Cuban dissident on what’s really going on in Cuba
Cuban security forces surrounded the home of Tania Bruguera, a notorious artist and dissident, on Tuesday. They took her to Villa Marista, a Cuban state security prison known for its detention of political prisoners, where they interrogated her for trying to undermine the Havana government.
After 11 a.m., she was released with three charges against her, which accused her of plotting against the government through protests and performances – and an order to stay at home.
The arrest came amid an unprecedented wave of protests that swept through Cuba, in which thousands of people took to the streets in more than 40 towns – undeterred by police crackdown and closure Internet by the government – calling for freedom and an end to the 62-year-old dictatorship.
In Washington, the protests pose an unexpected challenge for President Joe Biden, who has signaled to liberalize relations but risks losing more Cuban voters in Florida if he is seen as anything but harsh on his Communist government.
Bruguera, a renowned installation and performance artist, did not join the protests. She stayed at home, where she was largely confined the last eight months with an almost constant police presence posted in front of his apartment in Havana.
Twice this week, however, she spoke to POLITICO, offering a longtime dissident’s take on what’s going on in Cuba, why these protests are so different from what happened before – and what that Americans on the left and on the right are wrong about Cuba.
This conversation has been condensed and edited from interviews, in Spanish and English, with Sabrina Rodriguez and Teresa Wiltz of POLITICO staff.
What sparked the protests and what is happening now:
Why is this happening? It is an accumulation. It’s not just Covid-19. The people believed in the revolution, following the government’s mandate to sacrifice themselves. But people are tired of government abuse.
Cubans stand in line for eight hours just to get a piece of bread. And at the same time, the housing situation is worse. People said, âEnough. Â»â¦. They see people in power and their children living the good life. A few months ago, Fidel’s grandson [Castro] made a video in a Mercedes Benz, showing off his life in a very arrogant way as people starve.
[The day the protests started], a friend texted me and said, “You gotta see this.” And then another friend called saying, “Look at this.” It was then that I saw the scene in San Antonio de los BaÃ±os [a town about 20 miles southwest of Havana, where the islandwide protests began]. And so the news spread: people were calling each other in different provinces, telling each other what was going on.
Then the government quickly shut down the Internet. And hand in hand with the blackout, they started spreading fake news.
But I had seen it before: it was just surreal. It was very, very, very powerful to see people screaming and saying, âI’m not afraid.
The truth is, I was pretty calm at first. But when I started to have internet access and saw all the the videos are coming beatings, the police hitting and shooting people, it really hit hard. Because these are images that you would never imagine leaving Cuba. It’s something you never expect to see from Cuba.
We saw 10 policemen beat a young child. We saw special forces enter a neighborhood and shoot when not everyone was armed.
How the Cuban government reacts:
the government has created a very sophisticated disinformation process. They start by saying that the people who protested were revolutionaries who were confused. Later they said [the protesters] were delinquents. Now they say [the protesters] are people who want the US government to invade Cuba.
And now they’re desperate to find leaders [of the protests]. They want to blame someone who is useful to them, who they can say has been paid by the CIA. They went house by house holding [people]. They are desperate to find a leader to blame for everything. They must find an enemy. But this time it doesn’t work. It cannot be said that the 16-year-old from the protest was paid by the CIA. He probably doesn’t even know what the CIA is, come on.
There are 500 people who have been identified who are missing. Missing means we don’t know what prison they are in, where they are being held.
There is the mothers who do not know where their children are. [Some have been able to find] where they’ve been – gone to the prisons – and they won’t let them see their children. I heard from a friend who saw a friend of ours being held in a prison. His nose was broken and his ribs bruised. His mother went there and they wouldn’t let her see him.
In addition, the government watched the videos online and located where they were taken and visited these people’s homes to take them, harass them and pressure them to remove the videos. I was speaking to an activist today who told me she has spoken to several mothers who say government officials told them their sons will not be released until they kill [the] The Facebook photos and videos they uploaded. All of this only makes matters worse.
Those in power do not want to take responsibility. The government does not want to take responsibility … for the consequences of the decisions it has made. So they are trying to find an enemy outside.
Why this moment is different for the Cuban people:
Right now, everyone – all 11 million of us – knows someone who has been to the protests, or knows someone who knows someone who has been to the protests. Everyone has had the opportunity to check stories and disbelieve what is being said on TV.
Every person who has been unfairly detained, every person who first felt that feeling of freedom, every person who has now felt what it is like during a demonstration to shout what you want, what you feel , what you remembered – there is no going back.
Today there are thousands of Cubans who cannot go back. Yes, the government is going to threaten them and do what they always do – scare them, treat them legally, make them feel like they can’t leave their homes. But in my experience, it was a step forward that I don’t see going back.
The demonstration is more important than anything Raul and Fidel Castro have been able to organize. But it was completely spontaneous. There is no leader, no opposition group that is capable of doing something like this. You can see it. And they were peaceful. Of course, some people broke into grocery stores and converted police cars as well.
Yet the message from the people was very clear: [Vandalizing] food stores mean they are hungry and have no way of accessing food. And turning over the police cars is to say that they have had enough of the police abuse. People spoke very clearly.
What people want is to live a prosperous life with rights.
I think the older generation got used to living in a cage and maybe if you take the cage off they don’t know anything else. But the youngest know clearly that there are two options: either they fight for their rights or it is another lost generation. And it was very moving to see these people.
The majority of those arrested are young people, many under the age of 21. They say, âWell, before I give up I’m going to fight. “
And I think that’s what people want: prosperity. Being able to think about more than “What am I going to eat today?” Or that “I have to stand in line for eight hours to buy bread.” People want to do more with their lives.
What Americans don’t understand about Cuba:
I am part of the left and let me tell you that this is not socialism. It is neoliberal state capitalism.
The American left must understand that Cuba is no longer a paradise for social justice. It is a dictatorship. And the US government should be on the side of the Cuban people. I would tell American politicians to be on the side of the people and not believe the fake news and stories the government creates.
Because, look, the Cuban people have endured 60 or 61 years of embargo and none of this has happened before. So what does the embargo have to do with it? Nothing.
What does the embargo have to do with police beating a young child? What does the embargo have to do with special forces shooting unarmed Cubans? What does the embargo have to do with [President Miguel Diaz-Canelâs] order for people to go and defend the revolution in the streets? These are the questions I ask myself.
Yes, of course, the embargo has had an impact. But the situation we find ourselves in today is caused by the Cuban government.
Now, on the other side, US military intervention is not a good answer. The fate of the Cuban people is in the hands of the Cuban people. And the second where a second country – and an intervention, in particular – is in the picture, that’s not going to help.
First, [a military intervention] would support some of the Cuban government’s claims. And second, I know, incredibly, it could influence people. This means that many of those who are against the government today would close ranks and join the government. [to stand against U.S. intervention].
I don’t see it as a good solution. I think we have to put pressure on the Cuban government so that it has no other alternative but to give rights to Cubans.
And I believe other countries can help, by telling the Cuban government that it has to meet certain conditions to do business. Because the Cuban government is very good at posing as the victim internationally – the victim of the embargo, the victim – air quotes – mercenaries in Cuba, the victim of anything to get sympathy that translates into money and help. It must end.
The world must stop seeing the Cuban government as a victim. The Cuban government is the aggressor.
Tania Bruguera is a Cuban installation and performance artist. She has lived and worked between New York and Havana and her work is in the permanent collections of many institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Bronx Museum of the Arts and the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana.