July 11 was the day we have all been waiting for. In San Antonio de los Baños, a few miles outside Havana, hundreds of protesters took to the streets with a call for “¡Libertad!” (Freedom).
Never before in the 62 years of the Cuban revolution has there been such a widespread popular unrest. The protesters were men and women of all ages, races and persuasions — ordinary Cubans who for the first time dared to shout: “¡Abajo la dictadura! ¡Abajo el comunismo!” (Down with the dictatorship; down with communism). It was followed by an act of collective bravado, the demand that Miguel Díaz Canel step down immediately from his post as unelected president.
The protests soon spread to over 60 cities across the island. News of the uprising was quickly disseminated by social media. Later in the evening, Díaz Canel gave no sign of appeasing the protesters. Instead, with the traditional Castro claim that “the streets belong to the revolutionaries,” he urged ordinary Cubans to go out and attack the protesters with whatever means they had available, from baseball bats to metal rods.
Many commentators consider this official pronouncement as an incitement to civil war. Indeed, over the next few days, the situation in Cuba grew more tense as busloads of armed civilians — mostly young men serving compulsory military service — were sent to meet the protesters. Since then, the government has resorted to “rapid response brigades” to quell any further spontaneous protests with the use of force.
Over the last two weeks, many Cubans have been forcibly arrested in their homes, their whereabouts unknown to their families. The United Nations reports that over 700 people have been arrested. Artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, leader of a movement of Black activists and artists known as the Movimiento San Isidro, was arrested July 11 and awaits trial for “inciting protests.”
Tania Bruguera, an internationally renowned performance artist, has also been detained. Numerous independent journalists, writers, and pro-democracy leaders are awaiting mock trials.
That Cuba now has "desaparecidos," or "disappeared," like the repressive military dictatorships in Chile and Argentina during the 1970s, is not only ironic but also shows the stark realities of life in Cuba today.
Clearly, the state-sponsored violence debunks the myth of the Cuban Revolution as a benevolent system guaranteeing social welfare for all. The protests respond to popular dissatisfaction and disaffection with the revolutionary regime, a government that has failed to provide basic necessities such as food, medicine, housing and the right to earn a dignified living. It has also denied basic human rights like the right to free association, free speech and, more simply, the right to think differently.
Although riddled by food shortages and widespread hunger, the protesters were not demanding food but freedom, the right to self-determination and dignity.
The July 11 uprising also debunks the myth of racial equity in post-socialist Cuba. Because of lack of access to remittances from family members who have emigrated, Afro-Cubans have been one of the most disenfranchised groups within Cuban society. Some months ago, Black Cuban rappers made a video called “Patria y vida” (Homeland and Life), a response to the revolutionary slogan “Patria o muerte” (Homeland or Death) posted on billboards all over Havana. The video not only galvanized the sentiments of many Cubans on the island but was the mantra repeatedly shouted during the protests and that made its way around the world.
What these protests mean for the future of Cuba remains unclear, but what is true is that a threshold has been crossed. For one, Cubans on the island have lost their fear of speaking out — independent journalist Yoani Sánchez claimed: “We were going hungry, and we ate our fear.” Two, the two sides of the Cuban nation — island and diaspora — have come together to push for a new, truly democratic Cuba.
What do the protests mean for U.S.-Cuba relations? President Biden acknowledged the Cubans’ “clarion call” for freedom and imposed sanctions on top-ranking party bureaucrats responsible for the repressive measures. Many of us in the Cuban American community are striving for a diplomatic solution, where the U.S. moves toward the renewal of diplomatic relations but counting the voices of Cuba’s growing dissident movement, which includes as-yet-unregistered civil rights organizations. As of now, the ruling party and its gerontocracy has categorically crushed these voices. That’s why it’s urgent that a strong international response rally in support of this popular uprising.
From the flotilla that left Key West on Friday night to protesters last Sunday in Madrid, the call is one and the same: “¡Patria y vida!”
Adriana Méndez is a Columbia resident and a professor at the School of Languages, Literatures & Cultures at MU.