Separated By More Than Just Borders, Cubans Abroad React To The Largest Protests In Cuba In Over 60 Years
Last Sunday people in Cuba mobilized to protest the worst health crisis in years. Prior to the protests, artists and journalists throughout the country had pleaded for humanitarian aid by using the hashtag #SOSCuba on social media platforms. Initially, the protests were aimed at requesting medical aid in response to vaccine, food, and supply shortages because of COVID, but many protestors are now advocating for freedom of expression along with other political demands. Some of these events have turned violent at the hands of the Cuban authorities, engendering deep divisions among Cubans worldwide, some of whom urged for U.S. military intervention, which to many critics appears to ignore the historically terrifying consequences of U.S. military action in Cuba, Latin America, and the world. As demonstrated in late 2020, in an artist-led rally at the Cuban Ministry of Culture, Cubans simply want an open dialogue with the authorities, and an end to the violence. Its diaspora all over North America has been glued to their social media accounts, distraught over the news.
“A friend shared a petition [urging for military intervention] with me, but I can’t in good conscience sign it when young men like my brother will be recruited to fight,” explained New York-based visual artist Paola Fiterre, whose family still resides in Cuba where military conscription is the law. As Paola points out, the demands from Cuban folks are inseparable from politics, raising confusion over what to do. Even speaking out from a safety net (outside of Cuba) can result in backlash to family members and friends, who are being told to stay inside for safety; those choosing to protest on the island face even more danger with arrests and disappearances continuing to rise.
The feelings of indecisiveness and anxiety plaguing the Cuban diaspora in the U.S. and Canada over the current protests are familiar to many immigrants. For Lebanese-American influencer Mia Khalifa, the #SOSCuba hashtag reminded her of her own experiences: “Cubans and Lebanese people have so much in common! Corrupt leadership, and American sanctions that don’t hurt the corrupt leaders, but rather the innocent civilians,” she tweeted. Musicians Residente, from Puerto Rico, and J. Balvin, from Colombia, also showed their support on Twitter.
The situation continues to escalate with many journalists arrested for simply reporting on the events from Cuba. Just yesterday, ABC correspondent Camila Acosta and other journalists were detained for covering the protests. According to Cuban expat and activist Salomé García Bacallao, “many [protestors] are missing, some are presumed dead, but without internet or information from Cuban authorities, there is no way to confirm. It’s chaos.”
Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel responded through a televised message, and based on social media footage, a heavy police presence, which resulted in shots fired by Cuban authorities. Videos of injured civilians are still surfacing on Instagram. In one of these videos, Fiterre recognized a block near her family’s home. Fearing for her family, she attempted to contact them several times to no avail, because the government had cut internet access off on the island in an attempt to curb the ability of protestors to communicate with one another. “I was nervous all day Sunday, shaking, thinking about them. Eventually, I reached them [on Monday]. They’re safe.”
While waiting to hear from family, Fiterre took to the streets in New York to attend a demonstration in solidarity with the Cuban people. Organized by Cuban writer Tomás Castellanos Núñez, this protest was one of the biggest in a series of art-fueled rallies in New York, Washington, D.C., and New Jersey in support for freedom of expression in Cuba. For Fiterre, these in-person demonstrations are a way to feel more connected with Cubans still on the island, while using the privilege she has as an American resident to do what many on the island cannot.