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Cuba's Historic Protests, The Role Of Artists And The Diaspora's Solidarity

Activists participate in a rally at the Freedom Tower in downtown Miami on Saturday, July 17, 2021. The rally was held in solidarity with the protests happening in Cuba.
Miami Herald
Activists participate in a rally at the Freedom Tower in downtown Miami on Saturday, July 17, 2021. The rally was held in solidarity with the protests happening in Cuba.

The latest on Cuba's historic uprising. The role artists are playing to inspire change. Plus, the diaspora in South Florida and their efforts to get aid to those on the island.

On this Tuesday, July 20, episode of Sundial

Over the past week, Cuba has experienced some of the largest political demonstrations since the Cuban revolution in 1959.

The protests, and anxiety over the future of the country, have made their way to South Florida, where thousands have taken to the streets and organized efforts to get aid into the country — a difficult feat.

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Cuban artists, musicians, writers and academics have been at the forefront of the calls for “Libertad” or “freedom.” It’s known as the San Isidro Movement, which has been pushing the culture and language around resistance.

It’s also stirring political pressure in the U.S. and around the world.

President Biden announced plans Monday to look at remittances and the U.S. Embassy in Havana — raising questions about the role the U.S. government should play.

Sundial gathered a panel of speakers to discuss the situation in Cuba.

The panel included:

  • Danny Rivero, a reporter with WLRN.
  • Nora Gamez Torres, a reporter for the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald.
  • Orlando Gutierrez-Boronat, leader of the Cuban Democratic Directorate and the Assembly of the Cuban Resistance.
  • Alejandro de la Fuente, the director of the Afro-Latin American Research Institute at Harvard University.
  • Vanessa Garcia, a Miami-based writer and playwright, working directly with Cuban artists.
  • Guennady Rodriguez, an editor for the local political blog and podcast 23yFlagler.
  • And Dianne, who has been leading donation efforts to get Cubans on the island internet and phone access. We are not using her last name to protect her and her family's safety and livelihood.

This excerpt of the conversation has been edited for clarity.

Historic Protests Calling For Change In Cuba

RIVERO: There had always been little bits of protest, small groups of dissidents that have always been present ever since the Cuban revolution came to power. And the last big one, if you can call it that, was in 1994 in Havana. They call it the Maleconazo. That was a big thing, but it was only in Havana.

So these things have been popping up in small cities and in big cities, but never at the same time. And what we saw last week was, because of social media, because people in San Antonio de los Baños (southwest of Havana) started live streaming when there was a march in that town. Cubans are connected to the internet now, the government allowed cell phone connections with the internet about two years ago. So now a lot of people are connected and they started seeing that and then going out to the streets in their own towns. We've never seen something like that happen before.

GAMEZ TORRES: They delayed, as far as they could, the introduction of internet service in Cuba. That's the first thing, You know, it was years and years and Cubans were isolated. They were not connected. The problem for them is that they needed to connect to the international economy. And at some point they needed to provide internet service. So the service has been coming back.

They are still censoring communication platforms like WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram, Facebook. But they do need to provide the service because now they need it for their own economy. So they have a big problem. I understand that they are censoring, for example, images of the protests. If you try to send someone a video via WhatsApp of the protest, that person is not going to get it. So in a way, they are trying to fine tune their own tools for censorship.

GUTIERREZ-BORONAT: When we say intervention, we're very clear on what we're saying. We're up against a regime which has crushed uprisings throughout history in a very bloody manner. It's a regime that has directed repression and crushing popular movements in Nicaragua and Venezuela, even in Syria. So it's a very bloody regime. It's a criminal regime. And we're afraid for the Cuban people. We're seeing violence taking place and hundreds of arrests. What we're saying is that no option should be off the table when you're dealing with a regime such as this. Strategic intervention, both humanitarian and also military by the U.S. in Bosnia, Serbia and Libya was essential in protecting peaceful protests against the regime.

And the other thing I also want to say: it's a moment of unity in the community. And I'm seeing Cubans from all parties, from all different walks of life, uniting in expressing support for the protest in Cuba and desiring that they're protected from the violence taking place and from the disappearances happening. Overwhelmingly, Cubans have put domestic politics behind. We're all unified.

Historic Protests Calling For Change In Cuba
Plainclothes police detain an anti-government protester during a protest in Havana, Cuba, on Sunday. Hundreds of demonstrators went out to the streets in several cities in Cuba to protest against ongoing food shortages and high prices of foodstuffs.

Artists On The Frontlines

DE LA FUENTE: It's not a coincidence that the very anthem of dissent and protest in Cuba now is a hip-hop song with prominent musicians. Those who are participating from Cuba, Michael Osorbo and El Funky, are both self-identified as hip-hop artists, as rap artists. But if you want to record the sounds of Cuban descent and the sounds of Cuban protest, during the last thirty years, hip-hop is the place to look. The sort of play that the song “Patria y Vida” does with the official slogan for the revolution is something that hip-hop artists have done before.

GARCIA: Michael, who's been mentioned, and Manuel Otero Alcantara, they’re both in prison. And it's not just them. Those are the ones that we know. There are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of others that for putting those words into a rap song or making an image that serves against the government, are completely surveilled both at home and on the street. There is no sense of privacy. There are intrusions, home invasions, jailings that are happening. There are no human rights, definitely no artistic rights. But you can't have artistic rights without human rights and freedom of expression. And none of that exists [in Cuba].

Artists In The Frontlines
Cuban artists protesting in front of the Cuban Cultural Ministry in Havana on Nov. 27, 2020.

The Diaspora In South Florida

RODRIGUEZ: I've been an activist against the current U.S. policy towards Cuba because I do believe that it's impoverished the people and actually it makes it more difficult to achieve any kind of democratic standards. However, we do need to ask for accountability from the Cuban government because of what happened.

If we say that all the responsibility of what happens in Cuba is because of the embargo, then Washington is governing Cuba, and the Cubans are not governing themselves. So there is a responsibility within the Cuban state and for the Cuban government because they have been able to do so many things, so many reforms.

For example, the protests are in part because of an unfinished economic reform that was advertised in the times of Raul Castro. People are really complaining because they are not seeing any results. Yes, the embargo is there. The embargo is certainly causing a lot of economic pain to the Cuban people. But the main responsibility of not taking the appropriate measures, not doing the right thing, not following the recommendation of their own scientists, economists, sociologists — the only one responsible for that is the Cuban government. I do think it will help to change the policy towards Cuba. But we cannot say that, for example, the limits of the freedom of expression is because of the embargo.

DIANNE: I was reloading my family members’ phones in Cuba. They let me know that they ran out of data extra fast because they were recording and trying to connect to others on the island about what's happening. This gave me the idea that probably a lot of other Cubans were running out of data and I wanted to connect them. And I felt like it's the only thing I could do.

We use a company called Cuba Messenger. They have an app, it's very user friendly. You sign up with your phone number and email and a credit card, and after that, you simply add contacts to your profile and you can buy them data. So for $22.99, we buy them five hundred Cuban pesos worth of talking minutes and two gigabytes of data. This usually can last them a couple of weeks depending on how much they use it. But because most Cubans are out on the streets and they are recording the protest, it runs out rather quickly.

I honestly didn't think this was going to grow to the magnitude that it has. I thought I would be able to help 10 or 20 people and we've now done over 1,000 phones in six days. There is fear of the government tracking us, but the fear doesn't outweigh how important what we're doing is, and so we just have to keep going.

I have had the chance to connect to many people recharging their data, some activists, lots of families, many people are thankful. Many people share very sad stories. They tell me they're able to talk to their grandmother that has COVID and [is] in a hospital bed. Things like that. They just want freedom. That's what they're screaming in the streets. They're not screaming “end the embargo,” they're screaming “freedom.” And in the end, the U.S. can’t give them freedom. Cuba gives them freedom. It's their country they're fighting for, that they want. So that's the main message that I hear. They just want to live free to use their voice to be able to protest.

The Diaspora In South Florida
Frank Ogbe, 22, participates in a rally at the Freedom Tower in downtown Miami on Saturday, July 17, 2021. The rally was held in solidarity with the protests happening in Cuba.

Leslie Ovalle Atkinson is the former lead producer behind Sundial. As a multimedia producer, she also worked on visual and digital storytelling.
Kristin Moorehead is a 2021 WLRN summer intern and recent graduate of the University of Florida with a B.S. in Telecommunication.