Cuba's regime could be headed for a violent clash with opponents — just in time for tourism season

November 15 will see a banned Civic March for Change launch across Cuba — a protest Communist authorities have threatened to repress with force. It's happening on the same day the island reopens to tourists — many of them Canadian.

Communist regime and opposition to face off the same day the island reopens to tourism

Plainclothes police detain an anti-government protester during a protest in Havana, Cuba, Sunday, July 11, 2021. A nationwide protest is planned for November 15 — the day the island nation reopens for tourism. (Ramon Espinosa/Associated Press)

Manuel Cuesta Morua is used to having police at the door of his home in Havana.

"Sometimes they're there for two days, then they're gone for three, then they're back for three," he told CBC News.

The government also regularly cuts the well-known Cuban dissident's phone and internet service. He's been jailed in the past and the current harassment is not the worst he's suffered. But if the goal is to frighten him, it's working.

"Yes, there's fear," he said. "We try to operate by managing that fear. We have been through so much that we've learned how to control our fears."

Already briefly detained at the end of last month, Cuesta is bracing himself for a possible return to prison as the Civic March for Change, scheduled for November 15, approaches.

"In the case of the organizers, we will probably be detained the day before, or the day of," he said. "They know who we are and where we live, of course. And then we'll probably be put on trial for supposedly violating the constitution."

President Barack Obama meets with Manuel Cuesta Morua (right) and other Cuban dissidents at the U.S. Embassy on March 22, 2016, in Havana, Cuba. To the left are Nelson Alvarez Matute and Miriam Celaya Gonzalez. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/The Associated Press)

Never in the six decades since the revolution has the Communist Party faced such an emboldened opposition. 

Cuesta's Council for a Democratic Transition has tried to avoid giving Cuba's Communist rulers an excuse to use violence on a day both they and their opponents see as a potential turning point in the island's history.

First, the council asked for permission to demonstrate, citing an article of Cuba's constitution that ostensibly guarantees free expression. Permission was denied by citing another article that forbids any attempt to change Cuba's one-party system.

"In its Article Four, it is stated that 'the socialist system endorsed by this constitution is irrevocable,'" responded government official Alexis Acosta Silva. "Therefore any action taken against it is illicit."

The opposition said the march would proceed without permission on November 20. The Communist Party responded by declaring that day a Day of National Defence and ordering the mobilization of armed forces. 

Trying to avoid a showdown with the army, activists moved the date of the march to November 15.

Regime arms neighbourhood committees

But November 15 is also a day loaded with significance for the regime. It's the day Cuba officially reopens for tourism — the mainstay of the island's economy. And Cuba's largest source country for tourists by far is Canada. 

"We are aware of the planned demonstrations and continue to monitor the situation closely," a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada (GAC) told CBC News.

"We've published manuals on peaceful protest so that citizens don't respond to any provocations either from the state or from its followers," said Cuesta. "That could give them the minimal initial motive they need to unleash violence. We're expecting that it could be a violent day."

Cuba's Communist Party already has stepped up harassment of dissidents, fired members of opposition groups from their jobs and warned the broader population against attending the march.

Cuba has armed its local Committees for the Defence of the Revolution in preparation for the Civic March. This group from the José Valdés Reyes railway industrial plant in Cardenas wear t-shirts bearing the Communist Party slogan “Order me."CBC (Twitter)

The government also has organized its neighbourhood Committees for the Defence of the Revolution for combat, arming them with clubs.

On October 25, Cuba's unelected President Miguel Diaz-Canel warned that marchers should expect to be confronted by "revolutionaries."

"The decision is struggle and victory! Close ranks!" he told the Plenary of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party. The protest movement in Cuba was orchestrated by the United States government and think tanks, he claimed. 

"The imperialist strategy is to create the maximum of discontent in our country," Diaz-Canel said.

A beaming Miguel Diaz-Canel looks on as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shakes hands with Raul Castro in Havana on Nov. 16, 2016. Castro introduced Trudeau to the man who would replace him as president two years later. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

State media outlets in Cuba have fulminated against the planned march, accusing opponents of being "lackeys" and "mercenaries" of imperialism.

"They have all the machinery of repression," said Michael Lima Cuadra of Niagara Falls, Ont., who represents the Council for a Democratic Transition in Cuba in this country.

"They are Latin America's oldest dictatorship. They have decades of experience in expelling people from university, from school, from work, threatening people with 'acts of repudiation,' with prison, with character assassination on media."

Like many Cuban-Canadians, Lima Cuadra is wary of the Trudeau government's record on Cuba and notes that Canada has not been vocal about the country's human rights abuses or the lack of democracy.

Both the European Parliament and the U.S. Congress have forcefully condemned the rights abuses and bans on free expression that followed widespread protests against the regime on July 11. Canada's government has not.

'Rebellion has awoken'

"There should be a statement from all political parties in Canada that believe in freedom and democracy that they support the right of the Cuban people to demonstrate and take to the streets," said Lima Cuadra.

"If Canada is a friend of the Cuban people, the best way to show it is by supporting them in their right to peaceful protest."

"Canada strongly advocates for freedom of expression, freedom of movement and the right to peaceful assembly free from intimidation, throughout the world, including Cuba," a spokesperson for GAC told CBC News.

The Cuban embassy in Ottawa said it had no comment.

Lima Cuadra said that even if the protest on November 15 is broken up and its organizers are jailed, the opposition itself won't be broken because it is leaderless and spontaneous.

"The culture of rebellion has been awoken among the population. That's something that has not been seen in decades," he said. "So the people of Cuba now realize they have to unite, they have to demand their rights, and that's the worst nightmare for the Cuban dictatorship."

Welcome back tourists

After a year and a half of pandemic restrictions, Cuba is lifting both quarantine and PCR testing requirements this month as it prepares for a busy schedule of flights from Canada. Cuban officials released a partial list of arrivals by Sunwing and Air Transat.

Already, a few Canadian flights have started arriving in Santa Clara and Holguin, but Havana remains off-limits until November 15. From that point on, said Cuba's Transport Minister Eduardo Rodriguez Davila, Cuba expects over 400 flights a week.

Cuban-Canadians planning to protest here on November 15 say Canadians should stay away.

"If you put a foot in a Cuban resort, you're going to find everything — a buffet full of nutritious food, sandy beaches," said Kirenia Carbonell.

"But if you set foot in the average Cuban's house, or in the local grocery store for Cubans, the disparity between those two scenarios is mind-blowing."

Carbonell grew up without electricity in a rural area of Rafael Freyre, just 7 kilometres from the resort of Guardalavaca, Holguin. Today she's a project manager for the Government of Canada in Gatineau, Quebec.

'The dictatorship is going down'

She said she would prefer to see independent observers travel to the island — not sun-seekers.

"The conditions [Cubans are] living in are deplorable and it's about time the big democracies take a stand against dictatorship and send people to witness what we are talking about," she said.

"I want the Canadian population to know that it's not safe to go to Cuba anymore. The march in Cuba is going to happen. From our side it's going to be a pacific march, however, we know that the regime is not going to answer in a pacific way.

"I think there will be violence. And that is so sad."

Rolando Remedios is arrested during a demonstration against the government of Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel in Havana, on July 11, 2021. (Yamil Lage/AFP via Getty Images)

Dissident Rolando Remedios, out on parole after weeks in prison following the July 11 protests, said Canadians should stay away.

"Don't come," he told CBC News from Havana. "There is no way you can do tourism here in Cuba and not support the dictatorship.

"The dictatorship is going down. We don't know where, when it's going to happen, but I'm sure it will, because the system cannot be reformed at this point. The people don't trust the political figures that hold the power right now. And on Nov 15, despite the repression, which is terrible, and all the fear that has provoked, the people will come out again.

"I'm really hopeful about what's coming."


Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 25 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.


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