The so-called “civic march for change” in Cuba that the online Archipielago group had called for on November 15 forced the Diaz-Canel regime to roll out its repressive forces in full. They did so to assure at all costs that there’d be no repetition of the July 11th social outburst on the Caribbean Island.
That day, Cuba “became a gigantic jail”, and those who managed to break through the repressive barriers “were arrested,” states Havana reporter Abraham Jimenez.
Shock troops and plain clothed agents surrounded the reporter’s home for 72 hours. The same thing happened at the homes of other civic leaders, to avoid their joining the expected protest on the streets – a historic national mobilization convoked on social media. The Cuban regime “was already prepared”, in contrast to the spontaneous protests of July 11, 2021, which marked a parting of the waters in the lives of those in Cuba.
“That new Cuba was born from the Internet. The Internet has changed the country’s physiognomy. Virtual space has empowered the citizens, and led them out on the streets,” Abraham Jimenez believes.
Jimenez, who’s also a columnist for The Washington Post and the Mexican monthly news magazine Gatopardo, describes the tension between the “new Cuba” with its demands for change, versus the dictatorship with its 60-year history. The latter currently has the country under a state of police siege, including over a thousand political prisoners.
The Archipielago civic platform that was born from the July social explosion this year called for demonstrations to take place on November 15. What were your experiences on this day of protests?
In reality, neither myself nor the majority of those who were going to participate on the streets could leave their homes, due to the broad repression that the Cuban government deployed across the entire island. The deployment was totally aimed at keeping the protests from occurring. Dozens and dozens of people were arrested in their own homes. In addition, days before the event, many of the citizens who had publicly manifested on social media their intention to participate on the streets were summoned to interrogations and threatened with jail time.
So, in a sense, the island became a gigantic jail. The government militarized the streets. Those who managed to break through the encirclement and escape the police cordons were arrested as soon as they set foot on the street and opened their mouths.
In my case, I was kept under house arrest for 72 hours. My residence was surrounded by police and some agents in civilian clothes who kept me from going out.
That control the regime exercised against its citizens was viewed as preventive repression to squash expressions of protest before they begin. What’s been the regime’s general modus operandi for suffocating such protests in Cuba?
Repress, harass, persecute. Further, these protests were announced, unlike those in July that arose suddenly. That was a social explosion: they were spontaneous, the regime wasn’t expecting them, and that’s why people were able to go out on the street. This time, since it was an announced march, the regime had prepared well in advance. What they did was to begin increasing their repression weeks before, in order to suffocate the protests.
Their mode of operation involves: house arrests, arbitrary summons to interrogation sessions where they threaten citizens with jail – they warn them that if they go out onto the street, they’ll go to prison. Then there are hate rallies, which the pro-Castro mobs carry out. They stand outside the homes of dissidents, or independent journalists, and begin yelling insults at them, offenses that really burn. Sometimes it’s like fascism. Finally, they militarize the streets.
In addition, when everything has been neutralized, the regime takes over the public plazas and brings their party members there. They make you believe that those who are occupying the country, and those who are demonstrating, are those who support [the government]. This, when much of the country is prevented from leaving their homes, or are in jail, because many people have been detained.
What role has social media and the internet played in this context?
A fundamental role. The new Cuba couldn’t happen without the Internet. In fact, that new Cuba was born from the Internet. The Internet has changed the country’s physiognomy: not only has it fostered the birth of a new generation of independent media, but also virtual space has empowered common citizens and civil society. From online expression, they go out onto the streets.
For nearly six decades, Cubans had no way of expressing what they wanted, what they desired. The Internet, with its platforms, has given them that possibility. It doesn’t only serve as a platform for expression, but also for organization. Archipielago was born from the Internet, and the group organizes and has incidence in civic life through the Internet,
This past Tuesday, you published an article entitled: “Chronical from the balcony – the phantom of repression is suffocating Cuba.” In it, you tell how you were put under de facto house arrest. How can you do journalism in Cuba under these conditions?
It’s very difficult, more so when you’ve been doing it for a long time. It’s not the first time they’ve kept me locked up at home. On other occasions, they’ve abducted me, they’ve stripped me naked, they’ve threatened me with jail, they’ve harassed my family. Of course, it’s very hard. I can’t leave the country, because I’m on a list of those who have emigration restrictions and can’t leave. To put it one way, we’re a kind of prisoners – free within the island, but unable to leave the country.
It’s truly sad that all the reprisals fall on us, when the only thing we do is to tell, narrate, inform. However, we have no choice. I cling to the idea that if those of us who are here don’t do it, no one will do it, and that story about Cuba will be lost. It’s very hard though, truthfully.
Do you think that the civic movement and the demands that arose in July can bear up under the police state and the repression in Cuba?
In reality, it’s proving very difficult. News just came out that Yunior Garcia has landed in Spain. Yunior is the leader of the Archipielago movement. Now he’s one more artist that’s had to go into exile, one more civic leader in Cuba that had to leave the country to protect himself. In the months since July, we’ve watched the bleeding away of that civil society that had become empowered in Cuba. They’ve had to flee, basically fleeing jail. Only two bands are left: those who are imprisoned, including most of the San Isidro movement, and a series of other activists, and those who are in exile.
Suddenly, that compact mass of civil society that had been generated since the arrival of the internet in Cuba in the last few years, has been fractured. They’re in prison or in exile.
People had stopped merely expressing dissent at home and had gone out on the streets to say so in the neighborhood, in the places they could. The consequence this generated is a huge increase in the regime’s repression, to strangle that discontent, that massive dissatisfaction that exists in the country. Hence, many people are opting for exile.
So, you can’t organize? Are there faces, leaders in which the people invest their trust, or is it a faceless struggle, with the leaders in exile and without clear demands?
Right now, most of the faces of that civil society are outside the country or in jail. But the basic demands remain: respect for fundamental rights – free expression, freedom of the press, freedom of association. However, with the fragmentation of those organizations or their relocation outside the country, it’s become much more difficult to maintain these as clear demands. Obviously, we know what we as Cubans want to change, but with the majority outside the country or in jail, it’s much harder to see things with clarity.
How many political prisoners are currently in Cuba as a product of the July 11 social explosion, and what’s their situation?
Prior to July 11, there were around 130 political prisoners in Cuba. You can appreciate the magnitude of what happened on July 11th, merely by the fact that today there are currently 1,270 political prisoners in Cuba because of that action. Adding these together with the 130 that were already imprisoned, makes a total of nearly 1400 prisoners locked up for political reasons right now in Cuba. That makes it the country with the most political prisoners on the planet, more than Nicaragua, more than Venezuela, more than the African dictatorships.
Can the Castro-influenced regime sustain itself through this repressive model, in the face of the national demand for a political change?
Yes, it’s sustainable for them, because they’ve already reached the point that if they don’t repress, if they don’t lock dissenters up or expel them from the country, banish the citizens who protest, they’re not going to be able to perpetuate themselves, and they won’t be able to continue. Hence, it’s the way they’ve found. Their way of governing right now is through terror: plant horror, demonize the citizens, inject fear into their bodies and, through this, continue governing a lot longer. So, yes, it’s effective.
We thought that a new generation had been born in Cuba, one that could confront them, that in fact is confronting them. However, they’ve continued their nearly 63-year trajectory imposing their whip. Even though you can note their fragility, they’re still well entrenched in the seat of power.