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Police detained a person during protests in Havana July 11. Thousands of Cubans took to the streets to protest a lack of food and medicine as the country undergoes a grave economic crisis aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic and U.S. sanctions.
Police detained a person during protests in Havana July 11. Thousands of Cubans took to the streets to protest a lack of food and medicine as the country undergoes a grave economic crisis aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic and U.S. sanctions.
Photo Credit: Reuters

Christian group among those calling for free election amid rare protests in Cuba

Cuban American bishops call for aid as experts fear Cuba’s response will be harsh

U.S. theologians and human rights experts on Cuba worried that any repeat of the widespread protests in Cuba on July 11 may be met with a swift, violent set of state-sponsored reactions.

There were already signals the Cuban government had disseminated a multifaceted action plan July 12 that was to last 72 hours. It included shutting down internet communications, as well as deploying plainclothes-wearing state police and military personnel to squash further protests following July 11’s massive turnout, according to Elsie Miranda.

“I am afraid for the people (there) because of their desperation and willingness to die for a chance to live,” said Miranda, a professor of theology and director of accreditation for the Association of Theological Schools.

She has led missions to Cuba in conjunction with the Catholic Church there and attended Pope Francis’ visit to Cuba in 2015.

A communication that Miranda has seen, written in Spanish and circulating among human rights activists, appeared to detail the Cuban government’s nine-point plan to shut down further civic displays of unrest and called for using whatever means necessary to do so, including a large presence of plainclothes police dispatched to mingle among protesters to make arrests.

Miranda, who is normally based in Pittsburgh but is working this summer from Miami, told Catholic News Service in a phone interview the recent protests show a bold new willingness and determination among Cuban youth to stand up to the communist regime and to express that they have nothing to lose now.

But if there isn’t a turnaround in the Cuban military, she said, it may end badly for the protesters.

“Unless there is a shift in the military and they turn — and I don’t see that happening — this will be a very sad moment in our history,” Miranda said, pointing out the hardline leadership of Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel is a continuation of Raul Castro’s presidency.

The tone of the July 11 protests in Cuba was wrapped up in a popular Cuban rap song, “Patria y Vida” (“Nation and Freedom”). It’s a play on words and a new response to the popular slogan of the Cuban Revolution, “Patria o Muerte” (“Motherland or Death”).

A poor economic situation in Cuba has reportedly been exacerbated in recent months by the coronavirus pandemic, although it is hard for outsiders to know how significantly the pandemic is impacting the country as a whole.

Cuba claims to have developed a COVID-19 vaccine, and protesters were calling for greater access to vaccines as well as demanding an end to the 62-year dictatorship.

A national coordinator of the Christian Liberation Movement, known as MCL for its initials in Spanish, said thousands of Cubans were demanding freedom and an end to repression and misery.

The group also demanded “the release of political prisoners, the annulment of the repressive laws against freedom, recognition of economic rights of free enterprise for Cubans, and recognition of (the right of) each Cuban — inside and outside the island — to vote and to be elected,” it said.

The MCL condemned violence from any side and criticized Díaz-Canel’s call for confrontation among Cubans.

“No more sorrowful cries. It is time to react and tell the tyrants that their reign of terror and misery has come to an end. Only the people can save the people,” the group said in its statement.

In a statement released by the White House July 12, President Joe Biden said the United States stands with the people of Cuba in their call for freedom and relief from the pandemic and decades of repression and economic suffering.

“The Cuban people are bravely asserting fundamental and universal rights,” Biden said. “Those rights, including the right of peaceful protest and the right to freely determine their own future, must be respected.”

“My view of this is that it is a combination of a dire economic situation owing to the dramatic decline in tourism, loss of economic assistance from Venezuela, and the increasing connectivity of the Cuban population, both domestically and abroad,” said Peter Sanchez, a professor emeritus of comparative politics at Loyola University Chicago, who has conducted field research in Cuba.

News reports said the unprecedented protests in Cuba have taken place not only in Havana but in 14 other Cuban cities. They were mirrored by a vocal street protest in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood late afternoon July 11.

Miranda, who attended the Miami event, which took place around the city’s popular Versailles Cuban Restaurant, said protesters there and those calling in to Miami’s Spanish radio stations were asking Biden to intervene.

But Miranda said the Catholic Church and Pope Francis — given the Church’s relative independence in Cuba — should seize the moment to make a new gesture and express support of the Cuban youth protests.

“I was there (in Havana) for the papal visit with Francis when the youth were telling him that we need to have a future and have no place to practice our trade; the pope needs to exercise his leadership in Cuba in a more forceful way and I think he has been a little too slow,” she said.

“But now we need leadership — strong, forceful, revolutionary leadership that stands up to these abusive powers and oppressive regimes,” she added. “I am concerned that it may come too late.”

>> Cuban American bishops express solidarity, call for humanitarian aid

WASHINGTON — Four Cuban American bishops called on the international community to provide humanitarian aid to the people of Cuba and expressed solidarity with them following protests that erupted on the island nation starting July 11.

“We call on international governments and all charitable organizations to collaborate in assisting in this urgent humanitarian crisis for the sake of the suffering people of Cuba, especially the sick and the poor,” they wrote in a joint statement July 13.

It was signed by four bishops who were born on the island or have Cuban heritage: Archbishop Nelson J. Pérez of Philadelphia; Auxiliary Bishop Manuel A. Cruz of Newark, New Jersey; Bishop Felipe J. Estevez of St. Augustine, Florida; and retired Auxiliary Bishop Octavio Cisneros of Brooklyn, New York.

“We commend the care of Caritas Cubana, as it continues to mediate — with ever so limited resources — a response to the basic human needs of the people of the island, recognizing that the alleviation of suffering is a moral imperative,” they said in the letter.

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