The world was watching Cuba for days after July 11 when a protest in San Antonio de Los Baños, right outside Havana, began a series of island-wide demonstrations that spread like a wildfire on social media as the people challenged the Communist regime that has been governing for the past six decades.
More than 3,500 Cubans in Philadelphia and others across the region were watching, too, as the protesters criticized the government, the economy, the lack of civil rights, and the country’s slow response to the pandemic in 2021.
“The people in Cuba weren’t chanting ‘I want my COVID vaccine’ or ‘I am hungry’ — which they are,” said Marlene Looney, a Cuban from Lancaster. “But they screamed, ‘Freedom’.”
Cries of “Cuba Libre” and “SOS Cuba” inundated the streets across the island. They also filled the streets of many U.S. cities where the Cuban diaspora lives, and the City of Brotherly Love was no exception.
Along with these chants was “Patria y Vida,” a song created by Afro-Cubans inspired by the Movimiento San Isidro, a group of artists and intellectuals in Havana who are opposed to Decree-Law 349, which limits freedom of artistic expression by giving the government the right to fine, seize work materials from and imprison artists for the content of their works. The song has now become the anthem of the uprisings.
The United States has the most Cuban immigrants in the world, with 2.4 million residing here, according to the 2019 U.S. Census. However, the Philadelphia population of Cubans is a minority among the other Latino groups in the city.
The Cubans in Philly say they became more united and discovered how many more were here after the protests. A Facebook group “Cubanos en Philadelphia” that had around 50 members before July 11, now has more than 230.
Members of the Facebook group organized three protests in Philadelphia. The first on July 11 outside City Hall; a second July 14 with a march from the Art Museum to City Hall, and a third on July 18 at the Art Museum. On Aug. 8, they organized a Mass with Archbishop Nelson Pérez, whose parents are Cuban exiles, to pray for the country’s freedom. Now the Facebook group leaders are asking their members to contact elected officials to seek help from the U.S. government in Washington, D.C.
This is the first time Cubans all around the island have taken to the streets in 62 years to protest the government. Afro-Cubans have been protesting since 2018 opposing Decree-Law 349. The Damas de Blanco movement, created by wives and relatives of Cubans who disappeared or were jailed by the government, is comprised of mostly Afro-Cubans.
A month after the July protests, the Ministry of Communications imposed new regulations where those who use social media to oppose the government or “subvert the constitutional order” risk being charged as “cyberterrorists,” according to the Resolution 105 announced Aug. 17.
That same day, the Cuban government also released a Decree-law 35 ordering that Cubans cannot use the internet or other telecommunication service to “undermine” the country’s security and internal order, or transmit false news, offensive information, or content that affects “collective security, general welfare, public morality and respect for public order.” Internet providers must monitor content and even shut down a user’s services if needed.
Amalia Daché, 44, an Afro-Cuban American scholar and associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said she was shocked to see how the U.S. media and Twitter were taking Afro-Cubans out of the narrative and blaming the U.S. and the CIA for the demonstrations. As a scholar who has been conducting ethnographic research on the complexities that race plays in Cuban culture on the island and for Cuban immigrants in the U.S., Daché saw this as a “slap in the face” and decided to use her platform in academia and activism to help amplify Cuban voices.
Daché and most of those interviewed for this article criticized people who have blamed the U.S. embargo and not the Cuban government for the crisis in Cuba.
“The reason that we can’t blame the embargo for food and for medicine is because the embargo doesn’t limit food or medicine,” Daché said. “The Cuban Government is the one that puts limits on food and medicine. So, when I go to Cuba, we are limited as to how much medicine, we can only bring 10 pounds of medicine and 30 pounds of goods. The rest will be heavily fined.”
Daché said the new restrictions are “a government strategy to make illegal social media dissent that has been the major weapon Cubans have to combat the regime’s lies, falsifications and misinformation they tell Cuban people and the world.”
“Any media containing, for example, videos or photos of Cuban hospitals and the collapse of the health-care system is now punishable under this decree,” said Daché, who has been working with lawmakers in Congress to help with President Joe Biden’s ongoing efforts to provide uncensored internet access to Cubans.
Daché was born in Cuba, but migrated to the U.S. when she was three as a Mariel Boatlift refugee. She said her dad gave her, along with her brother, sleeping medication in case they drowned in the ocean, which occurred on other boats. She has been studying how the “Cuban experience” varies in both countries according to their race, where they live, and how they were able to migrate.
She wasn’t aware of the “Cubanos en Philadelphia” Facebook group, until after the protests in Cuba. Daché and her husband — a Cuban who migrated to the U.S. three years ago — became active members and are seeking to keep the Cuban struggle in at the public thought in Philadelphia. She has helped organize the three Philadelphia protests.
The July 18 rally in Philadelphia on the steps of the Art Museum gathered over 200 protesters, one of the largest protests here by Cubans asking for democracy in their home country.
“It was so beautiful, to see people across all racial lines, ages, and places around Philadelphia,” said Daché, who is working with a graphic designer to further publicize the plight of Cubans on the island.
Anxiety, hope, and banging pots and pans
Jorge Cárdenas, 35, struggled to sleep and eat during the early weeks of protests. He was thinking of Cuba all day, he said. He discovered through the “Cubanos en Philadelphia” Facebook group and other social media, that many others were experiencing the same anxiety.
“I was happy, and at the same time, desperate,” he said.
Cárdenas also experienced a lack of sleep when he first arrived in the U.S. in Tampa, Fla., in 2009. He was 24 and felt like he had “won the lottery.” The nostalgia of not being able to go back to his homeland kept him awake at night for several weeks, until he had a nightmare of being deported from the U.S. and sent back to Cuba — at that moment, he stopped losing sleep over fear.
He, along with his mother and brother, migrated because of the lack of opportunities and basic freedoms in Cuba, said Cárdenas, who moved to Philadelphia a year after arriving in the U.S.
He met more Cubans in Philadelphia when he attended the protests here and even missed his daughter’s seventh birthday to travel to another in Washington, D.C.
After these demonstrations, and protesting for the first time in his life, Cárdenas said he is filled with hope about the future for his country.
Marlene Looney, 62, who was born in Havana eight months after the revolution began, and left Cuba in 1966, says it is the island’s internet access that has allowed Cubans to spread the word about the protests so widely.
When Barack Obama was elected president and visited Cuba, she decided to visit her motherland, the one her parents could never return to.
“When I went there for the first time and reconnected with my family, it was like the island told me ‘you left once, but not this time. You’ll never leave again, you will always return’,” said Looney, who has visited there every year since 2009 except for this year, because of the pandemic.
Looney, a stage 4 ovarian cancer patient, could not risk going to a massive demonstration with the delta variant spreading, so she held her own protests in Lancaster.
With a dozen of her friends, she organized a caravan that traveled through Lancaster, banging pots and pans and calling for the Cuban people to be heard on July 17. The next day, a group of about 75 people protested at Penn Square in Lancaster. With pots, pans and chants, she was able to ask for Cuban voices to be heard.
“I feel a great respect to all those folks who went out on July 11 and I am humbled by their courage,” Looney said, her voice cracking as she fought back tears. “I don’t see the glass half-full, my glass overflows. I look at this as hope, and I wish I could be alive to see that dialogue between Cuba’s citizenry and Cuba’s government happen.”
Mariela Morales, 31, had little hope for Cuba just after the July 11 protests because she had seen a continuing year of violations of human rights and individual rights. Nothing seemed to be resolved and the economy was in crisis, she said.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Morales, a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania and researcher in Cuban communications, who came to the U.S. from Cuba with her family in 2009.
Her family left when her sister was in her last year of law school because the government had just made a change regarding social service for Cubans, requiring law students with a high GPA to take a prosecutor role with the government.
She did her undergraduate thesis at Penn about how some of her fellow journalism students in Cuba had graduated and started alternative journalistic ‘zines and blogs like El Estornudo and Periodismo de Barrio.
She was able to find “catharsis” going to protests in New York City with friends that she hadn’t seen in years and was happy to find community with the majority Cuban neighborhood of West New York.
“I don’t have a lot of hope in the immediate future or in the government, but I have a lot of hope for the Cuban people because we now know they aspire to be free,” said Morales.
“I have faith in what I cannot imagine, because I couldn’t have imagined what happened July 11.”