August 10th, 2021, Moultonborough, NH
Each time I’ve started to write this, something new happens in Cuba and I decide that is the story I want to share with you. I change course and start a new piece.
I won’t do that today. I’m going to stick with a plan: offer some context around the historic protests that broke out in my native country on July 11th and put two human beings in front of those events so you can feel the story in a deeper way.
My goal is to focus on the protests and avoid, for now, the political narratives (about the U.S. partial embargo, socialism vs capitalism, Left vs Right) that have been detracting from the magnitude of the story in front of us: unprecedented protests in a country that for 62 years has punished dissent at all levels.
Anyone who doubts the regime’s position on dissent should look into Luis Robles’s arrest last December for walking in Havana holding a sign that read libertad. Robles is facing 6 years in prison for enemy propaganda and is awaiting trial in a maximum-security prison alongside violent criminals.
A few small, random protests like Robles’s have taken protests place over the last few years, and one major one, known as the Maleconazo, in 1994, but no one has seen anything like the massive protests that errupted across the island in July.
The courage required to protest publicly in post-revolutionary Cuba—a single-party state with a well-documented history of punishing dissent with public shamings, beatings, loss of employment, harassment of family and friends, torture and incarceration—cannot be overestimated. And yet, approximately 190,000 people participated in more than 500 peaceful demonstrations across the island during the month of July.
Protestors in Havana, July 11, 2021. Reuters photo.
Independent and foreign media reported that the protests began peacefully, with people walking or riding bikes on streets across Cuba, chanting libertad, down with the dictatorship, and some truly salty insults against Cuban president and Communist Party leader Miguel Díaz Canel. In almost all cases, the violence seems to have erupted after the Boinas Negras (Black Berets, paramilitary anti-riot squads) and plainclothes arrived at the protests.
In the filmed scenes of the violence, it’s difficult to know who is beating whom, but a closer look suggests that the better dressed, well-fed men carrying bats, sticks, and guns were unlikely to be civilians. Guns have been illegal in Cuba since the revolution, and only select military and police officials are permitted to have weapons at home. But the trained Cuban eye can tell who these pseudo-civilians work for. As groups of these men appeared, the protestors often called them out with shouts like “the henchmen are here.”
According to the respected human rights NGO Prisoners Defenders July report, the regime detained between 2000 and 8000 protestors in July. There are 800 or so known disappeared and detained protestors, but the more likely number for July is believed to be between two and eight thousand. The regime says it has no political prisoners, but the reality is different, as last month’s numbers and reports from multiple human rights groups show.
One reason is that the families of the detained/disappeared/imprisoned are warned that if they denounce the arrests, or post on social media, their loved ones will suffer more. These families are often still trying to locate their relative, they roam from jail to jail searching for a daughter, a father, a son. They need the officials’ help, so they stay silent. These hidden threats also explain why volunteers tracking the missing and imprisoned struggle to convince families to report the incarcerations.
The protestors represented all ages and races, although most were young, including many minors. There were men, women, gay and straight. Some women carried babies or pushed them in strollers as they marched. At least one fearless priest joined a protest and tried to stop the violent beatings. He ended up with a head injury but continues to speak out.
The only weapon the protestors had and have is the internet. Mobile internet access is new in Cuba since December 2018, remains prohibitively expensive, and is often unreliable. The government shut it down across the country as the protests spread and has continued to block access intermittently since July 11th. The regime blames power outages and other malfunctions for the accessibility problems, and even the selective shutdowns of individual accounts. But Cubans are resourceful and, using VPNs and proxies, activists and others have been posting, at least occasionally.
A hard stop here. I know I promised to tell you about two protestors whose stories stood out for me. But my phone started chiming with Twitter alerts about ten minutes ago and I had to look. So, yup, I’m going with this breaking story instead.
This morning at 8 am, a popular and tireless activist, Ruhama Fernandez, Twitter account @ruhsantiago99, was taken from her home by political police after they ransacked the apartment. Ruhama, of African descent, speaks openly against the government and has suffered for it with harassment, detentions, and constant threats. A state-run TV news program dedicated to attacking the reputation of dissidents featured Ruhama multiple times over the last year.
Ruhama has been evicted or forced to move at least eight times after officials pressured her landlords. They’ve threatened her family and friends as well. If her frequent posts on Twitter and Youtube weren’t getting her enough attention, an August 5th phone conversation with Cuban American community organizers and political representatives about the brutal repression taking place right now, put her squarely in the regime’s cross hairs.
Youtube Screen Shot
The dissident community in Cuba and Cuban American supporters everywhere are urgently asking for help in keeping Ruhama’s case public. She is the most recent victim of the regime’s efforts to stop anti-government social media posts, especially those using #SOSCuba. In recent days, a number of popular activists who’ve used #SOSCuba have suddenly deleted critical posts and recanted their anti-regime views—another sign of the regime’s ability to shut down dissent.
Can I ask for your help? Will you help me keep Ruhama’s story and the importance of these protests in people’s minds by sharing this piece with others and/or posting under #SOSCuba or #FreeRuhama. There are many, many Ruhamas in unknown Cuban jails right now, some have had summary trials and received sentences of more than a year, some are minors, but all deserve the basic human right of free speech. I hope you’ll help tell people at least this Ruhama’s story. Knowing—bearing witness—is the least we can do.
Thanks for thinking about this with me…
 Some of these links are to Spanish language reports but the embedded videos are worth a look. They show footage taken during protests, scenes I haven’t been able to find with English language subtitles, if at all, on English language media.