The Facebook group that organized the first wave of protests in Cuba
HAVANA, Aug. 9 (Reuters) – “Tired of not having electricity?” read an article in a Facebook group for residents of the small Cuban town of San Antonio de los Banos on July 10. “Tired of having to listen to the impudence of a government that doesn’t care about you?”
“It’s time to go out and claim. Don’t criticize at home: let us listen.”
The next day, thousands of people took to the streets in San Antonio, a city of some 50,000 people, 30 km (20 miles) southwest of Havana, sparking a rare wave of protests across the country led by the Communists.
Unrest has intensified in Latin America and the Caribbean as unrest spreads over lockdowns from COVID-19 and growing poverty. But in Cuba, authorities have traditionally tightly controlled public spaces, saying unity is the key to resisting coup attempts by former Cold War foe the United States.
The protests, the most widespread in Cuba since Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution, appeared largely spontaneous as Cubans expressed frustration over long queues for food, power outages, drug shortages. as well as restrictions on civil liberties.
Yet an investigation by a non-state Cuban media El Estornudo – Quoted by state television and confirmed by Reuters – recently showed that the first protest was organized online by a community forum in San Antonio for residents and those who had emigrated.
The Facebook group “City of Humor” – the nickname for San Antonio which hosts a biannual comedy festival – was first established in 2017 as a social space, according to one of its three directors, Alexander Perez , based in Miami.
Over time, people also began to voice their grievances, said Perez, 44, a pastor of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. This prompted him and fellow administrators Danilo Roque and Lazaro Gonzalez to try to “educate” them about their civil rights and claim them through peaceful protests.
Neither Roque nor Gonzalez, whom Perez described as two younger men who lived in San Antonio and operated under pseudonyms to avoid retaliation, responded to the request for comment.
The backstory shows how the recent expansion of web access in Cuba has been a game-changer by encouraging social media forums to share criticism and mobilize.
It also shows how strengthening relations with the Cuban diaspora – thanks to the internet and greater freedom of movement – influences the island’s politics at the local level.
Virtual communities like “La Cité de humor” exist all over the country and the emigrants urge the local populations to continue to demonstrate and express their solidarity, some even urging violence.
All of this poses a challenge to the government which has allowed relatively free access to the internet, unlike China, which blocks many western social media applications.
Cuba blamed the protests on online interference from US-backed counterrevolutionaries, who have openly sought for decades to impose reforms through sanctions and funding democratic programs.
The administrators of the “City of Humor” did not receive any US funding and did not coordinate the protests with other cities, said Perez.
Cuba, where the state has a monopoly on telecommunications, has suffered intermittent disruption in internet and social media access since July 11, in an apparent attempt to prevent further unrest.
The protests subsided within days amid the blackouts, a large deployment of security forces and a wave of detentions.
TEACH CIVIL RIGHTS
Articles in “The City of Humor” – which grew from around 4,000 to nearly 10,000 members after the July 11 protest – show users remembering, selling articles, promoting businesses and complaining about local issues such as water supply.
Perez said administrators decided three years ago to also attempt to rally the community to protest shared grievances, with little success.
Last month they felt it was time to try again.
The pandemic and the tightening of US sanctions had exacerbated Cuba’s economic woes, plunging it into its deepest crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union. And the COVID-19 outbreak was pushing its already creaking health infrastructure to the brink.
“We decided now was the time,” Perez said.
The announcement of the protest at the church grounds at 11 a.m. spread through word of mouth and messaging apps, according to three San Antonio residents who requested anonymity.
But Perez said he had such low expectations that anyone would show up that he went to the beach that day. He was therefore amazed to receive a call telling him that the low turnout at the start had snowballed.
“We certainly never imagined that San Antonio would be the spark that lit the flame and brought Cuba to the streets three hours later,” he said.
Videos on social media showed protesters in San Antonio shouting anti-government slogans like “freedom” and “we are not afraid”.
“My city came out in force because it cannot take any more,” said one resident, on condition of anonymity.
Within hours, President Miguel Diaz-Canel himself introduced himself, with the aim – he later said in a televised address to the nation – to show that “the streets belong to revolutionaries”.
Some videos on social media showed him heckling, but unrest there and elsewhere quickly abated amid a crackdown.
Perez said a strong security presence in San Antonio meant Cubans would have to bide their time until another protest.
But it is noteworthy, he said, that the government has already passed reforms such as lifting customs restrictions for travelers bringing medicine and food in response to protests.
“If we can do this in a few hours of protest,” he wondered, “what if we spend three days on the streets?
Reporting by Sarah Marsh, editing by Daniel Flynn and Angus MacSwan
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