On Tuesday, Cuban security forces surrounded the house of Tania Bruguera, an artist and noted dissident. They took her to Villa Marista, a Cuban state security prison known for its detention of political prisoners, where they interrogated her for trying to undermine the government in Havana.
After 11 hours, she was released with three charges against her, which accused her of plotting against the government through protests and performance — and an injunction to remain at home.
The arrest came amid an unprecedented wave of protests sweeping Cuba, in which thousands of people took to the streets in more than 40 cities — undeterred by police crackdowns and the government’s shutdown of the internet — calling for freedom and an end to the 62-year-old dictatorship.
In Washington, the protests pose an unexpected challenge for President Joe Biden, who has gestured at liberalizing relations, but risks further losing Cuban voters in Florida if he’s seen as anything but hard line on its communist government.
Bruguera, a renowned installation and performance artist, didn’t join the protests. She remained at home, where she has been largely confined the past eight months with near-constant police presence posted outside her apartment in Havana.
Twice this week, however, she spoke to POLITICO, offering a longtime dissident’s view on what’s happening in Cuba, why these protests are so different from what has come before — and what Americans on both the left and right are getting wrong about Cuba.
This conversation was condensed and edited from interviews, in both Spanish and English, with Sabrina Rodriguez and Teresa Wiltz of the POLITICO staff.
What prompted the protests and what’s going on now:
Why is it happening? It’s an accumulation. It’s not just Covid-19. People have been believing in the revolution, following the government’s mandate to sacrifice. But people are tired of the government’s abuse.
Cubans are doing eight hours in line just to get a piece of bread. And at the same time, the housing situation is worse. People said, “Enough.” …. They see people in power and their kids living the great life. A few months ago, the grandson of Fidel [Castro] did a video in a Mercedes Benz, very arrogantly showing off his life while the people are starving.
[The day the protests started], a friend messaged me and said, “You have to see this.” And then another friend called, saying: “Look at this.” That’s when I saw the scene in San Antonio de los Baños [a town about 20 miles southwest of Havana, where the islandwide protests began]. And that’s how the news spread: People calling each other in different provinces, telling each other what was happening.
Then, the government quickly cut out the internet. And hand in hand with the blackout, they started putting out fake news.
But I had already seen it: It was just surreal. It was very, very, very powerful to see people screaming, saying, “I have no fear.”
The truth is, I was fairly calm at first. But when I started to get internet access and saw all the videos coming in of the beatings, police hitting and shooting at people, that really hit hard. Because those are images you’d never imagine coming out of Cuba. It’s something you never expect to see from Cuba.
We have seen 10 policemen beating a young kid. We have seen special forces enter a neighborhood, shooting when everyone is unarmed.
How the Cuban government is responding:
The government has created a very sophisticated disinformation process. They start by saying the people who protested were revolutionaries who were confused. Later, they said [the protesters] were delinquents. Now, they say [the protesters] are people who want the U.S. government to invade Cuba.
And now, they’re desperate to find leaders [of the protests]. They want to blame someone who is useful to them, who they can say was paid by the CIA. They have gone house by house detaining [people]. They’re desperate to find a leader to blame for everything. They need to find an enemy. But this time it doesn’t work. You can’t say that the young 16-year-old in the protest was paid off by the CIA. He probably doesn’t even know what the CIA is, come on.
There are 500 people that have been identified who are missing. Missing means that we don’t know in which prison they are, where they are detained.
There are mothers that don’t know where their children are. [Some have been able to find] out where they are — gone to the jails — and they won’t let them see their children. I heard from a friend that saw one of our friends being held in a jail. His nose was broken and his ribs were bruised. His mother went and they wouldn’t let her see him.
Also, the government has been looking at the videos online and locating where they were taken and going to these peoples homes to take them, harass them and pressure them to delete the videos. I was talking to an activist today that told me she’s spoken to several mothers who say government officials have told them that their sons aren’t going to be released until they delete [the] Facebook photos and videos they’ve uploaded. All this does is make everything worse.
Those in power don’t want to take responsibility. The government doesn’t want to take responsibility … for the consequences of the decisions it has made. So, they’re trying to find an external enemy.
Why this moment is different for the Cuban people:
Right now, everyone — all 11 million of us — knows someone that went to the protests, or knows someone that knows someone that went to the protests. Everyone has had an opportunity to verify stories and not believe what’s being said on TV.
Every person that has been unjustly detained, every person that has felt for the first time that feeling of freedom, every person that has now felt what it’s like at a protest to yell what you want, what you feel, what you’ve held back — there’s no turning back.
Today, there are thousands of Cubans who can’t turn back. Yes, the government is going to threaten and do what they always do — scare, process them legally, make them feel like they can’t leave their home. But in my experience, this was a step forward that I don’t see turning back.
The protest is bigger than anything that Raul and Fidel Castro were able to organize. But this was completely spontaneous. There is no leader, no opposition group that is able to do something like this. You can see it. And they were peaceful. Of course, there were some people who broke into food stores and also turned some police cars.
Still, the message from the people was very clear: [Vandalizing] the food stores means they are hungry and there is no way they have access to food. And turning over the police cars is saying they have enough of the police abuse. The people have spoken very clearly.
What the people want is to live a prosperous life with rights.
I think the older generation got used to living in a cage and, maybe, if you take away the cage, they don’t know anything else. But the younger people are clear that there are two options: Either they fight for their rights or it’s another lost generation. And it’s been very moving to see these people.
The majority of those arrested are young, many under 21. They’re saying: “Well, before I give up, I’m going to fight.”
And I think that’s what people want: Prosperity. To be able to think about more than, “What am I going to eat today?” or that “I have to stand in line for eight hours to buy bread.” People want to do more with their lives.
What Americans don’t understand about Cuba:
I’m part of the left and let me tell you — this isn’t socialism. This is neoliberal state capitalism.
The American left needs to understand that Cuba is no longer the paradise of social justice. It’s a dictatorship. And the U.S. government should be on the side of the Cuban people. I would say to the American politicians, to be on the side of the people and to not believe the fake news and the stories the government is creating.
Because, look, the Cuban people have endured 60 or 61 years of embargo and none of this happened before. So, what does the embargo have to do with this? Nothing.
What does the embargo have to do with policemen beating a young kid? What does the embargo have to do with the special forces shooting unarmed Cubans? What does the embargo have to do with [President Miguel Diaz-Canel’s] order for people to go defend the revolution on the streets? These are the questions I have.
Yes, of course, the embargo has had an impact. But the situation we are in today is caused by the Cuban government.
Now, on the opposite side, a U.S. military intervention is not a good response. The destiny of the Cuban people is in the Cuban people’s hands. And the second that a second country — and intervention, specifically — is in the picture, that’s not going to help.
First of all, [a military intervention] would back up some of the Cuban government’s claims. And second, I know, incredibly, it could sway people. That means many of those that today may be against the government would close ranks and come together with the government [to stand against U.S. intervention].
I don’t see it as a good solution. I think what has to be done is pressure the Cuban government so that it doesn’t have another alternative than to give Cubans rights.
And I do believe that other countries can help, by telling the Cuban government there’s certain conditions it must meet to do business. Because the Cuban government is very good at making itself seem like the victim internationally — the victim of the embargo, the victim of — air quotes — mercenaries in Cuba, the victim of everything to get sympathy that translates into money and aid. That has to end.
The world has to stop seeing the Cuban government as a victim. The Cuban government is the aggressor.