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Why are Cubans protesting? Examining the nation’s disappointment with the Communist Party

Police are out in force tonight in Havana, Cuba, after thousands of protesters rose up Sunday, taking to the streets across the country in the largest demonstrations against communist rule in a generation. Nick Schifrin begins our coverage, and talks to Lillian Guerra, a professor of Cuban history at the University of Florida, about the country's political developments.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    In Cuba, police are out in force tonight in the capital, Havana, after thousands of protesters rose up Sunday.

    They took to the streets across the country, in the largest demonstrations against communist rule in a generation.

    Nick Schifrin begins our coverage.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On the streets of Havana, thousands of Cubans walked to the center of the capital to demand their freedom.

  • Geovanis Gonzales (through translator):

    We are here because of the repression against the people. They are starving us to death. We have no house. We have nothing. But they have money to build hotels.

  • Pedro Del Cueto (through translator):

    Homeland and life. Down with the dictatorship. Down with the Castros. Down with the communist dogs.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    They filmed on their phones and spread the call to demonstrate via Internet they have only recently been able to access, first San Antonio de los Banos, south of Havana, and then to hundreds of cities throughout the country.

    It wasn't all peaceful. Ninety miles east of Havana, protesters overturned a cop car. In response, police arrested dozens, and plainclothes officers administered the state's justice.

  • Michel Rodriguez (through translator):

    State security beat me and my daughter. They beat us because we were walking down the street.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The nationwide release of anger from protesters willing to personally yell at Cuba's president, the product of acute shortages of COVID vaccines and other medicines, despite a COVID outbreak, and more Cubans getting sick, anger over inflation that could hit 500 percent this year.

    And because of Trump administration sanctions, Cubans no longer have access to remittances that were once their second largest source of income. But it's also the product of longstanding outrage over an economy that for years failed to lift up working-class Cubans.

    Yesterday, Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel accused demonstrators of being U.S. sellouts. Today, he blamed the 70-year-old U.S. trade embargo.

  • Miguel Diaz-Canel (through translator):

    Lift the blockade, and we will see what our people are capable of.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But in the White House today, President Biden took the protesters' side.

  • President Joseph Biden:

    The Cuban people are demanding their freedom from an authoritarian regime. The United States stands firmly with the people of Cuba as they assert their universal rights.

    And we call on the government, the government of Cuba, to refrain from violence.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    It's been 27 years since Cubans protested en masse. But those demonstrations were only in Havana. Yesterday's protests were across the country, spontaneous, and leaderless.

    And to talk about the significance of these protests, we turn to Lillian Guerra, professor of Cuban history at the University of Florida.

    Lillian Guerra, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    So, how historic were yesterday's demonstrations?

  • Lillian Guerra:

    Well, they were really unprecedented.

    We have not seen anything like this in 60 years or more in Cuba. They are not just extraordinary in their magnitude, but they are also geographically vast in terms of the numbers of cities and places where they have taken place.

    And the quality of people's denunciation, the diversity of voices, but also that people are openly calling this a dictatorship, and today even calling for the end of communism openly in Holguin, which is far eastern Cuba, this is all really uncharted waters.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    We reported some of Cubans' most recent concerns over COVID, over medical shortages, inflation, but also long-term economic hopelessness.

    What do you think lead to yesterday's demonstrations?

  • Lillian Guerra:

    I think this is a culmination of three decades of the Cuban government making reforms that really have most served its own stabilization and consolidation of control over the capitalist sector of the economy that was created by the Communist Party in 1991, really because of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the need to do something to maintain power.

    So what we have is a lot of anger. We have now multigenerational disappointment with the lack of change. And, most recently, we have a lot of hypocrisy on the part of the Cuban state that claims it is so humanitarian and so interested in its people's welfare, but really has not even been able to supply people with Tylenol and basic food, and also will not admit — and that is the real — the key here, that the new leadership and the old leadership have held hands.

    And they will not admit that anything is wrong with their model or their one-party rule.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, in fact, today, we have seen the Cuban government blamed United States for these protests, also shut off some access to the Internet.

    Do you believe the government is willing to make some of the changes that are required to respond to those longer — more medium- and long-term concerns expressed by the population?

  • Lillian Guerra:

    I think that they are very unwilling.

    In April, the Cuban Communist Party held its latest Congress. They said at the Congress that they were committed to the idea that social media and the Internet and all the means by which Cubans are expressing them are an affront to the nation, that they are anti-Cuban and that they are a source of subversion.

    So, that was several months ago, yes, but, so far, the tune has not changed. And the story line has pretty much gotten narrower, as Miguel Diaz-Canel has gone on television accusing those protesting of being vulgar criminals, of being mercenaries.

    And none of that is believable. The people who are protesting are your neighbors, the people you know. There are people of all backgrounds. And the diversity of that community of Cubans in every place that they are protesting makes it really difficult for this to be discredited according to the traditional means.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Candidate Biden promised to lift some of the Trump administration actions on Cuba. The Biden administration is close to finalizing its Cuba policy.

    Let me play you a clip from an interview I did earlier today with Mike Gonzalez. He's a Heritage Foundation senior fellow who says, after these protests, the Biden administration should not open up to the Cuba.

  • Mike Gonzalez:

    I think this is now off the table, because it will be widely seen and it will be a lifeline to a thuggish, murderous totalitarian regime that has been rejected by its own people.

    So I don't see how Biden can send back an ambassador or lift punitive measures that Trump imposed.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Lillian Guerra, what do you think the Biden administration should do following yesterday's protests?

  • Lillian Guerra:

    I really think that they should do the opposite of what this gentleman just suggested.

    If he were to take a position of loosening the embargo or doing the kinds of things that Obama did that really poked holes into it, that would really call the Cuban state's bluff. I mean, all I can say is that everything that is going wrong in Cuba is the result of the United States and the United States' blockade, as they call it, the embargo, when Cubans on the ground know that it's really what they say is the internal blockade.

    I mean, that phrase has been used now for more than 30 years to describe the kinds of controls that the Communist Party exercises. And so I think we need to stop being the aggressor. We need to stop taking on the scripted role that has been our role since 1960, at least 1961. It's time to be a radical friend of the Cuban people, even as we maintain our criticisms and perhaps some of our sanctions certainly against the Revolutionary Armed Forces.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And that debate over U.S. policy continues.

    Lillian Guerra, thank you very much.

  • Lillian Guerra:

    Thank you.

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