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Demonstrators in Miami, Florida, expressing support for the unprecedented protests that took place in Cuba on Sunday, July 11, 2021. Photo: Luis F. Rojas/Wikipedia Commons.
Demonstrators in Miami, Florida, expressing support for the unprecedented protests that took place in Cuba on Sunday, July 11, 2021. Photo: Luis F. Rojas/Wikipedia Commons.

Artist-Led Movement Gains Ground as Protests Rock Cuba

In a rare move emblematic of the dire straits in which the country finds itself, thousands of Cubans took to the streets of Havana on July 11 to protest the nation’s government headed by President Miguel Díaz-Canel. Under Díaz-Canel, who took office in 2018 and in 2021 succeeded Raul Castro as head of the country’s Communist Party, which has been in power since 1959, Cuba has seen its economy crater and its citizens left without access to food or health care, their speech and movements increasingly restricted. This last has been most recently exemplified by the government’s consistent enforcement of Decree 349, which requires artists to submit their work to a government review process before being allowed to release or perform it publicly, and by the ruling body’s stipulation earlier this year that fields such as journalism and cultural programming remain under government control.

“I’m here because of hunger, because there’s no medicine, because of power cuts—because there’s a lack of everything. I want a total change: a change of government, multiparty elections, and the end of communism,” an unidentified man told the Guardian. Shouting “Patria y vida” (Homeland and life), a rallying cry riffing on the phrase “Patria o muerte” (Homeland or death) popularized by Cuban Communist revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara in the 1950s, the crowds gathered before public monuments and government buildings, where they clashed with police and pro-government supporters answering the president’s call to beat back the dissidents, whose actions he claimed were funded and fueled by the US in an attempt to weaken the Cuban economy. In the US, Cuban-Americans flooded the streets and harbors of Miami in solidarity with those protesting in Havana, forcing US president Joe Biden to acknowledge the crisis and call on Díaz-Canel to “hear [the] people and serve their needs.” Biden is said to be reviewing the sanctions imposed on Cuba by his predecessor Donald Trump, and in the meantime issued a statement in which he affirmed, “We stand with the Cuban people and their clarion call for freedom and relief from the tragic grip of the pandemic and from the decades of repression and economic suffering to which they have been subjected by Cuba’s authoritarian regime.”

The protests, which were catalyzed via social media, represent a significant broadening of the demonstrations carried out in past months by artist-activist groups such as 27N and the San Isidro Movement (MSI). Both groups have seen their members persecuted by the government, with 27N’s Tania Bruguera repeatedly detained and placed under constant surveillance, and MSI’s Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara forcibly hospitalized during a hunger strike. Last month, the government arrested artist Hamlet Lavastida, a member of 27N, as he returned from a residency at Berlin’s  Künstlerhaus Bethanien.

 “[The protests were] the moment so many of us had waited for,” Alfredo Martínez Ramírez, a civil engineer living in Havana, told the Washington Post. “There were people who were not political, not intellectuals. The marginalized. People from different social classes. Everyone, just desperate, just fed up, standing together and screaming for freedom. Because the people are hungry, and they have lost their fear.”