After one week since the massive protest started on Sunday, July 11th, the Cuban people continue to resist and fight for their human rights and freedom. The shortage of food and medicines, as well as the repression and persecution of artists, journalists and civil rights activists have fueled the discomfort of the people in Cuba.

Interview with John Suarez, Executive Director Center for a Free Cuba

„The protests mark a turning point in Cuba“


Why did the protests in Cuba increase now? What was the trigger and is this related to the Corona crisis?

Spontaneous protests had been increasing over the past few months in Cuba.  The trigger has been that the Cuban government over the past two years has sought to shut down Cuba’s black market. Now they used COVID-19 as a pretext.

On December 28, 2020 Cuba’s Ministry of Health announced that “taking into account the actual national, regional and international epidemiological situation they had decided to reduce the entry of travelers from the United States, Mexico, Panama, the Bahamas, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic.” The measure was made effective on January 1, 2021.

Then, on December 30, the regime’s propaganda machinery was charged with explaining why Cubans (residents both outside and inside the country), and not international tourism, were to blame for the increase in COVID-19 cases in Cuba. They did not mention that the international tourists, in their majority, stayed in hotels run by the Cuban military conglomerate GAESA.

Days earlier on December 24th through official channels some clues of what appeared to be the real reason for limiting the travel of Cuban residents were given. The amount of luggage (with everything that is missing in the country.) bothered officials. In Cuba there is a lack of basic hygiene products, so Cubans returning to the island were carrying up to 6 suitcases when they visited their relatives. The regime complained that it was exceeding the constructive capacities of the air terminals, but due to the regime’s internal blockade goods cannot be imported by  individual Cubans on a commercial basis.

The reason for the closure was related, according to the dictatorship, to COVID-19. But their own data showed another reality. Panama, the Bahamas, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic did not appear among the top 10 countries causing the spread of the pandemic in Cuba.  However both Russia and India that had caused more spread of COVID-19 in Cuba remained open for travel and tourism. This was because these tourists didn’t stay with relatives but in the hotels owned by the Cuban military and its conglomerate GAESA.

Here you have a situation were food and medicine are becoming scarce, and what little is coming in is subject to high tariffs, and tourists arriving from countries with serious COVID-19 epidemics that were infecting Cubans who were not receiving adequate treatment in Cuban hospitals, because the doctors were exported abroad for the profit of the dictatorship to work in other countries. Lastly, the Castro regime refused to sign up for the UN’s covax program for vaccine distribution. Instead they claimed to be developing four of their own that have not been peer reviewed. Vaccinations did not start up in Cuba with the unproven vaccines until June 2021.

Cuba also has a history of not providing accurate statistics on past epidemics. On January 8, 2019 New Scientist reported: “Cuba failed to report thousands of Zika virus cases in 2017,” and the reality, according to Duane Gubler at the Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore, is that “Cuba has a history of not reporting epidemics until they become obvious, and Zika is only mildly symptomatic in adults.” This is also true of COVID-19, although the consequences for those infected are potentially far worse. The official numbers cannot be trusted.

How many people have been arrested (and released again) so far to your information? What do you know about their current situation?

Yoani Sanchez’s news outfit 14ymedio reported 5,000 detained and Cubalex today has identified and reported on over 484 missing or detained. Total numbers are unknown, and information is limited. Some have been released, but face upcoming trials. We have also received three confirmed reports of Cubans killed by the government, but the actual number is probably much higher.

What kind of people are protesting now and what are their main demands?

People are demanding freedom, and an end to the dictatorship, and American flags are seen in the crowd as a symbol of freedom.

The Cuban government is reacting with brutal violence – what do you think should be the international response in order to help the Cuban population?

Democracies around the world need to sanction repressors identified ordering or carrying out violence against Cubans. They need to start with the Cuban president Miguel Diaz Canel, and General Raul Castro who has reappeared, and work their way down to the individuals shooting at unarmed civilians or attacking them with baseball bats. Also companies selling weapons to Havana should also be identified and sanctioned.

Secondly, the international community needs to recognize that it is the internal blockade of the Castro regime that is harming Cubans and not U.S. sanctions targeted against the dictatorship. This can be achieved by targeting the Castro regime’s internal blockade and calling for the lifting of the dictatorship’s restrictions on the Cuban people. Over 20,000 Cubans signed a petition for its end, and it is still available for signature.

Is this a turning point in the Cuban history? What are your hopes and what do you fear?

This does mark a turning point in Cuba, a before and after. This may be the end or the beginning of the end, but that will depend both on international solidarity and the Cubans. It has been a week of brutal repression, and Cubans calling for freedom are still out on the streets of Cuba protesting.  My hopes are that a strong international response and scrutiny will provide a measure of protection to Cubans, and my fear is that if it does not materialize the end of the dictatorship will cost more innocent lives.

The ISHR conducted a prior interview with John Suarez, clic here to read it in German. 

John Suarez is the director of the Center for a Free Cuba in Virginia, USA. Suarez campaigns for human rights in Cuba and has already testified before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights in Washington D.C. and before the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.