“Tired of not having electricity?” Says the July 10 post of a Facebook group targeting small-town dwellers cuban from San Antonio de los Baños.
“Tired of having to listen to the insolence of a government that doesn’t care about you?” added. “It is time to go out and demand. Don’t criticize at home: let’s make them listen to us ”, harangued another message.
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The next day, July 11, thousands took to the streets in San antonio, a town of about 50,000 people, about 30 kilometers southwest of Havana, which was the first of an unprecedented series of protests in the country.
The malaise over the spread of the pandemic and the confinements caused by COVID-19 has been growing in Latin America and the Caribbean, because it has caused an increase in poverty. But in Cuba, authorities have traditionally controlled public spaces, saying that unity is key to resisting coup attempts by the old Cold War enemy: the United States.
The uprising, the largest of Cuba Since Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution, it seemed largely spontaneous as Cubans ventured frustrations over long lines to get food, power outages, drug shortages, handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, and restrictions. to civil liberties.
However, an investigation by the non-state Cuban outlet El Estornudo, cited by state television and confirmed by Reuters, recently showed that the first protest was called online by a community forum in San Antonio for locals and those who had emigrated.
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The Facebook group “Villa del humor”, as it is known to San antonio, a city that hosts a biennial comedy festival, was first created in 2017 as a social space, according to one of its three administrators, Alexander Pérez.
But over time, it became a civic space to discuss concerns, said Pérez, a pastor with the Seventh-day Adventist Church, who immigrated from San Antonio to Mexico in 2010 and then to Miami two months ago.
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Pérez, 44, said he and other administrators Danilo Roque and Lázaro González they hoped to educate Cubans to claim their rights through peaceful protests instead of just complaining online or at home.
Neither Roque nor González, whom Pérez described as two young men living in San Antonio operating under pseudonyms to avoid retaliation, responded to a request for comment. Pérez said they had decided not to give interviews to protect their identities.
History shows how the recent expansion of Internet access in Cuba has changed the rules of the game by encouraging social media platforms to share criticism and mobilize, as well as incite unrest.
It also reveals how the strengthening of relations with the Cuban diaspora, thanks to the Internet and greater freedom of movement, influences grassroots politics on the island.
Virtual communities like “The Villa of Humor” They exist in the country and the emigrants urge the locals to continue protesting, while Cubans abroad carry out solidarity marches in front of the Cuban embassies.
Some emigrants have made calls urging violence and sabotage from social networks.
All of this poses a challenge to the government, which allows relatively unlimited access to the Internet, unlike China, one of its allies, which blocks many Western social media applications and censors sensitive content online.
Cuba has blamed the protests on US-backed counterrevolutionaries, which for decades has openly sought to force reform on its much smaller neighbor through crippling sanctions and the financing of democratic programs. Havana maintains that they have been fomenting the Internet agitation.
The administrators of the “Villa del Humor” did not receive any US funding nor did they coordinate protests with other towns, Pérez said.
“The exhortations of social networks alone cannot explain the torrent of public anger that Cuba experienced on July 11”said expert William LeoGrande, co-author of a book on US-Cuban relations.
But they give “People from out of the country a way to provide the spark that lights the prairie fire.”
Cuba, where the state has a telecommunications monopoly, has suffered intermittent interruptions to Internet access and social media since July 11, in what activists say is an attempt to prevent further unrest.
When asked in a press conference about the riots, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez neither confirmed nor denied that the disruptions were intentional, but stressed the “right of Cuba to defend itself.”
The protests died down in a couple of days after the internet cuts, a large deployment of security forces in the streets and a wave of arrests.
TEACHING OF CIVIL RIGHTS
The publications in “The village of humor”, Which grew from around 4,000 to almost 10,000 members after the July 11 protest, shows users reminiscing about the past, selling items and promoting businesses.
But Pérez said administrators decided three years ago to turn the group into a civic space when complaints about everyday life began to multiply. They had expressed their support for some opposition groups and tried to organize demonstrations several times, but with little success.
And last month they felt the time had come to try again.
The pandemic has cut off key tourism revenues and tougher U.S. sanctions have strangled the already weakened state economy in Cuba, which has caused the worst economic crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union, an ally of the communist government.
An increase in COVID-19 was pushing health infrastructure that was already under severe strain.
“We decided that this was the moment”, Perez pointed out.
The announcement of the protest to concentrate in the church park at 11 a.m. was spread by word of mouth and messaging applications, according to three residents of San antonio who requested anonymity.
“A neighbor told me that they had said in a Facebook group that instead of complaining at home or in queues, we should go to the church park to claim our rights”, added a resident.
But Pérez said he had little expectation that someone would show up and decided to go to the beach that day. And he was surprised to receive a call to tell him that the small early turnout in the church square had increased.
“Certainly, we never imagined that San Antonio would be the spark that lit the flame that made Cuba take to the streets three hours later”he added. “And if we were surprised, imagine the authorities!”
Videos on social media showed protesters in San Antonio shouting anti-government slogans such as “freedom” and “we are not afraid.”
“My people came out strong because they just can’t take it anymore”said a neighbor. “We decided to go to the headquarters of the (Communist) Party, but no one had the guts to leave, so we headed towards the Municipal Assembly.”
A few hours later he showed up at San antonio the president and leader of the Communist Party of Cuba, Miguel Diaz-Canel, in an attempt – he later said in a televised speech to the nation – to show that “the streets belong to the revolutionaries.”
Some videos on social media showed them disrupting him, but the unrest there and elsewhere soon subsided in the face of the heavy government offensive.
Pérez said the strong security presence in San Antonio de los Baños meant that Cubans would have to wait for the right moment for another protest.
But it was noteworthy, he added. The government has already lifted customs restrictions for travelers bringing medicine and food in response to the protests, he said.
“If we succeeded in a few hours of protest,” he asked himself, “what happens if we spend three days on the street?”.
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