Protest in town of Caimanera sends warning message to the Cuban government, activists say

A recent protest in Caimanera, a town in eastern Cuba, has sent a warning to the country’s government of the potential for further unrest this summer if it doesn’t provide urgent solutions to the shortages of food and medicine and a gas crisis that are crippling the economy and bringing the population to the brink of desperation.

Several videos streamed live on social media Saturday evening showed a crowd of residents in the small coastal town, near the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, chanting “Freedom,” “Long Live Free Cuba” and complaining about the lack of food.

“We don’t want more speeches; we want food,” a man says on one of the videos.

To avoid other protests around the island Cuban authorities shut down the internet nationwide, according to Netblocks, an organization tracking internet use. But the move could not prevent the publication of videos showing Cuban military special forces, known as Black Berets, violently detaining demonstrators in what appeared to be a peaceful protest. Family members and civil society groups reported the detention of at least five residents.

Victoria Martínez Valdivia, the mother of two detainees, told the independent news outlet Cubanet that her sons were beaten by the military officers and that she didn’t know where they were taken.

“They kicked him in the head,” she said of her son, Luis Miguel Alarcón Martínez. She added that her sons did not act violently and protested out of desperation after seeing their nephews’ meager food rations.

“They went out because they couldn’t take it anymore,” she said. “Hearing those little creatures say: ‘I’m hungry,’ that led them to protest.”

In a statement, local Caimanera authorities dismissed the protest, the first of such scale this year, as the work of a group of “drunken people.” But experts and activists said the government shouldn’t be so quick in brushing it off, because they believe the demonstration was, in fact, remarkable and signals a potential for more unrest in the coming months.

Observers noted that Caimanera seems an unlikely place for a demonstration of this scale, as the remote town, with a population of just over 11,000 inhabitants, is under close state surveillance and movement-control protocols because of its proximity to the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo Bay.

“If the people can rise up in Caimanera, they can rise up in any part of Cuba,” said Orlando Gutierrez, a human-rights activist and coordinator of the Assembly of Resistance, a coalition of Cuban exile organizations. “Given the amount of control and the number of military families that live there, this is an unprecedented blow to the regime.”

Gutierrez also noted that the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution and several other mass organizations under government control did not act to prevent or counter the demonstration. “They have lost control,” he said.

Cuban historian Oscar Grandío Moráguez also believes that a protest in Caimanera, “the least of probable places,” supports predictions of larger demonstrations this summer.

Despite its location, Moráguez argued, the situation in Caimanera reflects the broader reality in Cuban provinces: “atrocious impoverishment, absolute lack of opportunities and application of state terror with less scrutiny,” he said on Twitter.

Eastern Cuba, where the Sierra Maestra mountains are located, was traditionally considered more supportive of the government than the population in Havana and other regions. It is estimated that Cubans from the eastern provinces comprise a significant part of the island’s military and police forces. For these reasons, some observers speculate, the government has usually directed more resources to address the needs of the population in the Cuban capital and other western cities, leaving the eastern region to suffer the worst of the island’s calamities.

But during the islandwide demonstrations in July of 2021, residents of several eastern cities and towns, including Santiago de Cuba, the country’s second-largest city, joined the uprising.

Caimanera residents protested on the streets despite the knowledge that doing so can be a crime in Cuba, where hundreds remain imprisoned for protesting on July 11, 2021.

Experts have pointed out that the Cuban economy is even worse than in the summer of 2021, and the government has been unable to provide solutions to the lack of food, medicines, gasoline and electrical blackouts that make daily life so difficult for Cubans. Yet, despite the worsening economic situation, the government remains almost unchanged after the National Assembly reappointed its leading figures last month, including the country’s president, Miguel Díaz-Canel.

Cuban economist Pedro Monreal said that, while recent protests might be framed as mainly driven by the economic crisis, they are essentially political, too, as the situation is the direct result of government decisions that resulted in galloping inflation and the devaluation of salaries and pensions.

The Cuban economy requires profound changes that the government will not undertake out of fear of losing political control over the population, Gutiérrez said.

Ultimately, people should listen to what Cubans in Caimanera were demanding, he added.

“What were the people shouting?” Gutierrez said. “Freedom, human rights, down with communism. We should not dismiss or minimize this. What they were demanding were profound changes, a regime change.”