An astonishing scene unfolded in Cuba over the weekend as thousands took part in anti-government demonstrations across the island.
In Bejucal, a town south of Havana, protesters cheered, "Libertad, libertad!" ("Liberty, liberty!")
This was a rare moment in a nation that typically cracks down hard on dissent. Protesters took to the streets to express frustration with food shortages and high prices amid the coronavirus crisis.
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Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel, however, said the demonstrations were stirred up on social media by Cuban Americans in the United States.
Several videos of the protests circulated online throughout the weekend. Hundreds of government supporters also took to the streets in counterprotests.
Historian Lillian Guerra has written extensively about the politics of Cuba and has been following the protests from her home in Gainesville, Florida. She joined The World's host Marco Werman to talk about the significance of the demonstrations over the weekend.
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The videos from Sunday looked like protests you might see anywhere around the globe. But this is Cuba. How unusual is it for people to come out in the streets and voice their grievances on the island?
Lillian Guerra: Really, there has been nothing like this since the first three days of January 1959, when another dictatorship was toppled, that of [Fulgencio] Batista, and that the new revolutionary government, not yet communist, led by Fidel Castro, was attempting to take power and very fearful at the time that the military might try to stage an interventionist or transitional government instead. So, this is nothing like what we've seen before.And the extent is not just that Cuba doesn't have very many street protests. When we have street protests, they tend to be in Havana, they tend to be very small and they're immediately repressed. Everybody is jailed, taken away and whatever violence that is done to them is done behind closed doors. So, this is different because you have the magnitude and you have the protests happening from Oriente, the far eastern province of Cuba, all the way, really, to the end of the island. And I have to say that it is not just heartening to see the kind of courage that Cubans have, but what I see there is a tremendous degree of power that they feel now that they have to speak their voice.
So, we heard the shouts of libertad or "liberty." What do the protesters want? What are the issues?
I think that there are a number of sparks to this. There has been a lot of fuel over the course of the last year and a half as COVID has intensified already-existing scarcities, has revealed the degree to which the government is unwilling to make any kinds of economic reforms that would broaden the access that Cubans have to the capitalist sector of the economy that is not controlled by the government. Children have been isolated at home, as well. They haven't been able to attend school. So, you have multigenerational conversations happening in the home analyzing what's going on in the street because there have been very long ration lines.
So, are Cubans dissatisfied with a few things that are not going right and basically asking their government to do better? Or do these protests suggest a wider dissatisfaction with the entire socialist system? What is your read?
Oh, I definitely think that what they're calling for is an end to the communist state. And I think that, you know, for at least the 27 years that I've been traveling and living in Cuba, I have seen that most Cubans, unless they're militants of the Communist Party — and only about 10% are — feel that they want a different government, and they want multiparty elections, etc. They would love to have freedom of the press.They have, sort of, created it through social media, but they don't have it, you know, and I do think that the degree and tenor of these protests, the fact that people are openly calling for patria y vida, "life and fatherland," and denouncing the state as a dictatorship openly, these are things that we have never seen before and we have never seen them last more than two to three minutes, literally. And this is just extraordinary.
Cuban President Miguel Diáz-Canel has labeled the protesters "vulgar criminals." We know Cuba is known for putting dissidents in prison, and many of these protesters were arrested. Are those protesters now in danger? And where does this leave any semblance of a movement?
The problem here is that the Cuban state cannot put the finger on any one group. And so, there is no organized opposition. These are protests that are not necessarily spontaneous, but that have gained credibility and ground and numbers. And so, you can't tell everybody. What you can do is cut off their Wi-Fi and their internet and prevent them from broadcasting the videos of what is happening.And I think that that is something they did overnight. They will surely try to do it again. Those who are in prison, who knows what will happen to them? I mean, they are seen as anti-Cuban mercenaries of a foreign power, which is, of course, the United States. And it is utterly absurd to accuse them of being that. But this is the line that the Cuban state has taken for 60 years when it comes to its opponents and its critics.
Do you think the protests are going to continue? I mean, how deep is the desire for communism to end?
I have no doubt that they will continue. I don't know that they will be able to take this kind of scale, because the Cuban state has massive resources allocated toward both uniformed and un-uniformed security forces. So, the repression will be dramatic and it will continue parallel to whatever protests there might be, big or small. I do think that once you have this kind of explosion, you can't turn back the page of history.You march forward. And this is, I think, going to be clear to Cubans. I don't think that the Cuban state is suddenly going to reverse course, you know, and drop all of the positions that it very recently broadcast and took in its latest Communist Party Congress. So, as long as they're going to stick to non-negotiation of anything and one-party rule and a constitution that mandates loyalty to that one-party rule, we have a standoff between state and nation.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. AP contributed to this report.