Versión en español aquí.
Massive and seemingly spontaneous protests erupted across Cuba on Sunday, July 11, with thousands of people taking to the streets in over fifty cities, including a crowd of 2,000 in central Havana. Although these protests appear to have taken Cuba’s government by surprise, President Miguel Díaz-Canel quickly rallied the one-party state’s response, deploying the National Police (PNR) and armed forces (FAR), including special forces known as “black berets,” and calling government supporters into the streets for counter-protests. The streets of Havana and other cities remained ‘militarized’ for the following several days.
As the dust settled on the protests, civil society and independent media began to denounce a series of abuses in the government’s response, including one confirmed death: 36-year-old Diubis Laurencio Tejeda, who witnesses say was shot in the back during a confrontation between police and protestors in the La Güinera neighborhood of Havana. Tragically, Diubis’ mother died by suicide a week later, with family members reporting that she had been bereft since her son’s death. Other documented abuses include beatings, arbitrary detentions, and sexual assault of detainees. One set of viral videos shows a special forces member bursting into a house with his gun drawn and the aftermath of an apparent shooting in the house.
As many analysts have emphasized, the protests point to the potential social and political impact of internet connectivity on the island. After years of limiting internet access to central wi-fi hotspots, the state telecommunications company ETECSA has rapidly rolled out 3G and 4G mobile internet services, which now reach over 3.7 million Cubans. This increase has strengthened Cuban civil society’s ability to document abuses, share information with the world, and coordinate protests, setting off a cat-and-mouse game between internet users and the government. Amidst the protests, ETECSA scrambled to cut off internet access, resulting in two brief periods of total shutdown on the 11th and notably reduced traffic for several days afterwards. Messaging and streaming platforms remained blocked for days afterwards. When Cubans began to circumvent these blockages using VPN services, ETECSA responded by blocking messages containing the words “VPN” and “Psiphon” (a VPN tool popular among Cubans).
The most prominent example of the internet’s role is the rap anthem “Patria y Vida,” which has racked up over 7 million views since premiering in February. The song, a collaboration between on-island creatives and international Cuban stars, provides the slogan for anti-government protests across Cuba and worldwide.
The place of hip-hop in the current protest wave points to another key factor, which has received far less international attention: the outsized role of Afro-Cubans in human rights efforts. In the months leading up to July 11th, Afro-Cuban activists and organizations have posed a series of high-profile challenges to the government. The fuse was lit with the arrest of the Afro-Cuban rapper Denis Solís early last November. Solís, a member of an activist collective known as the San Isidro Movement, became a cause célèbre for Cuban activists. The San Isidro Movement held a hunger strike on his behalf, which was suppressed by the police and sparked months of further activism. Domestic and international attention was trained on Cuba yet again in May when the most prominent San Isidro activist, the Afro-Cuban artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcantará, spent a month mysteriously detained in a Havana hospital after police broke up yet another protest calling for Solís’ release.
In describing the issues driving Afro-Cuban participation in recent activist efforts, Race and Equality’s on-island partners emphasize that Afro-Cubans face the same issues driving Cubans of all races to the streets, first and foremost the COVID-19 pandemic. By the end of June, slightly more than 10% of the population had received full courses of the Cuban-developed Soberana 2 and Abdala vaccines. Despite this progress, the numbers of new infections, active cases, and deaths have exploded in the last six months. The pandemic has plunged Cuba into an economic crisis marked by shortages, hours-long waits to purchase basic goods, and wildly fluctuating exchange rates and inflation. Discontent with the economy and with heavy-handed lockdown measures has eroded Cubans’ patience with the government and brought long-running resentment around repression and the lack of political freedoms to the fore.
As Race and Equality and our Afro-Cuban counterparts have long documented, however, Afro-Cubans also face structural racism and racial discrimination that compound these difficult circumstances. Racial discrimination on the job market relegates many Black Cubans to low-paying and stigmatized job positions. Racial disparities in income contribute to Afro-Cubans’ over-representation in crowded ‘popular’ neighborhoods, where housing quality and access to education, healthcare, social security, and other rights are poor. Cuba’s recent economic reforms threaten to widen racial gaps further, as Afro-Cubans have less access to the overseas remittances and networks that support the emerging entrepreneurial sector. Afro-Cubans who challenge the government to live up to its commitments face slander, police harassment, and arrest. In the midst of a global movement for racial equality, it is no surprise that Afro-Cubans are at the forefront of demands for change.
Support from the international community will be critical for Cuban civil society in the coming weeks. As protests died down, the government moved to try protestors and those accused of inciting the protests in rapid summary trials without access to defense attorneys and without notifying the accused’s family. The human rights organization Cubalex is working to document over 650 cases of detentions, 36 of whom remain disappeared.
Race and Equality’s Cuban partners are reiterating the importance of maintaining international attention on cases of abuse, detention, disappearance, and prosecution. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Office of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights have both insisted that Cuba investigate these acts and bring those responsible to justice, particularly in the killing of Diubis Tejeda. Despite the end of public protests, it is vital to continue highlighting these cases and insisting on Cuba’s compliance with international legal orders protecting the security of vulnerable citizens. For civil society, although internet access has led to several breakthroughs, the less glamorous work of building coalitions, strategizing, and engaging with international institutions remains vital if activists are to capitalize on the current opening. Capacity-building programs, networking, and other forms of support to independent civil society will be crucial in this regard.
*Latin America Program Assistant at the International Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights
Photo: AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa