There’s a man from the government playing love songs in the park. Orlando Fuentes has a table, an awning against the hard Caribbean sun, and a sound system from which floats Silvio Rodríguez’s Cita con Ángeles. A woman says that she can’t listen, that it’s a beautiful song ruined by being played at too many government rallies.
After 16 months of pandemic and a week of unprecedented protests, the Cuban government wants to soothe the anger. Music is being played in parks across the country.
“I call for solidarity and not to let hatred take over the Cuban soul, which is a soul of goodness, affection and love,” tweeted Cuba’s president Miguel Díaz-Canel.
Only days before he had called supporters on to the streets to face down those protesting against shortages of food and medicines, rising prices and hours-long power cuts, people he’d called “vulgar, indecent and delinquent”.
The protests started last Sunday in the town of San Antonio de los Baños, on the outskirts of Havana. Residents were complaining of blackouts that lasted more than eight hours.
Videos of people chanting “libertad” (freedom), swiftly spread on social media, on a mobile internet that Cubans have only been allowed to use for the past three years. Protests flared the length and breadth of the island. Police cars were turned over and rocks were thrown. A few of the hated MLC stores – where necessities are sold only in foreign currencies – were looted.
Hundreds of arrests were made, often documented in harrowing videos. Nothing like it had been seen in Cuba since the 1959 revolution, shaking the population and the government. Raúl Castro, Fidel’s 90-year-old brother who retired as first secretary of the communist party last April, came back to advise.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Florida Straits, Francis Suarez, mayor of Miami, suggested the US government consider airstrikes.
Ana, a museum curator in her late 20s, doesn’t want to give her real name. She was at home in her neighbourhood of 10 de Octubre last Sunday when she heard a noise. “Outside were the people of my neighbourhood claiming their rights,” she told me. This was around 3pm.
“We were 60 people when we left,” she said. “There were policemen but everything was peaceful. People were saying ‘we want medicines, we want food’. We walked towards the centre, about 7km away. People had gone out without water, without money, without their IDs.”
Ana reached El Capitolio, the vast building at the edge of Havana’s old town that is a copy of the US Capitol. There, she says, she met the police in numbers: “We also felt the presence of the quick response brigades. They are state security but are dressed as civilians. They were the first to provoke.”
She pushed on towards the Malecón, Havana’s corniche. “There we faced the special brigades, special units for repression. By the Museum of the Revolution there were masses of people dressed as civilians with sticks in their hands.” She estimated the protesters at 2,000. “There was pepper spray. There was a lot of violence.”
In every Cuban kitchen, there is a pressure cooker. It’s how the population makes its staple rice and beans. Most are old and worn – everyone knows how dangerous they are.
Five years ago Barack Obama tried to ease the pressure in Cuba and sweep away what he called the “last remnants” of the cold war. He stepped off Air Force One at Havana’s airport, asking: “¿Que bolá Cuba?” – What’s up Cuba? He reopened the US embassy, but drew the line at ending a 60-year-old embargo Cubans call “El bloqueo”.
His successor took a different approach. Donald Trump banned cruise ships from visiting, pursued companies that traded with the island, placed Cuba back on a list of state sponsors of terrorism, and most crucially stamped down on the diaspora’s ability to send money back to their families.
Cuba, meanwhile, is crumbling. After 62 years of revolution, agricultural land has returned to bush, sugar mills are metal skeletons, railway tracks rust. It still has its school system, its arts and its fabled health service, but all exist within a fading infrastructure, starved of money and technology.
Boosted by Obama’s detente, but having lost Venezuela’s financial backing, Cuba’s communist rulers bet on tourism. An economic wing of the military built vast numbers of hotels. But then the pandemic hit and the economy contracted by 11% in 2020.
The state refuses to cede control of importing and exporting, more worried now about the destabilising effect of US capital than any invasion. The problem is that without tourists, the government can’t pay its bills abroad so there isn’t enough food coming into the country.
Cuba created its own vaccines against Covid but the virus is now raging through the population. Medicines are traded on WhatsApp and Telegram groups. Sixty vitamin C tablets cost $32, although the price depends on people’s access to US dollars or euros. The poorest, on the wrong end of a currency black market, pay the most. The message boards are harrowing. Recently a young woman was asking what she needed to stop her breasts producing milk: her baby had died of Covid.
When asked about the protests almost all Cuba watchers say, as Canadian lawyer and long-time resident Gregory Biniowsky put it: “In truth I’m surprised it took so long.”
Wimar Verdecia is a cartoonist and graphic artist. He attended a protest last November which, while only gathering 300 artists outside Cuba’s Ministry of Culture, is now seen as a watershed in a country where such protests are banned.
He went to witness Sunday’s march, watching it pass through Centro Habana, struck but not surprised by the number of young taking part. “All young people want to migrate because it’s a country where there is no future, where you can’t think of a prosperous and dignified life.”
But videos show it was by no means just the young taking part. Magazine editor Maykel González Vivero, who said he was manhandled by police, wrote on Twitter of “an older woman in her 60s… wiping the blood from her nose”.
Images of the police dragging away protesters by their necks have shocked the country. Many protesters disappeared without trace into police stations and interrogation centres. On Friday, Michelle Bachelet, UN high commissioner for human rights, called for the prompt release of all those detained.
Concerned by the videos circulating, the government cut the internet for much of the week, put those hurt by thrown rocks and looting on television, and created a segment on the news dedicated to the false rumours being passed round.
But state media chose not to show images of the protesters, unless windows were being broken or cars overturned. A group of protesters who turned up at the TV station to offer their views were bustled away by a chanting mob.
Such a response has led to a withering response from many of Cuba’s most famous cultural figures. Leo Brouwer, Los Van Van, Haydée Milanés, Leoni Torres, Adalberto álvarez, Carlos Acosta all spoke out. Members of the Elito Revé orchestra wrote: “Violence is the last resort of the incompetent.”
In this country that takes huge pride in its arts, and whose artists are often silenced if they cross the authorities, it felt like another first in a week full of them.
On Thursday Joe Biden finally weighed in. He called Cuba a “failed state”, and made plain that he wouldn’t be following Obama’s lead.
In the past, in times of great hardship on the island, say after the collapse of its sponsor, the Soviet Union, Cubans flooded north into the US. Alejandro Mayorkas, the US homeland security secretary, last week scuppered that idea, saying those who took to the sea would be returned.
It appears the US is sticking to Trump’s plan. “What do they actually want?” asks Carlos Alzugaray, Cuba’s former ambassador to the EU. “Do they want major riots and the collapse of the Cuban government? Do they really want that? What happens next?”
What is certain is Obama’s detente is truly dead. In the neighbourhood of 10 de Octubre, Ana is avoiding the police, although she says she did nothing wrong. “I have a cousin who, for 72 hours, we didn’t know where he was. Yesterday we learned that he is in a prison, accused of inciting public unrest.” She says there are still many people unaccounted for. “I have to be attentive because several times the police have come here. I have no police record so I don’t know what they have come for.”
No one knows what comes next, or at least no one I spoke to. Instead they talked of the fear and sadness in the country. When asked, people would shake their heads and say, “it’s too much” or even start crying.
In the park, Orlando Fuentes told me he was there, playing music, to “remind people we are here”. He meant the government. Silvio Rodríguez, Cuba’s greatest troubadour, was still singing, “Guardian angels fly, always jealous of their vows, against abuses and excesses.”