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As protests continue in Cuba, activists worry US aid may offer a lifeline to the government

By Nora Gamez Torres – The Miami Herald

With many homes across the country without electricity or water for four days, residents of Havana blocked some of the city’s main avenues and banged pots and pans on Saturday, the third day of demonstrations following the collapse of the electrical grid after hurricane Ian battered the island early this week.

On Saturday morning, women banged pots and stopped traffic in Calzada del Cerro, one of the city’s central avenues. Another group blocked a street in the opposite side of the city, in Guanabacoa.

Amid the unrest, a Wall Street Journal report that the island’s authorities have asked the Biden administration for assistance to help respond to the devastation left by Hurricane Ian in western Cuba has further unnerved activists and Cuban exiles, who fear any aid channeled through the government would allow it to contain the largest protests since July last year without making the political changes many Cubans desire.

“This is a message for President Biden: Do not not stabilize the communist regime of Cuba, Russia’s main ally in the Western Hemisphere.,” said Orlando Gutiérrez, the coordinator of Asamblea de La Resistencia, a group of several Cuban exiles organizations based in Miami.

“If American humanitarian aid is going to be sent to Cuba, let it be by institutions that are not under the control of the regime such as the Catholic Church, the Evangelical Churches and the Great Masonic Brotherhood, or by the multiple dissident groups throughout the Island. The regime has too long a history of stealing, wasting and diverting humanitarian aid from abroad.”

On the island, dozens of videos circulating on social media before Cuban authorities shut down the internet late Friday evening show crowds demonstrating in different spots around the capital and blocking main avenues like Boyeros, 31st Avenue and Monte.

In one of the videos of the protest in the neighborhood of Playa, the crowd quickly went from demanding electricity to calling for “Libertad” — freedom.

A woman watching the multitude marching on 31st Avenue, forcing police patrols to retreat, couldn’t hide her amazement.

”It is very emotional to see this,” she is heard saying in one of the videos. “What are they going to do?” she asked, referring to the police cars. “They have to leave. How wonderful!”

But as the protests continued on Friday night, Cuban authorities cut internet service on the island.

“Confirmed: Real-time network data show internet has been cut in Cuba for the second evening in a row; metrics show a collapse in connectivity after 8 p.m. local time amid protests over poor conditions and power cuts worsened by Hurricane Ian,” Netblock, a London-based internet observatory that tracks disruptions, published on Twitter. Internet traffic returned on early Saturday after a seven-hour interruption, Netblock said.

Previously, following protests on Thursday afternoon and evening in Havana and other cities, Cuba’s telecommunications state company, Etecsa, had suspended the service too.

Activists fear the Cuban government is shutting down internet access to stop the images of the protests from spreading further or hide incidents of state violence. So far, the available images show that the protests have been peaceful, and demonstrators have tried to make that clear to authorities.

“Zero violence, lights and water,” protesters in Playa chanted.

The videos also show heavy police deployment, but so far the available images do not show the kind of violent crackdown ordered by the government during the protests last year, perhaps because the Cuban government fears the international backslash and ruining the prospects of improving relations with the United States.

It could also be that the crackdown is happening while the internet is down and the images are not public yet, some activists believe.

New images that came out on Saturday morning show a pro-government group armed with sticks, likely Rapid Response Brigades or military recruits, running and chanting pro-government slogans in what also seems to be the Playa neighborhood where the demonstrations were taking place during Friday evening.

But with so many Cubans without phone and internet access, or power to charge their devices, it is difficulty to know the actual situation, said Salomé García, an activist with Justicia 11J in Miami, a group tracking the arrests of anti-government demonstrators and activists. She is worried about the fate of human-rights defenders and independent journalists, and pointed to a report that activist Yoel Acosta Gámez was arrested in Baracoa, a city in eastern Cuba.

“The activists and sources of Justice 11J in Cuba have been almost totally incommunicado for 48 hours, due to the combination of internet and electricity cuts,” García said. “Internet shutdowns are a serious human rights violation, especially during a national emergency, because they prevent people from accessing information and asking for help.”

Amid the uncertainty, the Wall Street Journal reported Friday that Cuban authorities requested emergency assistance from the Biden administration following the devastation left by Ian in western Cuba, where at least three people died and hundreds lost their homes. Cuba regularly accuses the U.S. of plotting to overthrow the island’s government and in the past Cuba has refused donations from the U.S., making the current request even more remarkable.

The U.S. State Department said the two governments are communicating about the devastation left by the hurricane but did not say if Cuba formally requested the aid.

A spokesperson said “the U.S. continues to communicate with the Government of Cuba regarding the evolving humanitarian and environmental consequences of both Hurricane Ian and the Aug. 5 fire in Matanzas, and we are evaluating ways in which we can continue to support the Cuban people, consistent with U.S. laws and regulations.”

While the Biden administration has kept in place some of the sanctions against Cuba imposed by the previous administration, including maintaining Cuba on the list of countries that support terrorism, it has eased some restrictions on travel and remittances. The administration re-established high-level talks with the Cuban government earlier this year in hopes of curbing the mass exodus from the island. After a fire ravaged an oil storage facility in Matanzas in August, U.S. experts also provided technical advice to their counterparts on the island.

For a while, pro-engagement activists have been urging both governments to find areas of cooperation to improve relations. Some are already encouraging the Biden administration to deliver humanitarian aid to the island.

But that possibility has been instantly rebuked by some Cuban and Cuban American activists.

“I feel the cause of democracy and respect for human rights in Cuba would be betrayed if the State Department agrees to give oxygen to a regime that expels, represses and imprisons” critics, Cuban activist Saily González said on Twitter.

The Democracy Movement said in a statement that President Biden “should not fall for the advice of those who advocate for engaging with the Cuban regime in the hope that the regime, if given the right resources, will stop the massive exodus from Cuba.”

The exile organization called instead for the administration to provide unrestricted internet access to the island.

Cuban art historian and activist Carolina Barrero likened providing aid to the government to giving it to authoritarian leaders like Vladimir Putin in Russia or Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, and helping “the Castro regime to perpetuate itself,” she said on Twitter.

“What Cubans ask for is freedom.”


© 2022 Miami Herald

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Source: American Military News