It’s one of the most arresting of the videos leaked out of Cuba on July 11, the day that tens of thousands of people all over the island took to the streets and spread the word on social media in a massive anti-government protest—the first since Fidel Castro seized power and set up a communist dictatorship in Cuba more than 60 years ago.
The video, which can be seen on Instagram, comes from Bejucal, a town of 25,000 nine miles southwest of Havana. The protesters, mostly young people, chant “libertad!” (“liberty!”) over and over in rhythm and raise their fists. Leading them is a young Catholic priest in a black cassock. He holds aloft a statue of Our Lady of Charity, an image of the Madonna wearing a gilded cloak and holding the child Jesus, who is the official patron saint of Cuba. The protest as seen in the Bejucal video is also a religious procession. The demonstrators are calling for the freedom to answer to an authority other than the totalitarian and militantly secular one that regulates their lives down to the neighborhood level.
The Cuban government’s response to the July 11 protests was a quick and brutal crackdown. It shut off the internet, and plainclothes police who are everywhere in Cuba arrested and beat dozens of demonstrators with baseball bats, dragging them through the streets. Uniformed police wearing riot gear shot others. Among the baseball-bat victims was another Catholic priest, Rev. Castor Álvarez, who had been trying to protect some of the protesters in Camagüey from police confrontations. Rev. Álvarez was released the next day after church groups posted messages on social media publicizing his detention. He had been an outspoken pro-democracy advocate, visiting the Vatican in 2018 and writing a letter along with two other priests to then-Cuban leader Raúl Castro asking for free elections and freedom of the press.
According to press accounts, several other Christian clergymen arrested on July 11 still languish in Cuban jails, including two Baptist pastors, Yeremi Ramírez and Yarian Sierra, in Matanzas. Police in Songo-La Maya reportedly detained a third Baptist minister, Rev. Yusniel Montejo, and his current whereabouts are unknown. The three are among some 136 people estimated by the lawyers’ group Cubalex to be either detained or missing in the wake of the protests. At least one person is said to have died, according to The Washington Post.
Cuba’s communist junta then staged its own pro-government rally in Havana on July 17. Tens of thousands of people dutifully showed up (many of them reportedly bussed in en masse) with posters depicting Cuban icons more familiar to Western eyes: blown-up photos of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Internet access, which the government had briefly restored during the intervening week, was blocked again. Some of the attendees were “block captains,” members of the notorious Committees for the Defense of the Revolution who monitor their neighborhoods and report those who show signs of dissidence.
Cuba’s current leader, Miguel Díaz-Canel, who appeared at the rally along with the 90-year-old Raúl Castro, Fidel Castro’s surviving brother, blamed the unrest on the United States’ decades-old economic embargo (“economic suffocation”) as well as sanctions imposed by the Trump administration, which had canceled the “people to people” cruises popular with affluent American liberals that had helped bring tourist dollars to Cuba. He blasted the “Cuban-American mafia” of exiles in Florida for encouraging the protests and the international media for spreading a “malicious interpretation” of the July 11 demonstrations that suggested the entire island had risen in protest against his government. “Right now, what the world is seeing is a lie,” Díaz-Canel said.
Díaz-Canel’s explanation mirrors that of many left-leaning Americans, who likewise blame the embargo, in place since 1962, for Cuba’s economic woes and social dissatisfaction. On July 15, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y) called the embargo “absurdly cruel” and responsible “for the U.S. contribution to Cuban suffering.” In fact, the explanation for Cuba’s current economic woes lies more with the decades of ideology-fueled incompetence on the part of its communist leaders that has created an economy that cannot function without being propped up by a friendly socialist foreign government: first the Soviet Union, then Venezuela.
When aid from both entities ended (the latter in 2019), economic crisis ensued. Right now, Cuba is reeling not only from that, but from massive foreign debt, runaway inflation, shortages of food and fuel, a poor sugar harvest this year (sugar is Cuba’s main export crop), a collapse of tourism revenue owing to COVID-19, and the runway ravages of COVID-19 itself, with which Cuba’s much-lauded socialized health care system cannot cope (even aspirin is in short supply in Cuba).
But there’s something more to the wave of protests whose rallying cry wasn’t “more food!” but “liberty!” For more than six decades Westerners, especially the American liberals who have ventured to Havana on those people-to-people cruises to gawk at the vintage 1950s cars, buy Che Guevara T-shirts, and hear from hand-picked dance troupes and “women’s collectives,” have been fed the propaganda that Cuba, under its communist leaders, has become a thoroughly secularized society in which religion is moribund if not entirely dead.
Some 60 percent of Cubans are baptized Catholics (another 5 percent are Protestant or evangelical), but the percentage of those who actually attend church services is estimated to range between 5 percent and 1 percent. Westerners have also been told endlessly that most Cubans regard America as a capitalist enemy bent on their country’s destruction, and would never trade their socialist system for such bourgeois American freedoms as free speech and a free press. It must be a shock for these American liberals to see, as in one widely circulating video, a Cuban demonstrator proudly carrying an American flag—or as the Bejucal video shows and the news stories about detainees report, Cubans rallying behind clergymen who boldly proclaim a living religious faith.
Cuba has a decades-long history of effectively squelching dissent by whatever means necessary. This current expression, which seems to reflect something more widespread than the usual protests by individuals fed up with the system, may be no exception. But it does seem to appeal to a longing for a government that can do something more than satisfy material needs.
Charlotte Allen is the executive editor of Catholic Arts Today and a frequent contributor to Quillette. She holds a doctorate in medieval studies from the Catholic University of America.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.