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It's about 'freedom': Cuban Americans say shortages don't explain protests

Cuban Americans have heard the word "libertad," or liberty, at protests for decades. Now it's being shouted in Cuba, and they say the world should pay attention.
People hold Cuban flags during a protest showing support for Cubans demonstrating against their government, in Hialeah, Fla., on July 15, 2021.
People hold Cuban flags in support of Cubans demonstrating against their government, in Hialeah, Fla., on Thursday.Eva Marie Uzcategui / AFP via Getty Images

MIAMI — As Cubans took to the streets to protest in numbers not seen since before the 1959 Revolution, Cuban Americans are challenging the view that the demonstrations are just about economic frustration.

While Cubans expressed anger over shortages in food and medicine, rising inflation and power outages — amid the challenges of Covid-19 — many of the chants throughout the island called for political change and included expressions such as “libertad” (liberty), “We want change” and “Down with the dictatorship.”

Many Cuban Americans say that should not be glossed over.

“For the first time in 62 years, they are risking their lives from one end of the island to the other to demand accountability from the regime,” Carmen Peláez, a Cuban American filmmaker and Democratic political consultant, said. “I’m anti-embargo. But it’s not about the embargo right now. That’s not what this fight is about.”

In the U.S., Cuban Americans hold different positions on U.S.-Cuba relations, some falling along party lines. But while conservatives and Republicans are known for a more hard-line stance against Cuba, some progressives have been denouncing the Cuban government’s tough stance against activists' calls for greater freedom of expression.

Many Cuban Americans have grown up hearing calls for “libertad” for Cuba in the streets of Miami and other U.S. cities, but it’s seldom heard in Cuba. Some Cuban Americans said it was emotional to hear the word being shouted by so many on the island.

“Policy differences aside, Cuban Americans strongly agree and understand that these protests are not about the embargo or even food shortages. It’s opposition to the regime,” said Giancarlo Sopo, a conservative media strategist.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or a Democrat. We all recognize what these protests are about,” said Sopo, adding that the chants called for “libertad.”

Cuba has been run by a Communist government, with a strong grip on society, for over six decades. Though the government has received praise for its ability to offer primary care to its population, it also determines many aspects of people’s lives, including wages, food and internet prices, as well as their freedom of assembly, expression and the ability to choose a president that does not belong to the Communist Party of Cuba.

After the protests, Cuba’s government announced it would temporarily lift restrictions on the amount of toiletries, food and medicine that Cuban citizens can bring back home when they take foreign trips, but for many protesters on the island it’s a small concession compared to their demands, and out of touch with their basic needs.

Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel took some blame for the protests recently, saying failings by the government played a role, though he still says the United States is primarily at fault.

Before the protests began on Sunday, public displays of dissent had been increasing in recent months. In November, authorities broke up a hunger strike by members of the San Isidro Movement, an artists’ collective, sparking a rare protest with hundreds of artists and activists in front of the Culture Ministry. Those who protested formed another group, called 27N.

The leader of the San Isidro Movement, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, went on a hunger strike in May and was forcibly taken to the hospital on the seventh day, drawing international attention and condemnation.

Following the protests, the government faced scrutiny over its shutdown of social media and messaging apps.

The U.N. human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, on Friday urged Cuba’s government to address protesters’ grievances and called for the prompt release of all those detained.

"I am very concerned at the alleged use of excessive force against demonstrators in Cuba and the arrest of a large number of people, including several journalists,” Bachelet said in a statement. “It is particularly worrying that these include individuals allegedly held incommunicado and people whose whereabouts are unknown.”

The streets of the capital, Havana, have been calm in recent days but a heavy police presence remains. Since Sunday’s protests, 55 out of 383 people who were detained nationwide have been freed, according to Cubalex, a human rights group based in the U.S.

The words "Cuba Libre" or "free Cuba" was painted in large block letters on the street in directly in front of the Cuban embassy in Washington D.C. on Friday.

For Cuba's government, the challenge will be to manage the acute economic crisis and the pandemic, while addressing human rights concerns and growing calls for "libertad" in Cuba and abroad.

Cuban American musician Pitbull said in a widely shared video on Twitter that he felt frustrated “having a platform to speak to the world and not being able to help my own people, not being able to get them food, not being able to get them water, not being able to get them medicine. But most of all, not being able to help and really get them what they deserve, which is freedom.” 

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