march in silence and hold a white rose on Sunday, but it was not clear if this amounted to a scaling back of Monday’s protest.

“We are not willing to have a single drop of blood spilt, on either side of this conflict,” García said in a Facebook post.

In his interview, García, 39, said he was well aware of the risks he was facing.

“History is full of people who have gone to prison for struggling for their rights,” García said, offering José Martí, the 19th century Cuban intellectual and independence fighter, as an example.

Like Martí, García says he opposes “foreign interference” in Cuban affairs. But while Martí saw the US as a “monster” to be kept at bay, García takes a different tack.

After he met with the head of the US embassy in Havana and a former US army captain, the Communist party released a video of the encounter, and labelled García a “political operative”.

García said he discussed censorship on the island and the US embargo (which he opposes), but he denied taking advice. Nobody in Archipelago, he said, takes so much as “a cent” from foreign governments.

Pro-government demonstrators hold signs outside the municipal assembly headquarters in Old Havana, where Yunior García was speaking to press. Photograph: Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images

Tolerance of dissent on the island, which increased under Obama years, is nosediving: on 11 July Cuban Special Forces baton-charged demonstrators. Activists say more than 600 are still in prison.

A gamut of strategies have been employed to prevent Archipelago activists from organising: García’s mobile phone line has been cut, two coordinators have been fired from their state jobs, and activists’ families have been interrogated by state security.

That the protests are scheduled for the very day that Cuba is supposed to go back to normal after a long lockdown, with tourists returning and schools opening, has only heightened the stakes.

The government has planned a “National Defence Day” for later next week, and menacing photos have emerged of government supporters wielding batons in preparation.

“There is a quite properly widespread desire … that Cuba should move steadily and quickly, and as soon as possible, towards a true democratic system, and that the rights of peaceful protest and full freedom of expression be finally and properly respected by the state,” said Hal Klepak, professor emeritus of history and strategy at the Royal Military College of Canada.

“However, it is simply unrealistic and contrary to all logic, to think that the Cuban state, besieged, attacked, and under quite savage economic warfare conducted by the greatest power in the history of the world … can allow such rights to flourish.”

“As San Ignacio de Loyola, echoing the same conclusion as Machiavelli in such circumstances, said: ‘In a besieged city, all dissent is treason.’”

Such realism is little solace for young activists yearning for democracy.

Daniela Rojo, a single mother with two young children, said she was raised to “speak softly and avoid problems”.

But after being jailed for 27 days following July’s protest, she said she was determined to march on Monday for her children’s sake.

“I want them to grow up in a country where they can express themselves freely,” she said.

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