There is a man working for the Cuban government playing love songs in the park.
Orlando Fuentes has a table, an awning against the hard Caribbean sun and a sound system from which floats Cuban singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez’s Cita con Angeles.
A woman says that she cannot listen, that it is a beautiful song ruined by being played at too many government rallies.
Illustration: Mountain People
After 16 months of the COVID-19 pandemic and a week of unprecedented protests, the Cuban government wants to soothe the anger, and music is being played in parks across the country.
“I call for solidarity and not to let hatred take over the Cuban soul, which is a soul of goodness, affection and love,” Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel wrote on Twitter.
Only days before, he called supporters on to the streets to face down those protesting against shortages of food and medicines, rising prices, and hours-long power cuts, people he had called “vulgar, indecent and delinquent.”
The protests started on July 11 in the town of San Antonio de los Banos, on the outskirts of Havana.
Residents were complaining of blackouts that lasted more than eight hours.
Videos of people chanting libertad, Spanish for freedom, swiftly spread on social media, three years after Cubans were first allowed to access the Internet on mobile devices.
Protests flared the length and breadth of the country. Police vehicles were turned over, and rocks were thrown.
A few of the hated MLC stores — where necessities are sold only in foreign currencies — were looted. Hundreds of arrests were made, often documented in harrowing videos.
Nothing like it had been seen in Cuba since the 1959 revolution, shaking the population and the government.
Former Cuban Communist Party first-secretary Raul Castro, the 90-year-old brother of Cuba’s long-time president Fidel Castro, came back to advise.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Florida Straits, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez suggested the US government consider airstrikes.
’CLAIMING THEIR RIGHTS’
Ana, a museum curator in her late 20s, does not want to give her real name. She was at home in her Havana neighborhood of 10 de Octubre on Sunday last week when she heard a noise.
“Outside were the people of my neighborhood claiming their rights,” she told reporters.
This was at about 3pm.
“We were 60 people when we left,” she said. “There were policemen, but everything was peaceful. People were saying: ‘We want medicines, we want food.’ We walked toward the center, about seven kilometers away. People had gone out without water, without money, without their IDs.”
Ana reached El Capitolio, the vast building at the edge of Havana’s old town that is a copy of the US Capitol.
There, she met police in numbers, she said.
“We also felt the presence of the quick response brigades,” Ana said. “They are state security, but are dressed as civilians. They were the first to provoke.”
She pushed on toward El Malecon, Havana’s corniche.
“There we faced the special brigades, special units for repression. By the Museum of the Revolution, there were masses of people dressed as civilians with sticks in their hands,” Ana said, estimating that they were 2,000 protesters.
“There was pepper spray. There was a lot of violence,” she said.
In every Cuban kitchen, there is a pressure cooker. It’s how the population makes its staple rice and beans. Most are old and worn — everyone knows how dangerous they are.
Five years ago, then-US president Barack Obama tried to ease the pressure in Cuba and sweep away what he called the “last remnants” of the Cold War.
Obama stepped off Air Force One at Havana’s international airport, asking: “What’s up Cuba?”
He reopened the US embassy, but drew the line at ending a 60-year-old embargo Cubans call el bloqueo.
His successor, Donald Trump, took a different approach.
Trump banned cruise ships from visiting, pursued companies that traded with the country, placed Cuba back on a list of state sponsors of terrorism, and, most crucially, stamped down on the Cuban diaspora’s ability to send money back to their families.
Meanwhile, Cuba has been crumbling.
After 62 years of revolution, agricultural land has returned to bush, sugar mills are metal skeletons and railway tracks rust. It still has its school system, its arts and its fabled health service, but all exist within a fading infrastructure, starved of money and technology.
Boosted by Obama’s detente, but having lost Venezuela’s financial backing, Cuba’s rulers bet on tourism.
An economic wing of the Cuban military built vast numbers of hotels, but then the pandemic hit and the Cuban economy contracted 11 percent last year.
The state refuses to cede control of importing and exporting, more worried now about the destabilizing effect of US capital than any invasion. The problem is that without tourists, the government cannot pay its bills abroad so there is not enough food coming into the country.
Cuba created its own vaccines against COVID-19, but the virus is now raging through the population.
Medicines are traded on WhatsApp and Telegram groups. Sixty vitamin C tablets cost US$32, although the price depends on people’s access to US dollars or euros. The poorest, on the wrong end of a currency black market, pay the most.
The message boards are harrowing. Recently a young woman was asking what she needed to stop her breasts producing milk: Her baby had died from COVID-19.
Asked about the protests, almost all Cuba watchers say, as Canadian lawyer and long-time resident Gregory Biniowsky put it: “In truth, I’m surprised it took so long.”
Wimar Verdecia is a cartoonist and graphic artist. He attended a protest in November last year that, while only gathering 300 artists outside the Cuban Ministry of Culture, is now seen as a watershed in a country where such protests are banned.
He went to witness the July 11 march passing through Havana’s city center and was struck, but not surprised, by the number of young people taking part.
“All young people want to migrate because it’s a country where there is no future, where you can’t think of a prosperous and dignified life,” he said.
Videos show that it was by no means just young people taking part.
Magazine editor Maykel Gonzalez Vivero, who said he was maltreated by police, wrote on Twitter of “an older woman in her 60s wiping the blood from her nose.”
Images of the police dragging away protesters by their necks have shocked the country. Many protesters disappeared without trace into police stations and interrogation centers.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on Friday called for the prompt release of all those detained.
Concerned by the videos circulating, the government cut the Internet for much of last week, put those hurt by thrown rocks and looting on television, and created a segment on the news dedicated to the false rumors being passed around.
State media did not show images of protesters, unless they showed them breaking windows or overturning vehicles. A group of protesters who turned up at a TV station to offer their views were bustled away by a chanting mob.
That led to a withering response from many of Cuba’s most famous cultural figures. Many musicians, including Leo Brouwer, Los Van Van, Haydee Milanes, Leoni Torres and Adalberto Alvarez, spoke out.
Members of the Elito Reve orchestra wrote: “Violence is the last resort of the incompetent.”
In a country that takes huge pride in its arts, and whose artists are often silenced if they cross the authorities, it felt like another first in a week full of them.
On Thursday, US President Joe Biden finally weighed in, calling Cuba a “failed state” and making plain that he would not be following Obama’s lead.
In the past, in times of great hardship in Cuba — for example after the collapse of its sponsor, the Soviet Union — Cubans flooded north into the US.
US Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas last week put an end to that idea, saying that those who took to the sea would be returned. It appears that the US is sticking to Trump’s plan.
UNCLEAR ROAD AHEAD
“What do they actually want?” former Cuban ambassador to the EU Carlos Alzugaray asked. “Do they want major riots and the collapse of the Cuban government? Do they really want that? What happens next?”
However, it is certain that Obama’s detente is truly dead.
In the neighborhood of 10 de Octubre, Ana is avoiding police, although she says she did nothing wrong.
“I have a cousin who, for 72 hours, we didn’t know where he was. Yesterday we learned that he is in a prison, accused of inciting public unrest,” Ana said.
She says there are still many people unaccounted for.
“I have to be attentive because several times the police have come here. I have no police record so I don’t know what they have come for,” she said.
No one knows what comes next, or at least no one I spoke to.
Instead Cubans talked of the fear and sadness in the country.
When asked, people would shake their heads and say: “It’s too much.”
Or they would even start crying.
Orlando Fuentes said that he was playing music to “remind people we are here.”
He meant the government.
Silvio Rodriguez, who many call Cuba’s greatest troubadour, was still singing: “Guardian angels fly, always jealous of their vows, against abuses and excesses.”
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