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Latin America Report

Why The Cuban Regime's Post-Protest Crackdown Isn't Surprising — And Yet It Is

Cuban police arrest protesters in Havana on July 11.
Ramon Espinosa
Cuban police arrest protesters in Havana on July 11.

Cuba's dictatorship always claimed anti-regime protesters weren't "the Cuban people." This time it can't, which makes its harsh response look more deplorable to Cubans and the international community.

It's been three weeks since Cubans staged unprecedented anti-government protests. One of their mottos was: “We're not afraid anymore.”

But since those demonstrations on July 11, human rights groups say Cuba's communist regime has tried to instill new fear by jailing more than 700 protesters. Many have already been given summary trials and prison sentences with little or no due process — and some have reportedly suffered beatings or torture.

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WLRN’s Luis Hernandez spoke with Americas editor Tim Padgett, who’s been in touch with Cubans there and here in South Florida, about the Cuban regime crackdown and the fallout.

Here are excerpts from their conversation, edited for clarity.

HERNANDEZ: Tim, what are you hearing from the island about how bad the crackdown has gotten?

PADGETT: I've been speaking with Cubans like Manuel Cuesta Morúa, who’s with a leading dissident group in Havana called the Cuban Democratic Transition Council. Cuesta pointed out the group's president, José Daniel Ferrer, was arrested and is still being held — but no one knows where. Over the weekend, there was still no information about him. And that's typical of the hundreds of Cubans detained after the protests.

Another example is Enrique Mustelier. He's a dissident in Guantánamo, Cuba, on the other end of the island. His sister here in Miami, Katiuska Mustelier, tells me the only information their mother in Cuba has gotten about him is from other protesters who were locked up with him and later released. She says they told her Enrique was badly beaten by police because authorities already knew him as an outspoken dissident — and he once spent five years in prison for trying to swim to the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo to defect.

Does it look like the government's dragnet is getting wider?

Much wider. Cubans like Cuesta emphasized the regime is using the protests as an excuse to arbitrarily round up and lock up any dissidents right now — especially well-known dissident artists like Tania Bruguera.

This is the Cuban regime's M.O. But we thought it might, just might react more smartly this time because there's a new dynamic on the island: Cubans really aren't as afraid as they used to be.

Were the protesters surprised by the Cuban authorities’ response to these protests? And what about the international community?

No — and yes. Here's what I mean: No, because this has always been the Cuban regime's M.O. It just does not tolerate this sort of direct challenge to its totalitarian authority, especially on this large a scale. What happened on July 11 was the sort of mass, island-wide protest that is the Cuban regime's worst nightmare.

READ MORE: Do Cubans Use Social Media Better Than Their Regime Controls It? It Looks Like It

But that's also why I say it is a surprise that it's lashed out this way. It's it's one thing to put down the small, isolated demonstrations of the past; it was easier for the regime in instances like that to say, “Well, these are just troublemaker exceptions who don't represent the Cuban people.”

But this time you can make the case that it was the Cuban people en masse protesting. That makes the regime's harsh response look even more deplorable, to both the Cuban people and the international community.


How should the regime have responded?

I thought maybe, just maybe, the regime would react more smartly in this case. Use a little less stick and a lot more carrot, like the tax-repeal measures they've just announced to help private entrepreneurs and maybe ease Cubans’ economic suffering a bit — because economic suffering is a big part of their uprising.

Leading Cuban dissident Jose Daniel Ferrer (left), who was jailed during July 11 protests on the island, at a meeting with visiting U.S. President Barack Obama in Havana in 2016.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Leading Cuban dissident Jose Daniel Ferrer (left), who was jailed during July 11 protests on the island, at a meeting with visiting U.S. President Barack Obama in Havana in 2016.

You would think Cuba's government would be able to control what we're hearing about all of this. Why are we getting so much information?

The government has shut down the internet in Cuba to a large extent after the protests; but it can't shut it down completely because the government and the economy still have to function. What's happening is that many Cubans are finding ways to access what internet is still available on the island — in state-run hotels, for example — and using it to send out everything from WhatsApp messages to Facebook videos of arrests on the street. And those Cubans are concealing their identities from the regime by using VPN or virtual private network “tunnels.”

The Biden administration is under a lot of pressure from the Cuban-American community here in South Florida to crack down on the Cuban regime. What has President Biden done?

He's slapping sanctions on the heads of Cuba's security forces, like the “boinas negras,” or black berets. But those are largely symbolic gestures. Biden's also exploring ways to help Cubans get around the regime's internet shut down. But frankly, I think if the U.S. could really do that it would have done it years ago.

Whatever Biden does, I do think we'll see more protests like July 11 in the long run, despite the crackdown. There's just a new dynamic at play on the island — Cubans really aren’t as afraid as they used to be.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
Luis Hernandez is an award-winning journalist and host whose career spans three decades in cities across the U.S. He’s the host of WLRN’s newest daily talk show, Sundial (Mon-Thu), and the news anchor every afternoon during All Things Considered.
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