Cuban security forces foiled a mass protest scheduled for Monday, with police flooding the streets of Havana and prominent dissidents arrested or confined to their homes to prevent them from staging the banned human rights rally.
Friends and family said those arrested included opposition figure Manuel Cuesta Morua, 58, leader of the Ladies in White rights movement Berta Soler, and her husband Angel Moya – a former political prisoner.
Another government critic, Guillermo Farinas, has been detained since Friday, and many protest organizers and independent journalists have reportedly been confined to their homes by security forces with their internet connection cut.
As Cubans watched a tense countdown to the scheduled 3:00 p.m. (2000 GMT) kick-off of rallies called in Havana and six provinces, police were deployed in large numbers on the streets of the capital.
Along the city’s seaside esplanade, armed police in uniform gathered at almost every corner, while others in civilian clothes patrolled the squares and parks.
On social media, some have posted pictures of them dressed in white on the streets, but the call to move in droves does not seem to have gained ground.
Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez mocked a “failed operation” while the Communist government accused the United States of wanting to destabilize Cuba through the demonstration, which demanded the release of political prisoners.
“Apparently some of my colleagues in Washington dressed for nothing, for their party which did not take place”, he quipped in a video posted on Facebook, because “the scenario was not good and the even worse staging “.
For its part, Washington condemned the repression which thwarted the demonstration.
“Ahead of the peaceful protests scheduled for today, the Cuban regime has predictably rolled out a series of harsh prison sentences, sporadic arrests, intimidation tactics and acts of repudiation, all in the aim to silence the voice of the Cuban people as they demand change, “National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said in a statement.
The opposition had said the “15N” rally (November 15) would take place despite an official ban and the risk of criminal prosecution, with hundreds still in jail after the July protests which were suppressed by the armed forces.
Calls to join Monday’s protests had been circulated widely on social media, urging Cubans to move en masse to pressure their homes to demand improved human rights and democracy as well as liberation. of what the organizers call political prisoners.
Spontaneous rallies in July, fueled by growing anger over economic hardship and growing demands for “freedom,” left one dead, dozens injured and 1,270 arrested in a country where demonstrations of public discontent are rare and risky .
More than 650 are still in prison, according to rights group Cubalex.
“Defend the revolution”
Under the banner of a group named Archipelago, the protesters were invited to take to the streets dressed in white.
The group, founded by playwright Yunior Garcia, claims some 30,000 members inside and outside Cuba.
Garcia saw his plan to demonstrate alone in Havana on Sunday blocked by the authorities, and was prevented from leaving his home on Monday by state security agents, an AFP journalist noted.
The showdown came as children returned to school on Monday after months of closure due to the coronavirus outbreak, and coincided with the arrival of the first tourists – a mainstay of the Cuban economy – after the reopening of the borders.
“This is how Cuba was born on November 15, with more than 700,000 pioneers in the classrooms; receiving friends, family and tourists; relaunching a productive activity; reducing cases of COVID,” President Miguel Diaz tweeted on Monday. -Canel.
At the end of last week, Diaz-Canel had warned that his supporters were “ready to defend the revolution” in the face of “an imperial strategy (of the United States) to try to destroy the revolution”.
Cuban officials, who deny holding political prisoners, see the opposition as illegitimate and claim it is funded by Washington.
“Wave of repression”
On Sunday, the United States urged Cuban authorities to “respect the rights of Cubans, by allowing them to assemble peacefully and make their voices heard without fear of retaliation or violence from the government, and by maintaining Internet lines and open telecommunications for the free exchange of information ”.
In an open letter published on Sunday, dozens of Cuban and foreign NGOs denounced “the wave of repression which has intensified against the organizers of the demonstration and the citizens who identify with the movement”.
According to independent Cuban media, prosecutors have called for sentences of up to 30 years for some of the protesters arrested in July.
Cuba is going through its worst economic crisis since 1993, made worse by the coronavirus pandemic and the tightening of sanctions under former US President Donald Trump.
Outgoing President Joe Biden promised during his election campaign to quash some of his predecessor’s punitive actions against Cuba in exchange for human rights reforms.
But after the government crackdown on protests, Washington announced new sanctions for alleged rights violations.