Cuba’s communist regime has done almost everything in its power to put an end to pro-democracy protests there. Now, the movement for freedom is fighting to stay alive even as many of its leaders and others have been imprisoned.
Last month, Cubans again tried to gather and protest the regime, but the government met the effort with intimidation and force. The protest ultimately resulted in “about 80 new people that were detained and remained detained,” says John Suarez, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba.
The pro-democracy movement in Cuba gained new momentum in July, when thousands of Cubans took to the streets during several days of unplanned protests. Cuba’s communist government is still detaining over 700 of those involved in the protests.
The Cuban government’s motive is that “they want control,” says Suarez, who joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to describe the situation and what hope remains for a free Cuba.
We also cover these stories:
- President Biden signs a measure, passed by Congress, to raise the debt ceiling by $2.5 trillion.
- YouTube cancels conservative talk show host and comedian Steven Crowder for the rest of the year.
- Kim Kardashian discusses cancel culture with former New York Times writer Bari Weiss on the podcast “Honestly.”
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.
Virginia Allen: I am so pleased to be joined by the executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba, John Suarez. John, welcome back to the show.
John Suarez: Thank you, Virginia. It’s an honor to be with you.
Allen: We have seen so much happen in Cuba over the past six months. If we think back to July 11 of this year, that was a really pivotal moment for Cuba. We saw large, pro-democracy protests break out in Cuba, really organically. And Cuba’s communist government, they acted as quickly as they could to shut that down.
But leaders of this pro-democracy movement, they’ve been really trying to keep this momentum going. So on Nov. 15, they organized another protest. Catch us up: What has been happening and what happened in mid-November when these pro-democracy protesters tried to reinvigorate this movement?
Suarez: I think it’s important to highlight that what made July 11 so different than prior protests was its spontaneous nature. It wasn’t something organized by the pro-democracy movement, and many observers at the time said that that was the reason it succeeded–because the secret police and the state security apparatus would’ve preemptively shut down something that had been organized.
So what we saw is we had this movement called the Archipelago Movement and its most visible leader, Yunior Garcia, called for civic marches in Cuba, initially on Nov. 20. And they did formal petitions [and] current Cuban law, in the constitution of 2019, in theory permits public protests when you’ve done your due diligence and gotten your permits.
And what happened was they applied for the permit [and] the Cuban government initially didn’t reject the permit. What they did was they announced that in the days leading up to, and on, Nov. 20 they were going to have a mass military mobilization of the country. So the organizers decided out of prudence to move back the protest from Nov. 20 to Nov.15. When they did that, the regime formally rejected the permit applications and warned the organizers that they’d be subject to legal proceedings if they went forward.
The organizers decided to go forward, and things escalated. Over the month of October all the way into November, there were acts of repudiation: crowds organized by the regime to attack the homes of organizers, secret police picking up organizers and organizers’ family members and threatening them. Yunior Garcia [got] a dead, bloody chicken at his door. And all this combined with continual warnings of prison for the organizers.
And in the final weeks leading up to the protest, they started spreading images of regime supporters that had been handed out clubs and, in some cases, assault weapons. Things that looked like AK-47s to their supporters to post on social media. So this was leading up to that.
Then on Nov. 14 and 15, they started rapid militarization [with] secret police everywhere. Yunior Garcia’s home was surrounded. He actually put up a sign saying that his home had been blockaded. And you could see it from the street. And what ended it up happening was that the regime used giant Cuban flags to cover up his windows so you couldn’t see him.
Allen: Garcia is one of the primary leaders, correct, in this pro-democracy movement?
Suarez: Exactly. He had announced that a day prior to the 15th, he was going to go out as an individual and do a civic march solely with a white flower and leave it at a statue. And they stopped him from doing that. There was some controversy generated because after that flag came down, they didn’t know what his situation was.
Then about 48 hours later, he appeared in Spain, in Madrid, and gave full declarations as to what had been going on, indicating that he feared for his safety and his family’s safety. And that he wouldn’t have been able to speak because everything was blocked, all his communication channels.
By whatever means, he was able to get out, get to Spain, and he’s been able to make some very strong declarations in terms of the repression and the dictatorial nature of the [Cuban] regime. Meanwhile, inside of Cuba, there were about 80 new people that were detained and remained detained. And this is in addition to over 700 that we know of that were detained back in July that had been subjected to political show trials. And they’re asking for 20-year prison sentences and higher in many of these cases.
Allen: Did anything really take place on Nov. 15, or was Cuba’s communist government successful in really totally shutting it all down?
Suarez: Some individuals were able to get out to protest sites, but they were arrested and detained. One of them … who had been a political prisoner in the past [and] had just gotten out a few months ago was rearrested again. And as I say, another 80 activists had been detained and continue to be detained that we know of. We also know that, along with the July 11 protesters, that there are an excess of 20 children that are currently locked up for engaging in peaceful protests.
We know that at least one mother is on a hunger and thirst strike currently, demanding the release of her son who is … Let me make sure I have the age right. I believe he is, yes, 17 years of age. Jonathan Torres Farrat and his mother, Barbara Farrat Guillen. She’s has been on a hunger and thirst strike for a few days now, which is something that worries us greatly. That’s what’s taking place.
Obviously, there have been a number of events. What we’ve tried to do is to organize [and] obtain international visibility. So around the 14th and again on the eve of [Dec. 10] with that Summit for Democracy that President Biden put together. We put out statements that we sent to democratic governments across the world, international agencies, also to Catholic bishops.
Because in the days leading up to the Nov. 15 protest, the Catholic bishops of Cuba came out with an important statement calling for the freedom of Cuban political prisoners and for a national dialogue. We had basically put out a request to bishops around the world to echo their message and to pray for political prisoners … especially now during Christmas.
Allen: And is the Biden administration putting pressure on Cuba to release these prisoners?
Suarez: The State Department had a campaign, “Jailed for What.” This was a campaign, [which] was also underway during the Trump administration, that would highlight specific cases during the Biden administration. They have expanded it, especially post-July 11. They’ve also targeted regime repressors … and sanctioning them. And there were also an additional nine that they announced that we’re sanctioning now after the Nov. 15 protest.
So they are doing something; obviously, we wish they would do more. And by more, we mean backing first encouraging other countries that have Magnitsky regs on their books to apply those sanctions against the regime repressors …
We’ve also requested they expand it to include Miguel Diaz-Canel, the president of Cuba. Oftentimes people say you can’t go after the current head of state with sanctions, but the Europeans have done it with [President Alexander] Lukashenko in Belarus with Magnitsky [regulations]. And therefore, the precedent has been established that they could also do that with Diaz-Canel in Cuba.
As we know, Diaz-Canel was calling for people to combat in the streets. And we saw his paramilitary dressed in black firing on unarmed protesters. And by any measure, that’s a crime in international circles.
In addition to that, we’ve been calling on the Biden administration to carry out a public diplomacy campaign about the internal blockade in Cuba. And that’s something [where] the Cuban regime has been very effective in their spin, that the hunger in Cuba is due to the economic sanctions of the United States, which is an incredible falsehood. The reality is that the internal blockade is imposed by Cuban officials on the Cuban people.
Allen: When you say internal blockade, you mean an actual … ?
Suarez: Well, I mean that there are a series of laws and regulations in place that prevent Cubans from fishing in boats around their island. They have laws on the books that prevent farmers from selling their goods to Cubans at market. So they have to turn it over to a government agency [and] the typical communist sufficiency; oftentimes, the communist officials show up late, so much of the food rots rather than getting to anyone. And if you tried to sell it while you’re waiting, you’re subject to prison terms.
So you have a situation where pre-Castro, Cuba is able to feed itself. And today under the communist regime, Cuba has to import 80% of its food. And much of it is imported from the United States. The chicken people today are eating in Cuba is grown in Arkansas. It could be grown in Cuba if the communists permitted it, as it was pre-1959.
And this isn’t just Cuba. We saw the same pattern in Mao’s China, where 45 million people starved to death because of communist agricultural policies there.
In the Soviet Union throughout the period of the 1960s, ’70s, they had to import grain from the United States. Although Russia prior to communism was an exporter of grain and, post-communism, became an exporter of grain once again to the rest of Europe. So it is clear that the communist economic model is a disaster that causes hunger and that needs to be highlighted. That’s sometimes lost in this conversation. And that’s something that we’re calling for.
And furthermore, in terms of the chicken that’s being sold to Cubans, there is an outrage because the Cuban government is purchasing [the chicken] at about a dollar per kilo and then selling it to Cubans at $7 per kilo. Whereas, Americans when you go to the supermarket, you’re probably paying between $2 and $3 per kilo. And obviously the salary of a Cuban national is a fraction of the salary of an American. You do the math. That’s where the scarcity comes from.
Allen: Yeah, absolutely. Help us understand a little bit more why in these communist regimes, like in Cuba, why is the government motivated to cut off that internal production, the agriculture and the farming? Why would they want to be reliant essentially on other countries to provide those goods, when they could be growing that within their own country? What’s their motive?
Suarez: Their motive is that they want control. And in their obsession over control over their people and also their ideology–their ideology is they believe that communist, centralized planning is superior to markets. And the reality is that it is not. And then secondly, they want to have control. The Cuban government, even before they had shortages of food in 1960, set up a ration card. So the idea is that if you want to eat, you need to be in a good relationship with the Cuban government.
The other issue–which is one of the mistakes when we have this conversation about communism and socialism–is that under the communist regime of Cuba, if you want to eat you have to work. If you don’t work in Cuba, you go to prison. If you don’t work, you’re viewed as a parasite of the state. And that happens also in other communist regimes. This idea that you get a check from the government and you don’t have to work is a feature of welfare capitalism, not communism.
Allen: Really fascinating, John. Thank you for breaking that down. One of the things that I have been wondering is … how is the Cuban government fostering this loyalty among citizens? Because I’ve been reading about a radio channel set up for private citizens, essentially to inform on their neighbors who might be part of this pro-democracy movement.
But maybe from the outside it’s easy to sort of say, “Well, why wouldn’t every Cuban if they’re all experiencing hunger, if they’re experiencing these shortages, why wouldn’t they all be on board to have democracy go forth in their country?” Why are there still loyalists to the Communist Party who are willing to inform on their own friends or even their own family, knowing that these people will be jailed, beaten, maybe even killed?
Suarez: I think it goes back to the idea of the panopticon, where you have the idea of a prison where everybody feels that they’re being surveilled constantly even though that may not be the case in reality. And the regime has been successful when fostering the idea of having an all-pervasive, all-powerful 24/7 omnipotent police state.
Now, they do have an incredibly sophisticated police state. The KGB–actually, one of their colonels said that it was a better police state than what [the Soviet Union] had. They had the training not only of the KGB, but the East German Stasi. And in the 1960s when [Fidel] Castro was disappointed in the Soviet Union not engaging in the first strike on the U.S. during the Cuban missile crisis, he also brought in former members of the Waffen-SS Nazis to train his security forces.
So we’re talking [about] a state security apparatus that has had the best training from not only the communist world, but also the Nazi world. And what they have sought to do is to set up a police state [and] so they’ve set up committees in defense of the revolution that spy on Cubans at the block level. And those neighborhood spying committees are themselves spied on to ensure compliance.
The head of the committee in defense of the revolution nationally right now is Gerardo Hernandez Nordelo. He was one of the five Cuban spies released by Obama back in December of 2014, who was serving a double life sentence. One life sentence for espionage against the United States and another for murder conspiracy in the Brothers to the Rescue shootdown, in which three U.S. citizens, one of whom was a decorated Marine.
Armando Alejandre Jr., Carlos Costa, and Mario [Manuel] de la Pena were killed. Along with Pablo Morales, who was a Cuban resident who’d been rescued by Brothers to the Rescue years earlier himself on a raft in Cuba. And they were killed while engaged in a humanitarian mission in the Florida Straits by the Cuban government.
Allen: Tragic, wow. And we hear these stories and your heart goes out to these people and what they’re walking through on a daily basis, the things that they’re facing. We’ve recently learned that Cuban journalist Mabel Paez was beaten in her home last week. And she told VOA that she believes that the reason for the attack is because she has been reporting on the situation, on the reality of the situation in Cuba, on the protests against the government. How common is this in Cuba, that journalists are attacked by the government?
Suarez: Cuba currently is one of the countries that the Committee to Protect Journalists is focusing on because there are a number of journalists currently jailed. Back in 2003, Cuba had the largest number of journalists jailed in the world. They were competing with China, in excess of 20.
So this is not at all uncommon. …There was a case of a journalist who went missing who’s never been found. And he was interviewing young people. This was back in 2003 during the Varela Project, which was a citizen initiative organized by Oswaldo Paya Sardinas to reform Cuba’s human rights standards to bring them in line with international standards.
Mr. Paya, along with the youth leader, was killed in 2012 in what appears to have been an extrajudicial killing. But back in 2003, this journalist was interviewing a number of young people who’d been expelled from the university for circulating the Varela Project, which according to Cuban law was perfectly legal but the regime was not happy with. And a short time later he went missing. So it is a dangerous profession in Cuba to be an independent journalist and to be open about trying to provide fair, truthful news.
Also, international journalists are also subjected to great pressures. We saw leading up to the Nov.15 protest that EFE’s [Spanish international] news agency was expelled from the island, their credentials pulled. And that created a bit of friction with the Spanish government, which is a left-wing government that’s normally friendly with Havana.
But we’ve seen over the decades how the regime has been very effective with international journalists in Cuba [in] expelling journalists that are reporting, even if they’re not as harsh as they should be with the Cuban government. But they do some evenhanded reporting, and that’s enough to get them expelled from the island. And what it does is, it has a chilling effect on the reporters who remain behind.
Allen: I can only imagine that as a journalist if you know so-and-so also was beaten or has disappeared or has been imprisoned for their work, it really makes you pause and think about what you’re going to write, what you’re going to say. Where exactly do things stand right now? Is there a path forward for the pro-democracy movement in Cuba?
Suarez: The path forward, and one that we’ve been observing now for a long period of time, is to continue nonviolent actions carried out by these movements inside of Cuba, and developing and improving their strategies. But in order to do that also requires solidarity internationally. So what we’ve been calling for [is] based on the calls coming out of the island, especially by the Christian Liberation Movement, this movement that had been started back in 1988 by Oswaldo Paya Sardinas and still exists today with Eduardo Cardet, his successor after Mr. Paya was killed in 2012.
They’re calling for a South Africanization of Cuba. That Cuba for all intents and purposes is in an apartheid-style state that systematically denies its citizens their basic rights. And they’re calling for a number of things, and we’re sharing in that call, which is first and foremost calling on democracies to denounce the crackdown on pro-democracy activists and to sanction Cuban officials involved in that crackdown.
Secondly, calling on the U.N. Security Council to respond to the situation by sending a delegation to Cuba [and] also seeking to establish a humanitarian corridor for direct emergency assistance to needy Cubans without the participation of the regime. The regime has been doing everything to block direct transfers of assistance from Cubans abroad to Cubans inside the island. They don’t permit private humanitarian agencies from reaching out to Cubans directly on the island.
Another thing that we’re been calling for is the establishment of a global arms embargo on Cuba. Lamentably, some countries like Spain have been selling weapons that are being used against Cubans by the Cuban government. [Also] suspending economic and military cooperation agreements, such as the E.U.-Cuba cooperation agreement that presently stands. And as I said earlier, applying Magnitsky sanctions against regime repressors, raising the cost of repression to individual actors in the island.
And finally, obviously, underscoring the importance of revealing that it is the Cuban government that is responsible for the scarcity that the Cuban people are suffering from. The reality that buildings are collapsing in Havana due to a lack of upkeep that are killing Cubans, including young girls a few months ago. At the same time, the Cuban regime is building hotel resorts for foreign tourists, [which] is an outrage that needs to be made known.
Allen: What is the number one thing right now? What does the Biden administration need to do tomorrow in its engagement with Cuba?
Suarez: What they had been doing that is correct thus far is continuing the policies of the previous administration to maintain sanctions on the regime, to apply sanctions against repressors. I think they should be more aggressive about it, but they have been at least taking steps in the right direction there.
I think that the important thing for the Biden administration to do is to make a harder push multilaterally to encourage the Europeans, the Canadians, and other democracies to apply those Magnitsky sanctions against regime repressors, again raising the cost of repression on the repressors in the island. And also pushing the establishment of the global arms embargo on the regime.
And lastly, I think, especially from the side of U.S. public policy, really exploring and outlining how the regime is imposing that internal blockade that I’ve mentioned already a couple of times.
Allen: Excellent. John, tell us how our listeners can follow the work of the Center for a Free Cuba.
Suarez: They’re welcome to visit our webpage, which is www.cubacenter.org. They can visit us on Twitter @cubacenter and we’d be more than happy to welcome them. … We have something called Cuba Brief that comes out a couple of times a week informing [recipients] on what’s taking place in Cuba. And they can request that through sending me an email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Allen: John Suarez, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba. John, thank you so much. We really appreciate your time and these updates. This is a situation that we are watching closely here at The Daily Signal.
Suarez: Thank you, Virginia. It’s very important to keep an eye on what’s going on inside of the island. And I think just to conclude, it’s not just what’s going on in Cuba. This regime has had a negative impact in places like Venezuela [and] Nicaragua. They’ve helped Daniel Ortega become a full-fledged autocrat. They assisted Hugo Chavez and helped install Nicolas Maduro [and] that has caused one of the greatest humanitarian disasters in the region. And that would not have happened without the continued existence of the communist regime in Cuba.
Allen: John, thank you for your insight.
Suarez: Thank you, Virginia.
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