Melissa Harris-Perry: It's The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. The historic protests that began in Cuba on July 11th were the largest seen in the country in decades. Multiple generations of Cubans took to the streets by the thousands, all across the island nation chanting, "Homeland and life," but these demonstrations were interrupted by mass arrests from Cuban authorities. In the days and weeks since the beginning of the protest, some organizations have estimated that anywhere from 500-700 protesters have been arrested and detained.
Here to talk more about what's happening in Cuba, is Patrick Oppmann, CNN International Correspondent and Havana bureau chief. Welcome back to the show, Patrick.
Patrick: Thank you so much.
Melissa: Let's just start with what is happening on the ground right now.
Patrick: Right now, there have been of course the protests, which the government put troops and police into the streets to stop, and for the most part, that was successful. They also cut off the internet for several days. Now we've entered a phase after they've had these mass arrests, going house by house in certain neighborhoods where people are being put on trial, and not surprisingly, being convicted and given months, and in some cases, years, simply in some cases for filming protests, for being on the street when the protests took place. Other protestors who actually fought with police, Cuban officials say, will face much longer jail sentences.
Melissa: Is this kind of oppression something new?
Patrick: No, it's something that activists here have complained about for many, many years. We haven't seen it on this scale though, perhaps ever, in Cuba where you have hundreds of people being arrested, hundreds of people facing trial, not just police on the street, but special forces troops, people who are heavily armed look, like they are frankly an invading army, not the usual police that we see here. The shock troops, the most highly trained elite troops they have, and they are currently out in force to prevent further protest from taking place.
Melissa: When you are talking with people there in Cuba, what are they telling you, or talking amongst each other about, in terms of what were the causal factors for these protests?
Patrick: The first protest that we're aware of, because they happen across this island in a way that has never happened here before where you had literally every city and every town people out protesting that first Sunday on July 11th. The first one was in a town called San Antonio de los Banos, which is about 40 minutes from where I am now. People there were experiencing something that's common in Cuba, and very frustrating, which is power outages.
They tell me that they had gone about six days of having power cutoff throughout much of the day. It's hot in Cuba, and people get frustrated, their food spoils in the fridge, which is a big, big problem when food is already so scarce. Something new happened, which is people got online, they connected, which is a recent phenomenon here, having data on your mobile cell phones.
They went on, protested and they streamed it live. The Cuban president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, rushed there, security forces tried to regain control, but by that point already, protests were breaking out pretty much everywhere in the island. Then here in Havana, where I am, where thousands of people poured into the streets and really voiced their anger at the government in a way that many people would never have been able to do so before, have never dared to do so before here.
Melissa: What do you think emboldened people in this moment?
Patrick: It's just desperation, I think, because the pandemic has hit everywhere so hard, but particularly Cuba, which is dependent on tourism, has been basically shut off from tourism throughout the pandemic. There are increased sanctions that were initiated under the Trump administration that have carried over during the Biden administration, that of course have a big impact and tend to hit people perhaps on the bottom of society here, more than people on the top who seem to be doing okay despite the increased sanctions.
Remittances were cut off, and that's a very important lifeline, the ability for Cuban exiles in the US to send money here to relatives and that's how a lot of people eat. Then the government's own mishandling of the Cuban economy. Every supermarket is state-owned here, and it takes hours usually to get into one, waiting in line. Hundreds of people every day, waiting in line to go in and buy what there is, which increasingly is not very much.
Melissa: If these are causes, what are the desired outcomes? What are the goals?
Patrick: It's really tough to say. It's what makes this so fascinating is because while there is a small opposition here that the government really works very hard to keep from having much of an impact, they didn't organize these protests. No one called these protests. These were spontaneous. The Cuban government says that they were planned by the US and that this is a plot hatched by the US, but the people I talked to in the street, they really just were regular people who were frustrated and felt they had nothing left to lose.
You talk about Patria y Vida, this is a song that's went viral here several months ago and it's really about how the revolution is essentially over and that something new has to happen. A lot of people really couldn't put into words what it is they want, but they know they don't want what they have now, which is a very difficult life, a life where they can't meet their basic needs.
They feel that if they complain about the single party communist government, that they are not allowed to, that they're not allowed to go into the street and protest. I think people want to have more of a voice and they want to have a normal life where they can feed themselves and their families, that life isn't such a constant struggle, which is a refrain you hear in Cuba everyday, la lucha, the struggle. That is what Cuban lives have been for a long time, but increasingly during the pandemic, during the economic failures of the last year or so, it has become harder and harder to be Cuban.
Melissa: It's interesting to hear you cite la lucha, the struggle, because that always has felt to me as though it's had multiple layers of meaning, both that it is a struggle and people would prefer to struggle less, but also that there's a certain kind of pride in that capacity to be in that struggle. Is that the thing that has fallen away in the context of the COVID-19 economic crisis?
Patrick: Very much so. I've lived here for nine years and it's never been easy. Not for me, because I've much more advantages, but for Cubans to just get through the day, to find milk, to get eggs, that's la lucha, and people used to laugh about it because it was so ridiculous and they had to be so creative. People aren't laughing about it anymore. Something I've noticed living here is because of the pandemic, I might go weeks without seeing a Cuban friend or someone I've known for years.
When I see them again, they're thinner. People are thinner and that's something that's new here, that people are not getting enough to eat. They're really struggling. They're worried that the economy here could collapse, simply that the things can not go on as they have been. That sense of pride and the sense of, "We have to be more clever than the government to get around all the restrictions," that's really fallen away to a new grim reality.
Melissa: Talk to me about the intergenerational nature of these protests. Who are the young people who we're seeing in the streets?
Patrick: These are people that did not grow up with Fidel Castro as being the voice that was always on TV or the radio. Fidel Castro got sick in 2006 and then really disappeared from the scene. When they talk about the revolution, it's a very different revolution. They are young people that are often very frustrated that, up until recently, didn't have internet access. They didn't have the ability to get the jobs they wanted.
Most people still work for the state in this country, and they do not earn a living wage. That really bears down on people, because how do you make up the difference? For a lot of people, it's family from abroad sending you money, for a lot of people, it's leaving Cuba, which most people don't want to do, but increasingly want to do. That's one thing that I hear again and again, it's that people want to leave.
For young people now, particularly during the lockdown and Cuba has been on lockdown throughout the pandemic, when there's nowhere to go with when the beach is closed, when there's a 9:00 PM curfew, the few pleasures and joys that they perhaps had in their lives that made everything else okay or acceptable, are not there anymore and they're increasingly frustrated that they feel that their government is standing in the way of a better future.
Melissa: Cuban society is, of course, not a monolith, and we've talked a little bit there about generation. Also, help us think a bit about race. How have issues of race and even of economic privilege to the extent that there are those differences, how has that played in here?
Patrick: I think a lot of people watching these protests have been surprised to see the number of Afro-Cubans taking place. Of course, one of the great claims of the revolution is that it was fighting racism and leveling the playing field. One thing that Black Cubans that I know say again and again is that the police, perhaps like in the US, treat them differently and are much more likely to pull them over, stop, ask for their identity cards, which you have to have on you at on all-time here, and harass them.
I think that's why you saw so much anger, particularly among African-Cubans directed at the police, and actually, in some cases, people threw rocks at police cars and overturned police cars. The song Patria y Vida is a reggaeton song. There's a lot of anger in that song. One of the refrains is, "It's over." When you go into the poor neighborhoods, which is where the protests really turned into riots here, there is a simmering anger.
People feel that they've been passed over, not just by their government, but also by the people who can get ahead here that have relatives in the United States who are predominantly lighter-skinned Cubans. They get-- or up until recently, they received remittances, and that allows them to do much more, live in a way that most Cubans simply cannot. When you go into the poor neighborhoods that are supposed to be the strongholds of [unintelligible 00:11:48], you actually find that a lot of anti-government sentiment.
Melissa: Now, let's come back stateside for a moment. How is the Biden administration viewed at this point from the perspective of the Cuban protesters, and is there something in particular that they would like to see the US government do in response?
Patrick: That's the big question, is what can the US government do? So far, the Biden administration has placed more sanctions, which is something that has not worked in 60 years. I know talking to people here, they want to have more contact with the US, they want to have more openness with the US, they want to have more opportunity, and they feel that closing Cuba off only helps the government.
Melissa: Patrick Oppmann is a CNN international correspondent and the Havana Bureau chief. Thank you so much for joining us.
Patrick: Thank you.
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