Cubans in Calgary on edge after crackdown on the island's largest protests in decades

Cubans in Calgary are concerned for their loved ones in Cuba as dozens of protestors are detained, following the largest anti-government protests in almost 30 years.

‘I’m starting to get very scared for my family because it’s escalating fairly quickly’

Cuban Calgarians held a protest on Sunday at City Hall in solidarity with Cuba’s anti-government protestors. (Submitted by Yisleidys Marrero)

Cubans in Calgary are concerned for their loved ones on the island as dozens of protestors are detained, following the largest anti-government protests in almost 30 years. 

"I'm starting to get very scared for my family because it's escalating fairly quickly," said Cuban Calgarian Alejandro Rodriguez. 

"The military is patrolling the streets, dressed in all black, with massive trucks going down the streets, telling people to stay inside," he said.  

"It's basically martial law over there right now. That's what I've been hearing from my family," he added.  

Alejandro Rodriguez and his wife were protesting the Cuban government at Calgary's City Hall on Sunday. (Submitted by Yisleidys Marrero)

From Havana to Santiago, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets on Sunday to protest a lack of freedoms, major food and medicine shortages, and a foundering economy aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"The Cuban people are calling for change and are protesting for their freedom," said Cuban Calgarian Yisleidys Marrero, whose interview was translated from Spanish to English. 

'Economic asphyxiation' 

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel said in a TV broadcast on Monday that he blames the protests on the United States and its "policy of economic asphyxiation intended to provoke a social uprising." He was referencing the embargo that has been in place since 1962. 

But some Cuban Calgarians say the embargo isn't to blame for the island's worst economic crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union. 

"Cubans know that the reason they're not getting food and medicine is that the government is incompetent, not because of the embargo," said Rodriguez. 

'So much state repression' 

Cuban Calgarians are scared of the repercussions their loved ones are facing. 

Marrero says she hasn't slept in three days. 

"There's so much state repression. The first thing the government did after the people of Cuba took the streets was to remove the internet and electricity," she said. "So that people can't communicate, and the world doesn't find out what's happening in Cuba." 

At least 100 protestors, activists and independent journalists have been detained since Sunday, according to Reuters, which cited exiled rights group Cubalex. 

Yisleidys Marrero held a sign that said 'Dignity For Cuba! Homeland And Life.' (Submitted by Yisleidys Marrero)

"The ex-wife of my friend was beaten up and thrown in jail for protesting peacefully. And she has a kid at home sick with coronavirus," Marrero said. 

Diaz-Canel has called for his supporters to "fight" the protestors. 

"The order to fight has been given — into the street, revolutionaries!" he said during Monday's broadcast.

Rodriguez says some Cubans are being forced to participate in counter-protests.  

"My cousin in Cuba was asked through his work to go beat up the protestors in the streets to make it look like people support the Communist regime," said Rodriguez. "But they called him again today to let him know he will be facing consequences and possibly lose his job if he were not to go." 

'Asking for peacekeeping missions' 

Marrero and Rodriguez are both working on ways to show their support to those in Cuba. 

They both attended a protest on Sunday at Calgary's City Hall to show their solidarity with the civilian protests. 

Rodriguez says Cuban exiles are hoping the UN will send a peacekeeping mission. 

"We're asking for peacekeeping missions so that we can go there and finally assemble, hold elections and see what the people in Cuba want, because they've been silent for 62 years," he said. 

With files from Thomson Reuters