HAVANA — “Tired of having no electricity?” read a post in a Facebook group for residents of the small Cuban town of San Antonio de los Banos on July 10. “Fed up of having to listen to the impudence of a government that doesn’t care about you?”
“It’s time to go out and to make demands. Don’t criticize at home: let’s make them listen to us”.
The next day, thousands took to the street in San Antonio, a town of some 50,000 people, about 20 miles southwest of Havana, kicking off a rare wave of protests throughout the Communist-run country.
Unrest has been growing across Latin America and the Caribbean as unease spreads over Covid-19 lockdowns and rising poverty. But in Cuba authorities have traditionally tightly controlled public spaces, saying unity is key to resisting coup attempts by old Cold War foe the United States.
The protests, Cuba’s most widespread since Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution, appeared largely spontaneous as Cubans vented frustrations over long lines for food, power outages, medicine shortages as well as curbs on civil freedoms.
Yet an investigation by non-state Cuban outlet El Estornudo — cited by state television and confirmed by Reuters — recently showed that the first protest was convened online by a San Antonio community forum for local people and those who had emigrated.
The Facebook group “City of Humor” — the nickname for San Antonio which hosts a biannual humor festival — was first created in 2017 as a social space, according to one of its three administrators, Miami-based Alexander Perez.
Over time, people also started expressing their gripes, said Perez, 44, a pastor of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. That prompted him and the other administrators Danilo Roque and Lazaro Gonzalez to try to “educate them” about their civil rights and claiming them through peaceful protest.
Neither Roque nor Gonzalez, whom Perez described as two younger men who lived in San Antonio operating under the pseudonyms to avoid reprisals, responded to request for comment.
The backstory shows how the recent expansion of web access in Cuba has been a gamechanger in fostering forums on social media to share criticism and to mobilize.
It also shows how strengthening relations with the Cuban diaspora — thanks to the internet and greater freedom of movement — is influencing politics on the island at a grassroots level.
Virtual communities like “The City of Humor” exist nationwide and emigres are exhorting local people on them to keep on protesting and expressing solidarity, with some even urging violence.
All this poses a challenge to the government which has allowed relatively unfettered access to the internet, unlike China, which blocks many Western social media apps.
Cuba has blamed the protests on online meddling by counter-revolutionaries backed by the United States, which has for decades openly sought to force reform on it through sanctions and financing for democracy programs.
The administrators of the “City of Humor” did not receive any U.S. funding nor had they coordinated protests with other towns, Perez said.
Cuba, where the state has a monopoly on telecommunications, has suffered intermittent disruptions in access to internet and social media since July 11, in an apparent bid to prevent further unrest.
Protests petered out within a couple of days amid those outages, a large deployment of security forces and a wave of detentions.
Teaching civil rights
Posts in “The City of Humor” — which jumped from around 4,000 to nearly 10,000 members after the July 11 protest — show users reminiscing, selling items, promoting businesses and complaining about local issues like water supply.
Perez said the administrators decided three years ago to also attempt to rally the community to demonstrate over shared gripes, with little success.
Last month they felt the time was ripe to try again.
The pandemic and tighter U.S. sanctions had exacerbated Cuba’s economic woes, plunging it into its deepest crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union. And the Covid-19 surge was pushing its already creaking healthcare infrastructure to the brink.
“We decided this was the moment,” said Perez.
The announcement of the protest at the church park at 11 a.m. spread by word-of-mouth and messenging applications, according to three San Antonio residents who requested anonymity.
But Perez said he had such low expectations that anyone would show up that he went to the beach that day. So he was stunned to get a call to say the small early turnout had snowballed.
“We certainly never imagined that San Antonio would be the spark that lit the flame causing Cuba to take to the streets three hours later,” he said.
Videos on social media showed San Antonio protesters shouting anti-government slogans like “freedom” and “we are not afraid”.
“My town came out in force because it just can’t take any more,” said one resident, requesting anonymity.
Within hours, President Miguel Diaz-Canel himself showed up, in a bid — he said later in a televised address to the nation — to show “the streets belong to revolutionaries”.
Some videos on social media showed him being heckled but the unrest there and elsewhere soon dwindled amid a crackdown.
Perez said a heavy security presence in San Antonio meant Cubans would have to bide their time until another protest.
But it was noteworthy, he said, that the government already enacted reforms like lifting customs restrictions for travelers bringing in medicine and food in response to the protests.
“If we manage to achieve this in a few hours of protest” he wondered, “what happens if we spend three days in the streets?”
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