CubaBrief: The Economist says Cuba “is as repressive as Russia, albeit sunnier.” The Guardian: Cubans choose exile to escape post-protest political crackdown

Photo taken in Boniato prison in Cuba published in Life Magazine in 1988

The Economist in their March 26, 2022 article that appeared in the The Americas section of the print edition under the headline “Russia with sunshine” was titled online,Cuba’s dictatorship has a cultural opposition that it can’t tolerate.” It is well worth the read, but it does get some facts wrong.

First, Yunior García Aguilera is a dramatist and a founding member of 27N and later of Archipelago, both important movements, but not as claimed by The Economist, the San Isidro Movement.

Second, on November 27, 2020 a protest against censorship gathered outside the Ministry of Culture in Havana. “It began with 20 people and grew to 500,” said Yunior García about this demonstration that led to the founding of the 27N movement. This was a spontaneous protest in solidarity with the San Isidro Movement that had its headquarters raided the day before by the secret police, and all the dissidents present detained, but it was not a San Isidro Movement protest.

Third, the claim by The Economist that “In its early decades the regime enjoyed public support, thanks to free education, health care and housing and the charisma of Fidel Castro” is wrong. Mass executions that sought to crush dissent in the first years of the Revolution consolidated the Castro dictatorship. This was assisted by Soviet and East German advisers that were experts in counter insurgency operations, and building a police state. The Economist ignores the thousands of Cubans, many of them farmers, killed by Castro and Soviet counter insurgency “advisers” between 1959 and 1965. Their rebellion, took place over six years in the Escambray Mountains, with many guerillas who had fought alongside Castro against Batista, now fighting against the new regime. They had supported Fidel Castro to restore democracy in Cuba, but when he turned to Communism, they revolted. The 1987 documentary “Nobody Listened” covers the first three decades of the Castro regime, and demonstrates the repressive character of the dictatorship from the beginning.

Fourth, The Economist claims that “Cuba is like Russia, only sunnier”, but that is too generous an assessment of Cuba. Freedom House rates the levels of civil and political rights in 210 countries. In their 2022 Freedom Index out of a possible combined score of 100, Russia scored 19, placing it among the “Not Free”, but Cuba obtained a lower score of 11 that placed the tropical island in the same category. The 2022 Index of Economic Freedom that is prepared by the Heritage Foundation found Russia listed at 113th that placed it in “Mostly Unfree” category, and Cuba was listed at 175th placing it in the “Repressed” category next to Venezuela and North Korea. The Castro regime is backing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and has a close relationship with Russia, but despite the warm weather and sun it is more internally repressive against its own population in all aspects then Russia today.

This is why over the past 63 years millions of Cubans have chosen exile as an alternative to the totalitarian hellscape that is Cuba under the Castros. The Guardian, in their March 24, 2022 article “Cubans choose exile to escape post-protest political crackdown” documents the latest ongoing exodus. The article highlights the example of how the decision by one Cuban to get a “provocative tattoo: a faded Cuban flag across his calf above the words “Patria y Vida”, or Fatherland and Life” according to The Guardian “triggered a string of frightening confrontations with Cuban police – and ultimately prompted him to flee the country, leaving his two young children behind.”   

The Economist, March 26, 2022


Cuba’s dictatorship has a cultural opposition that it can’t tolerate

The socialist island is as repressive as Russia, albeit sunnier

March 26, 2022

WHEN YUNIOR GARCÍA, a dramatist, was still living in his home city of Holguín, in eastern Cuba, the local secretary of the Communist Party, Miguel Díaz-Canel, came to see two of his plays. “We talked,” says Mr Garcia. “He seemed open and more modern. He liked the theatre.” Since 2019 Mr Díaz-Canel has been Cuba’s president. “He has stopped smiling. He reads out everything he says. He has acted as a despot.”

Mr García, one of whose plays has been staged at the Royal Court theatre in London, has suffered from that despotism. He was a founder of the San Isidro movement, a group of artists and writers based in Havana. In 2020 they staged a protest against censorship outside the culture ministry. “It began with 20 people and grew to 500,” he recounts. It was the biggest gathering of its kind in decades. A senior official agreed to meet the artists, though talks got nowhere. But it was a turning point, Mr García thinks.

In its more than 60 years of rule, Cuba’s Communist Party has been adept at isolating dissidents, branding them stooges of the United States. In its early decades the regime enjoyed public support, thanks to free education, health care and housing and the charisma of Fidel Castro. The first crack came with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of its largesse to its Caribbean client, later partially replaced by Venezuela.

Now Venezuela’s government has little money, Mr Castro is dead and his brother and successor, Raúl, has retired. Mr Díaz-Canel and the military-bureaucratic complex he heads face unprecedented difficulties. While Donald Trump was president of the United States he intensified sanctions barring most tourism and remittances to the island. This compounded the inefficiencies of Cuba’s centralised economy.

The pandemic kept tourists away and highlighted the parlous state of Cuba’s health service. Hospitals were overwhelmed and oxygen ran short. The economy is still 11% smaller than in 2018. In January 2021 the government devalued the peso, to try to cut subsidies and inefficiencies. As a result inflation was almost 300% last year, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, our sister organisation. On the black market the peso is worth less than a quarter of the official rate. Many shops have empty shelves, except those that sell in dollars, which many Cubans lack.

Frustration boiled over in spontaneous protests across the island on July 11th 2021, in which there were isolated incidents of violence. This social explosion was fanned by mobile phones and the internet, to which the government granted access in 2018. It was probably the biggest public challenge to the regime since the 1960s. The response was harsh: almost 800 people were charged over the protests and more than a hundred have so far received long prison sentences, some of up to 30 years, in summary trials.

On July 11th Mr García and his movement, now called Archipelago, demanded 15 minutes on television to explain their view of the events. They were arrested and he spent a night in jail. Cracks showed in the normally monolithic façade of the regime. Silvio Rodríguez, a prominent singer-songwriter and a pillar of the revolution, met Mr García. “He’s conscious of the situation,” says the playwright. “But he’s devoted his life to a Utopia and can’t admit that he’s wrong.”

Archipelago sought official permission to organise a peaceful protest last November 15th to call for the release of the prisoners. In response the regime ordered military mobilisations on that day. So the protesters switched to November 17th. The security police told Mr García he would go to jail for 27 years. He said he would march alone carrying a white rose. But in the days beforehand his home was surrounded by a mob of 200 people. Rather than face long jail terms, he and his wife, Dayana, escaped to Madrid. The regime seemed content to let them go, its usual expedient with troublemakers. Dozens of other activists, artists and journalists have left the island since July, many of them ending up in the Spanish capital.

The government has shut Mr García’s theatre group. Archipelago is dispersed. But it has already achieved something. It has shown that the regime faces not just a disgruntled populace but also an intellectual opposition it does not know how to handle and which is hard to brand as the creation of the CIA. By repressing such voices, the regime can doubtless stay in power. But other voices may pipe up, reminding the world that Cuba is like Russia, only sunnier.

This article appeared in the The Americas section of the print edition under the headline “Russia with sunshine”

The Guardian, March 24, 2022

Cubans choose exile to escape post-protest political crackdown

Tens of thousands have left the communist-ruled country since mass anti-government protests last July but many face life in limbo in Mexico

Lillian Perlmutter in Tapachula, Mexico

Thu 24 Mar 2022 05.00 EDT

Migrants including Cubans protest to demand visas from the authorities for legal stay in the country, in the city of Tapachula, Mexico, this month. Photograph: Juan Manueol Blanco/EPA

Last July, Rafael decided to get a provocative tattoo: a faded Cuban flag across his calf above the words “Patria y Vida”, or Fatherland and Life – the title of an anti-government anthem that went viral on the Caribbean island that summer.

That decision triggered a string of frightening confrontations with Cuban police – and ultimately prompted him to flee the country, leaving his two young children behind.

Rafael is one of thousands of Cubans who have left the island since the largest anti-government protests in 30 years erupted spontaneously in cities across the country on 11 July.

Well-known dissidents have been able to secure visas or receive asylum from various countries, primarily Spain and the United States, over the past six months while still in Cuba.

But many ordinary Cubans whose first political act was taking to the streets last July have begun to leave the island as well, seeing self-exile as a better option than prison.

Those with enough money for a plane ticket – often one to two thousand dollars –fly to Panama or Nicaragua and ride buses up through Central America.

Now Rafael and thousands of other Cubans are stuck in Tapachula, a sweltering town near the Guatemala border, while they wait for the Mexican government to issue documents allowing them to travel up to the United States border where they will apply for political asylum.

Tens of thousands of people joined the July demonstrations. Many of them were peaceful, but others threw rocks at police officers, overturned police cars and set them on fire. Chants of “¡Patria y vida!” rippled through the crowds.

A man is arrested during an anti-government demonstration on 11 July 2021. Protesters have been sentenced to long prison terms. Photograph: Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images

The crackdown that followed was swift. In the months after the demonstrations, several of Rafael’s friends were detained by police who showed up unannounced at their homes. One has already been sentenced to 10 years in prison for “sedition”.

At least 1,470 people have been arrested for participating in the demonstrations, according to the human rights group Justicia. Some have been sentenced to up to 25 years in prison on sedition charges.

Rafael feared that his tattoo – and his presence at the protests – would lead him to the same fate. After hearing the protesters’ shouts, Rafael had walked to the central plaza in the city of Camagüey. He joined the crowd, but said he did not throw rocks or fight with police officers as many others did.

“I don’t know if they [Cuban authorities] know I was out on 11 July. I live near the park where the protests happened; that was going to be my excuse for being there,” Rafael said. “I got stopped twice by police on the street because they saw my tattoo, and I was given two formal government citations. I started thinking maybe I would get arrested.”

But Rafael refused to stop posting anti-government memes on Facebook, even after the Cuban government passed a new law in August, Decreto Ley 35, prohibiting anti-government rhetoric online. Punishment for posting can be years in prison.

Rafael’s family became worried for his safety, and eventually pooled their money for his plane ticket.

In the first two months of 2022 alone, nearly 30,000 Cubans attempted to enter the United States, most of them through Mexico. Data from prior months shows an average of between one and two thousand a month.

Cuban migrants wait outside the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance in Tapachula, Mexico. Photograph: Reuters/Alamy

Some are escaping Cuba’s economic crisis, as shortages have led to mass hunger, and the Cuban peso has effectively lost half its value in the past two months.

But many, like Rafael, have fled the island for fear of being sentenced to years or even decades in prison.

Waiting outside the office of the Mexican Commission for Refugees in Tapachula’s 90F heat, one Cuban woman fanned herself with her folder full of documents. The woman – who declined to give her name in case she is deported back to Cuba – said she fled the country after protesting on 11 July and was having trouble securing her documents in Tapachula.

She still needed to apply for refugee status in Mexico, the first of many bureaucratic steps necessary to leave the city and move north. But eventually, she planned to finish her journey to the United States through illegal means. “It’s expensive, but I’m going to go to Mexico City and hire a coyote to take me over the border.”

If she chose to enter the United States through a legal route, she would face a backlog of asylum claims, thousands of cases long. At the land border, the chance of gaining asylum for Rafael and the rest of the protesters is about 20%, if similar to other Cubans’ cases in recent years.

“I probably won’t return to Cuba,” Rafael said. “I love my country and I want to see my kids, but I won’t. All I can do for them now is go north and look for a way to make some money so I can send it back.”