Since Cubans spilled onto the streets last weekend in a startling show of rebellion against their communist government, the authorities have ratcheted up their repression.
Over the past four days, social media platforms have been filled with videos of violent arrests. Soldiers have blocked the streets to stop protesters from entering public squares, and the government has deployed plainclothes police and civilian shock troops to battle demonstrators.
Internet service has been shut down, depriving citizens of the tools to share information about new demonstrations. The widespread sharing of images on Sunday is believed to have encouraged as many as 10,000 Cubans in towns across the country to take to the streets to protest shortages of food and medicine amid a widening COVID crisis. The hashtag #SOSCuba has become the slogan of the movement, shared inside and outside the country, and the anti-government song “Patria y Vida'' went viral on Cuban social media.
Over 100 people have been arrested, according to Amnesty International, and more are likely missing.
“This is my cousin from Cienfuegos. He went missing yesterday and none of the police stations are telling us where he is. Please publish this,” reads a post widely shared on Facebook. On Monday, dozens gathered outside police stations in Havana, most of them worried mothers, to inquire about the whereabouts of their loved ones, some of whom had been arrested publicly, others who’d simply vanished.
Videos show violent arrests, with police officers, both in uniform and in plainclothes, pulling protesters by the hair and dragging them into cars, as well as officers beating protesters unconscious with batons.
In the province of Matanzas, where food and medicine shortages have created one of the most dire healthcare situations on the island, police arrested a man in his own home and beat him in front of his wife and children, ages twelve and two.
In a video of the incident, his wife says he was carried out to the police car “like a piece of pork”, leaving behind a puddle of blood on the floor. The Cuban government confirmed a death that was reported in Santiago de Cuba on Sunday, but blamed the victim for his own killing, highlighting his past criminal record, which included theft.
The government has filled the streets with its presence to deter further protests. Rows of special forces soldiers prohibited protesters from entering public squares on Monday. Muscled soldiers with conspicuous firearms are patrolling the streets. The regime’s supporters have fought in the streets alongside police and military units against their neighbors, many wielding long wooden sticks as weapons.
Some police officers have dressed in plain clothes, making it more difficult to tell who is on which side. Police in civilian dress have also been bussed into areas with larger crowds to clash with protesters. Their presence is unmistakable. Fleets of buses are conspicuous in Cuba because fuel shortages have sharply reduced the number of vehicles on the street.
Government workers have been urged to turn out in support of the regime, with the understanding that if they do not show up, they could lose their jobs. Youths between the ages of 16 and 18 who are beginning their one-year mandatory military service have been deployed to fight protesters, according to El Nuevo Herald.
A professor at the University of Havana who asked to remain anonymous told VICE World News that university employees are facing pressure to demonstrate in favor of the regime or face the risk of losing their positions. The professor said that some supporters of the regime are convinced the anti-government protesters were paid or groomed by the CIA.
Facebook reported on Wednesday that its services have been largely shut off in Cuba, part of the sweeping internet shutdown that has prevented the majority of Cubans from accessing 4G data for the past four days. The only way to access the internet is now through wifi parks which cost one dollar per hour of service, a sum that is out of reach for the average Cuban. On Tuesday, Dina Stars, a Cuban youtuber, was arrested in the middle of giving a live interview to a Spanish TV station.
In response to the unrest, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel said Wednesday that people would now be permitted to bring unlimited amounts of food and medicine into Cuba from abroad. This change may ease the shortages that have caused the population’s health to suffer in recent months as COVID cases climb. Protesters said malnutrition, unstable electricity, and the scarcity of common medicines were the drivers of their movement to end what they called the corrupt, communist regime.
The coronavirus has thrown into stark relief the collapse of Cuba’s healthcare system—once touted as a signature achievement of the Cuban Revolution. A source working with sick patients told VICE World News that COVID patients in isolation centers in Havana still do not have access to critical medicines, and rolling blackouts hamper doctors’ ability to keep people alive on ventilators. Several Cuban cities have too few doctors, hospital beds, and ambulances to accommodate the current surge; the entire province of Guantánamo relies on just one ambulance.
The government’s measures have worked for now. Protests since Sunday have been much smaller, according to protesters in Havana who spoke with VICE World News. “I’m afraid for my mom. She won’t leave the house because she’s scared,” said one supporter. “I’m not going outside and getting myself into anything,” said another. “I’m staying calm.”