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Historic protests rocked Cuba. What came next were a crackdown and more migration.

“I didn’t leave because I wanted to. I was exiled,” says a Cuban entrepreneur-turned-activist as residents have left the country at record levels.
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When Cubans spontaneously took to the streets by the thousands on July 11, 2021, nothing like it had taken place since Fidel Castro’s 1959 communist revolution.

In the year since, many activists were sent to prison or were exiled, and a historic level of Cubans migrated amid the tough economic situation and the ongoing government crackdown.

Saily González Velázquez ran a "casa particular," or bed-and-breakfast, and became an activist following the July 11 protests, publicly criticizing the government and livestreaming on social media.

She left Cuba less than three weeks ago.

“I didn’t leave because I wanted to. I was exiled,” González Velázquez said.

González Velázquez said she was harassed for months by state security for her actions and was denied exit from the island to attend last month's Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles despite obtaining a U.S. visa. After what she described as an 11-hour interrogation by authorities in June, she said she was told they were opening a case against her for instigating delinquent acts. She denies planning any kind of protest. She said the government gave her a choice to either leave Cuba within five days or be jailed.

Now in Miami, she said many activists have left under similar circumstances, though some have left voluntarily. 

Meanwhile, for most Cubans on the island life continues to be difficult. They have become accustomed to checking a daily news segment with an update on the power blackouts throughout the island. Ration cards for items like rice, beans, sugar, chicken and milk for kids up to 7 years-old supply Cubans with enough food for about a week. The rest has to be purchased in state-owned stores but inflation has made many products unattainable.

Those who have relatives overseas and receive remittances or family visits with luggage full of food and medicine are better off, creating two different classes.

Sophisticated 'machinery of oppression'

The protests last July led to a crackdown by authorities that resulted in the detention of over 1,000 Cubans, rights groups said.

According to the Cuban government figures, 488 people have been formally sanctioned following last July's protests, including 383 with prison sentences and 105 sanctioned without prison. Two were released without charges.

Image: plainclothes police detain an anti-government protester during a demonstration over high prices, food shortages and power outages, while some people also called for a change in the government, in Havana on July 11, 2021.
plainclothes police detain an anti-government protester during a demonstration over high prices, food shortages and power outages, while some people also called for a change in the government, in Havana on July 11, 2021.Ramon Espinosa / AP file

Cuban government officials have said those arrested and tried are not political prisoners, insisting they were not detained because of their ideology but because they broke the law. Some of the charges against last year’s protesters include sedition, sabotage, robbery with force and public disorder.

The Cuban government has also repeatedly accused the U.S. of orchestrating the protests.

Human rights group Justicia 11J estimates the numbers of those detained are much higher than official figures: They claim at least 701 Cubans remain in detention and 622 were sentenced to up to 25 years in prison.

“The motives of sentences as well as the detentions of those who haven’t gone to court is to suppress the intentions of people who want to publicly protest,” said Salomé García, one of the founders of Justicia 11J, who's currently in Miami.

A number of countries as well as international rights groups have criticized the government's crackdown.

“We have a human rights crisis in Cuba, that puts the country in a situation that is probably the worst in the last few decades,” said Juan Pappier, a senior Americas researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“Over decades, the Cuban government has been able to develop a machinery of repression, which is unique in its sophistication in the Western Hemisphere,” said Pappier.

NBC News reached out to the Cuban government but has not received a response.

Artists Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and Grammy-award winner, Maykel Castillo, both members of the San Isidro Movement — an artists collective that protests government censorship — were recently sentenced to five and nine years respectively. Otero Alcántara has started a hunger and thirst strike, demanding to be taken home, according to activist Anamely Ramos.

Others like Jose Daniel Ferrer leader of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), one of the largest and most active opposition groups, is also in prison.

Grappling with a tenuous economy

During the protests last year, many Cubans aired an array of grievances, including on the shortages of food and medicine amid the coronavirus pandemic. Some called for “an end to the dictatorship.”

Since the protests a year ago, Cuba has taken steps to try to address discontent relating to conditions in the island, including renovating about 1,000 impoverished neighborhoods.

President Miguel Díaz-Canel has also stressed the "urgent effort" of addressing "opportunity" — rather than "assistance" — aimed at the country’s youth, including tackling issues of employment, training and housing.

In a recent speech during a meeting with artists, Díaz-Canel said he wants to see how the "concept of democracy within the socialist construct" can advance, adding "it's important to give all spaces possible for participation" as well as popular control over these processes.

Cuba’s dire economic situation was unraveling before the pandemic. Its economy had been stagnant for years. When its ally Venezuela became roiled in political and economic turmoil, it caused a decline in aid from the South American country. The island’s medical exchange program, a major source of revenue, also took a blow after countries like Brazil ended their agreement with Cuba’s government. When former President Donald Trump imposed more restrictions on Cuba, he made it more difficult for them to import oil, banned U.S. cruise ships from docking on the island and reduced the amount of U.S. flights to Cuba. President Joe Biden later lifted restrictions on flights. Cuba shut its borders during the pandemic for eight months, further crippling its economy.

The La Guinera neighborhood on the outskirts of Havana on June 30.Yamil Lage / AFP - Getty Images

Cuba’s centrally planned economy imports over two-thirds of its food and the cash-strapped government is struggling to supply the island with enough food and medicine.

“Most Latin American economies are producing at pre-pandemic levels, but that’s not the case with Cuba’s economy. It may take another two years to recover,” said Pavel Vidal, a former Cuban central bank economist who teaches at Javeriana University in Colombia.   

Vidal estimates that tourism, a major source of revenue for the government, is about 70% below pre-pandemic levels. He said Cuba’s government is printing money to pay for its high fiscal deficit and inflation, which he estimates was 500% in 2021 according to his analysis, though the official figure was 30%.

“Inflation generates a sensation of uncertainty among citizens because they feel they don’t know what is going to happen next,” said Vidal. “And inflation is a reflection of the mismanagement of the economy.”

The solution for many Cubans has been to migrate at historic levels. Over 140,000 Cubans have arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border during this fiscal year that began in October. The number has already surpassed the 125,000 Cubans who came during the 1980 Mariel boat lift. A smaller number, over 2,000, have come by sea; Cubans who come by sea are usually sent back to their homeland.

Some activists warn that another massive protest could be possible because the day-to-day conditions for the average Cuban have not changed.

“I think there can be another social explosion,” said González Velázquez. “But a social explosion is never going to come from activism or from the opposition, but from citizens in general. Activists have focused on waking up the citizens and in trying to construct the institutions that totalitarianism has robbed us of.” 

Carmen Sesin reported from Miami and Orlando Matos from Havana.

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