A dissident signs the letter "L" for the Spanish word "libertad" or freedom as he is detained by police during a procession celebrating Cuba's patron saint in Havana, Cuba, Thursday Sept. 8, 2011

Why we're not seeing a "Cuban Autumn"

Dissidents took heart at the successes of the Arab Spring, but pro-democracy protests aren't gaining traction

Nick Miroff
September 14, 2011 5:01PM (UTC)

HAVANA, Cuba -- The uprisings that have rocked the Middle East this year appear to be inspiring a new wave of protests on this island.

But while the Arab Spring is still in full effect in many countries, opponents of the Castro government have gained little momentum for a "Cuban Autumn."


In recent weeks, anti-government activists have staged several public demonstrations in Havana and eastern Cuba. News and video clips of the events were posted on social-networking sites and broadcast on Miami television channels.

They show small groups of activists banging cookware, chanting anti-Castro slogans and "Freedom!" until police and state-security agents arrive to whisk them away.

In some of the videos, larger crowds of Cubans stand around watching the protesters, but they do not join in.


The incidents come after a period of relative calm that followed the Castro government's move last year to release scores of imprisoned political prisoners, with the Catholic Church playing a mediating role. The amnesty briefly ameliorated criticisms by Western governments and human-rights groups of Cuba's one-party socialist system and its treatment of non-violent dissenters.

Now activists are once more testing Raul Castro's tolerance for public protest -- and whether the tactics used by tweeting insurgents in the Middle East could spread anti-government sentiment here.

So far: not so much.

One disadvantage often cited by Cuban activists is that they operate at a significant technology deficit. The island is one of the least-connected countries in the world, and though many young people have mobile phones, most lack access to Facebook, Twitter and video-sharing sites because of internet restrictions and scarce bandwidth.

Anti-Castro activists on the island are also viewed suspiciously or with outright hostility by many Cubans, even those who have lost faith in Cuba's socialist model. State media broadcasts frequently show them meeting with U.S. diplomatic officials, depicting them as "counterrevolutionaries," "mercenaries" and "opportunists" who are out to make a buck or get political asylum abroad.

Many others here remain committed to Cuba's system and its revolutionary ideals, even as the free health care, education and other benefits the government provides continue to diminish.

But dissidents also say Cuban authorities are escalating their attacks to intimidate others from joining their pro-democracy efforts. In August, police violence against peaceful protesters reached its highest level in recent years, according to the Havana-based Cuban Commission on Human Rights and Reconciliation, an anti-Castro group that the tracks political arrests and detentions. Nearly twice as many activists have been detained so far this year compared to the same period in 2010, the group said, including 130 short-term detentions over the weekend.

The Cuban government has challenged those charges, accusing the group of padding its lists with fake names.

Castro opponents do not claim the Cuban government stoops to the type of methods that have been used by regimes in the Arab world, where activists are raped, tortured and murdered, and where protests are commonly met by volleys of police gunfire.

But state-security officials can plainly be seen coordinating counter-protests by government loyalists, who often surround dissidents and shout epithets at them for hours on end, sometimes accosting them physically. Security agents typically stand between the two sides to keep things from getting too rough.

When Cubans protest in public spontaneously, as some of the recent videos show, police quickly swoop in to arrest the demonstrators and haul them away, though the activists are often released several hours later.

Cuba's Catholic church, which played a central role in securing the release of more than 100 jailed activists over the past year, issued a carefully worded statement last week that condemned violence against "defenseless" people.

But Church spokesman Orlando Marquez also said in the statement that the Cuban government told the church "no one at the national level" had ordered attacks on protesters.

Cuban state television has aired footage of the protests, claiming the incidents were part of a "media campaign" against the island. It called the demonstrations acts of "public disorder" that were organized by U.S.-supported "mercenaries" and planned in coordination with American officials.

"The goal is to create a climate of tension that will justify aggressions against Cuba," the report said.

While Cuba's economy continues to struggle, there has not been the kind of broader unrest on the island that sparked street protests during the post-Soviet crisis of the 1990s.

Raul Castro has eased state control over the economy since taking over for his older brother in 2006, allowing for new private businesses and pending reforms that would permit Cubans to buy and sell homes and cars for the first time in half a century.

Castro has also encouraged Cubans to vent their frustrations -- within limits -- through established channels like workplace forums and neighborhood meetings. Criticizing state institutions and government bureaucracy is no longer taboo, but organized opposition and public protests -- like the recent demonstrations -- remain out of bounds.

Since most of the dissidents freed over the past year opted to leave Cuba for Spain as part of an arrangement with the Madrid government, the latest rounds of protests may also be an effort by activists to remain visible, particularly to supporters abroad.

Cuba's most famous online anti-government activist, Yoani Sanchez, sends out cascades of tweets from her mobile phone, including information about protests. Her blog, Generation Y, is no longer blocked on the island by the government, but many young Cubans who manage to get online aren't necessarily inclined to use their precious bytes on political sites.

A high-speed undersea data link to Venezuela completed this summer with much fanfare is supposed to come online in the next few months, increasing Cuba's bandwidth by a factor of 3,000. Its debut has been repeatedly delayed, adding to perceptions that Cuban authorities are wary of its power, even though they have already announced it will not be used to deliver private internet access to Cuban homes.

U.S. officials appear to view communication technology as the key to sparking political change on the island. In a leaked 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable that recently surfaced, the top American official in Havana, Jonathan Farrar, urged the lifting of restrictions on software downloads in Cuba, where Microsoft and other American companies have blocked access to comply with anti-terrorism statutes. Such restrictions, Farrar argued, work "directly against U.S. goals to advance people-to-people interaction."

Bringing more technology, wrote Farrar at the time, could "help facilitate Iran-style democratic ferment in Cuba."

Nick Miroff

Nick Miroff is a staff writer at The Washington Post, an NPR contributor and a senior correspondent for GlobalPost.

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