The commitment of dozens of key activists, citizens, and artists to continue the struggle for freedom in Cuba on November 15 – after some of the largest days of anti-government protest in Cuban history in July – has forced ambivalent sectors of the international community to finally, after 4 months, show solidarity with Cubans and denounce abuses.
July 11, 2021, proved to the world that the Cuban citizenry wants to dismantle all aspects of the Castro regime and refused the false reforms put forward by the much-touted 2019 Cuban constitutional referendum and succeeded in attracting international attention. Cubans protested again, nationwide, on November 15. This time, however, the international media chose to sit out coverage of one of the world’s most significant democratic movements.
The New York Times declared victory for communist repression, claiming that protests on the island “fizzled.”
“Calls for fresh protest fall flat,” Reuters claimed.
“Having avoided the spectacle of mass protests, the government will feel it won this round,” the U.K. Guardian similarly reported. “The Biden administration, it hopes, will now conclude that July’s protests were a blip, that the regime is stable, and that sanctions ought now to be eased.”
In reality, Cubans did show up. It wasn’t a “blip.” Nothing “fizzled.”
One of the most noteworthy aspects of the protests that took place within Cuba on November 15 was the leadership role in citizen protest undertaken by Christian churches of different denominations, both Catholic and Evangelical. Priests, nuns, and pastors organized a public 24-hour prayer chain for freedom days before the protests. In many cases, they also led parishioners in protest walks through city streets. Catholic bishops put out a strongly-worded statement demanding the regime respect human rights. Likewise, and most courageously, religious leaders circulated a video throughout Cuba and the diaspora where they each individually called on the military not to repress the people and respect their right to express themselves.
Sacerdotes y monjas en las calles de Bejucal hoy. Esto no lo para nadie. La iglesia también está de nuestro lado
Inside Cuba, the relationship between the Catholic Church and its parishioners has dramatically shifted. No longer is there a mandate of non-interference in issues that affect Cuban society. The letters sent by Cuban bishops and priests did not only show support for, but also leadership in, the struggle for freedom. On November 15, 2021, priests and nuns went into the streets to march for freedom. These actions (letters and protests) will undoubtedly make an impact on Cuban believers who, in the past, were instructed to be apolitical.
Youths in Havana, in the central city of Santa Clara, and in other parts of the island were arrested as they walked out onto the streets in protest. Others, dressed in white, defied gangs of government thugs by going out into the street singing songs of freedom and defiance or hanging banners calling for a national strike (Paro Nacional).
The makeup of November 15’s protesters forced the international human rights community, if not the media, to listen. Such is the example of UNICEF, the United Nations children’s subsidiary, which expressed concern about the incarceration of Cuban minors and asked the regime for more information on November 20. Since July, the Cuban regime is threatening at least 14 known children with long prison sentences, and 4 with “sedition” charges that range from 13 to 20 years in prison.
UNICEF’s concerns centered around one 15-year-old Cuban kid named Reniel Rodríguez, who took the streets with a white rose in hand on November 15. No evidence exists that Reniel engaged in any violence or threatening activity, but the regime arrested him, anyway. Outraged Twitter users from the island made #FreeLunatico (Lunatico is the pseudonym that Reniel used on Twitter and Youtube) not only trend in Cuba, but become a loud enough cause that UNICEF could not ignore it. Two days after his detention, on November 17, the regime had to free him from a reform school for behavior problems run by the Ministry of the Interior (Escuela de Formación Integral – EFI) and acknowledge the online movement that had directed the world’s attention to this case.
El ejemplo más reciente de una detención de menores en #Cuba ocurrió esta semana cuando, ante la convocatoria a la Marcha Cívica del #15N, la represión alcanzó a Reniel Rodríguez, de 15 años, por hacer un llamado a protestar y salir a la calle. #LibertadParaLosNiñosDel11J pic.twitter.com/Qg5EQ8vF7S
— Luz Escobar (@Luz_Cuba) November 21, 2021
In this way, Cuban youth have decided to defy the Decree/Law 35 of August 2021, which bans the spread of online news against the regime, labeling such publications “enemy activities.” Currently, Cuban Twitter and Facebook users are participating in a joint campaign with Cubans abroad to call for the freedom of all minors arrested on July 11. The mothers of 4 imprisoned minors have participated in a fasting day.
This activism, emboldened by real-world protest on November 15, helped the Cuban exile community consolidate its ties to European and Latin American legislators in the form of new fora and cooperation agreements to monitor human rights abuses in Cuba. Allies in Europe have sought out the exile community to help exert pressure on sources of financing for the Castro regime, specifically the Paris Club and EU-Cuban agreements. As explained by the Assembly of the Cuban Resistance, these resources allowed the dictatorship to deploy a great number of military and police forces throughout the island’s parks and main avenues on November 15.
An open air bus packed with European parliamentarians joined a “Freedom for Cuba” caravan of over 1,200 cars that traveled across Miami from the Cuban Memorial at Tamiami Park, in the southern part of Miami Dade County, to the Bayside area where a flotilla gathered in Biscayne Bay.
At an Information Center set up by the coalition Assembly of the Cuban Resistance at the headquarters of the Bay of Pigs Veterans’ Association in Miami’s Little Havana, staff and volunteers closely monitored the events on the island, while attempting to channel and rally international support for them. A group of parliamentarians from Europe organized by the Vox political party in Spain, and from Latin America organized by the Hemispheric Freedom Front, were present at the Information Center to lend moral support and coordinate actions in order to enable further sanctions against the communist dictatorship. A few days later as part of an initiative by Rosa Maria Payá’s Cuba Decide movement, these same parliamentarians, together with colleagues from the U.S. Congress, founded a Trans-Atlantic Forum to push for democracy in Cuba in a concerted manner.
"Cuba es la cabeza de la serpiente del mal, pero hoy la dictadura está en pánico". Crónica del histórico encuentro de las delegaciones de VOX y del ECR con el exilio cubano en Miami. Por @LuisLeonelLeon https://t.co/poRzarq0Jc
— La Gaceta de la Iberosfera (@gaceta_es) November 19, 2021
The media narrative that protests have “fizzled” obscures the fact that, by one very measurable metric, the protests are working. Following resistance activities and state violence on November 15, the Meliá Hotels International stock price dropped from $7.73 on November 15 to $7.46 on November 16, and it continued to fall on November 19 ($6.98). Meliá is one of the biggest profiteers in tourism to Cuban, owning 40 hotels in Cuba. The sudden drop occurred even as Cuba reopened tourism limited by the Chinese coronavirus pandemic in 2020.
The acts of resistance of the family of political prisoner Andy García Lorenzo in Villa Clara; the Miranda Leyva family in Holguin; citizens protesting in the streets of Mayabeque, Santiago de Cuba, and Havana; activists writing Patria y Vida and National Strike messages on their walls; and the cacerolazo protests in Havana showed that, despite mass incarceration and pre-15N detentions and threats, the Cuban population continues to push for freedom in an unprecedented way.
This constant resistance will erode the cultural and political capital of the regime abroad.
Activists within the island, with support from their exiled brethren and growing international solidarity, continue to organize what they term as “El Paro Nacional” (loosely translated as “National Strike”), an effort to coalesce the organic, grassroots movement for freedom across the island into a unified strategy of targeted resistance. In the first phase of this national strike, the activists are urging the resignations of members of the Communist Party and its satellite organizations. The generalized non-cooperation with the regime is already taking place. Lightning protests in diverse neighborhoods are also part of the compendium of initiatives undertaken as part of the national strike. As the large amount of graffiti calling for the national strike across the island attests, this movement constitutes the tip of the iceberg of the citizen uprising initiated in Cuba on July 11.
Dr. Orlando Gutierrez-Boronat is a writer, educator, and co-founder and spokesman for the Cuban Democratic Directorate (Directorio). Directorio was part of the Patriotic Committee organizing October 2020’s Anti-Communist Caravan in Miami.