When Cubans spontaneously took to the streets in their thousands on July 11, 2021, nothing like this had happened since Fidel Castro’s communist revolution in 1959.
In the year that followed, many activists were sent to prison or were exiled, and a historic level of Cubans migrated amid the difficult economic situation and ongoing government repression.
Saily González Velázquez ran a “casa particular”, or bed and breakfast, and became an activist after the July 11 protests, publicly criticizing the government and broadcasting live on social media.
She left Cuba less than three weeks ago.
“I didn’t leave because I wanted to, I was exiled,” said González Velázquez.
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 being granted permission. a US 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 incitement to delinquent acts. She denies planning any sort of protest. She said the government gave her the choice of leaving Cuba within five days or being imprisoned.
Now in Miami, she said many activists left under similar circumstances, although some left voluntarily.
Meanwhile, for most Cubans on the island, life continues to be difficult. They made a habit of checking a daily news segment with an update on power outages across the island. Ration cards for items like rice, beans, sugar, chicken, and milk for children up to age 7 provide Cubans with enough food for about a week. The rest must be purchased from state-owned stores, but inflation has made many products inaccessible.
Those who have relatives abroad and receive remittances or family visits with luggage full of food and medicine are better off, creating two different classes.
A sophisticated “machinery of oppression”
Protests last July led to a crackdown by authorities that resulted in the detention of more than 1,000 Cubans, rights groups said.
According to Cuban government figures, 488 people were officially sanctioned following the protests last July, including 383 with prison terms and 105 sanctioned without prison. Two were released without charge.
Cuban government officials said those arrested and tried were not political prisoners, insisting they were not being held because of their ideology but because they broke the law. Some of the charges against protesters last year include sedition, sabotage, robbery and public disorder.
The Cuban government has also repeatedly accused the United States of orchestrating the protests.
The human rights group Justicia 11J estimates that the number of people detained is much higher than the official figures: they claim that at least 701 Cubans are still in detention and 622 have been sentenced to terms of up to 25 years in prison.
“The reasons for the convictions as well as the detentions of those who did not go to court are to repress the intentions of people who want to demonstrate publicly,” said Salomé García, one of the founders of Justicia 11J, currently in Miami.
A number of countries as well as international rights groups have criticized the government crackdown.
“We have a human rights crisis in Cuba, which puts the country in what is probably the worst situation in decades,” said Juan Pappier, senior Americas researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“Over the decades, the Cuban government has been able to develop a mechanism of repression, which is unique in its sophistication in the Western Hemisphere,” Pappier said.
NBC News contacted the Cuban government but received no response.
Artists Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and Grammy Award-winning Maykel Castillo, both members of the San Isidro movement – an artists’ collective that protests against government censorship – were recently sentenced to five and nine years respectively. Otero Alcántara started a hunger and thirst strike, demanding to be taken home, according to the activist Anamely Ramos.
Others, like José Daniel Ferrer, leader of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), one of the largest and most active opposition groups, are also in prison.
Struggling with a precarious economy
During protests last year, many Cubans voiced a range of grievances, including over food and medicine shortages amid the coronavirus pandemic. Some have called for “the end of the dictatorship”.
Since the protests a year ago, Cuba has taken steps to try to address discontent over living conditions on the island, including renovating about 1,000 poor neighborhoods.
President Miguel Díaz-Canel also highlighted the “urgent effort” to address “opportunities” – rather than “assistance” – for the country’s youth, including addressing issues of employment, training and housing.
In a recent speech at a meeting with artists, Díaz-Canel said he wanted to see how the “concept of democracy within socialist construction” could progress, adding that “it is important to give all possible spaces for participation” as well as popular control over these processes.
Cuba’s dire economic situation was deteriorating before the pandemic. Its economy had stagnated for years. When its ally Venezuela became reeling from political and economic unrest, it caused aid from the South American country to drop. The island’s medical exchange program, a major source of revenue, also took a hit after countries like Brazil ended their deal with the Cuban government. When former President Donald Trump imposed more restrictions on Cuba, he made it harder for them to import oil, banned American cruise ships from docking on the island, and reduced the number of American flights to Cuba. President Joe Biden then lifted restrictions on flights. Cuba closed its borders during the pandemic for eight months, further crippling its economy.
Cuba’s planned economy imports more than two-thirds of its food, and the cash-strapped government struggles to provide the island with enough food and medicine.
“Most Latin American economies are producing at pre-pandemic levels, but the Cuban economy is not. 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 the Cuban government is printing money to pay for its high budget deficit and inflation, which he estimates at 500% in 2021 according to his analysis, although the official figure is 30%.
“Inflation generates a feeling of uncertainty among citizens because they feel they don’t know what will happen next,” Vidal said. “And inflation is a reflection of the mismanagement of the economy.”
The solution for many Cubans has been to migrate at historic levels. More than 140,000 Cubans have arrived at the US-Mexico border this fiscal year, which began in October. The number once exceeded 125,000 Cubans who came on the Mariel boat lift in 1980. A smaller number, more than 2,000, came 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 daily conditions for the average Cuban have not changed.
“I think there may be another social explosion,” González Velázquez said. “But a social explosion will never come from activism or the opposition, but from citizens in general. Activists have focused on waking up citizens and trying to build the institutions that totalitarianism has stolen from us.
Carmen Sesin reported from Miami and Orlando Matos from Havana, Cuba.
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