DAVE SHERWOOD and MARCH FRANK
A war of words fought in the media and rife with espionage – double agents, wiretaps and hidden cameras – is raging in Cuba ahead of protests planned for November 15, setting up a showdown between the government and a dissident movement that says its most potent weapon is the cellphone.
Dissidents in September requested permission to conduct a “Civic March for Change” in mid-November, following widespread protests on the island in July. The Communist-run government denied that request last month, but protesters say they plan to go ahead anyway.
The government has since launched a media campaign employing tactics favored by former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, leveraging the state security forces to unearth evidence it says proves the organizers are working covertly with the United States to overthrow the government, a charge the protest leaders deny.
Historians and long-time Cuba watchers say November 15 will mark the first real test of the government’s Cold War-era strategies against a movement that is younger and more internet savvy than any before it.
“Clearly, they’ve reverted to their old playbook,” said Paul Hare, a former British ambassador to Cuba during the so-called “Black Spring” in 2003 when Castro jailed 75 dissidents.
But with more Cubans online than ever before, it has become more difficult for the government to dominate the airwaves, Hare said. “They’ve lost the narrative, the battle of ideas, especially with young people.”
A Cuban government spokesperson rejected that argument.
“In Cuba, there is another youth, with many other viewpoints, the majority of which are not considered by international media,” the spokesperson said.
The stakes for Cuba are high, said historian Michael Bustamante of the University of Miami. Protesters plan to march the same day that Cuba reopens its doors to international tourism after a nearly two-year hiatus during the coronavirus pandemic. Tourist revenue is vital to Cuba’s ailing economy.
“This is the moment where the Cuban state is looking to turn the corner on what has been a very bad year… and here you have this group saying ‘no, we are choosing this specific moment to press for political change’,” said Bustamante.
“I think that explains the intensity of the state’s response.”
The call for protests is being led by a Facebook group called Archipielago. It said in a November 3 post on the platform that it has 31,501 members, the majority of which are between 25 and 44 years old.
In a barrage of primetime television news programs on state-run channels, Cuba’s government has used spycraft to question the motives of Yunior Garcia, a Cuban playwright who is the leader of Archipielago.
In a dramatic TV segment aired last week, a cancer doctor in hospital scrubs revealed he was really ‘Agente Fernando,’ a double-agent who for 25 years infiltrated the dissident movement and accompanied Garcia to a workshop to discuss the Cuban military’s role in promoting a transition to democracy.
“Yunior Garcia Aguilera is looking for a confrontation between the armed forces and the people,” Fernando told viewers of the program.
Reuters was unable to reach Fernando, whose real name is Dr Carlos Leonardo Vazquez, for comment.
Garcia told Reuters he recalls Fernando at the workshop but rejected any suggestion he was seeking to violently overthrow the government.
He said he has never taken U.S. funds.
“It is very difficult for the regime to admit that it has deployed all its forces against a group of young people on phones,” Garcia said in an interview at his home in Havana. “They are scared of a public that no longer believes in them and that isn’t afraid to say so on social media.”
Garcia says Cuban authorities have thus leaned on an age-old strategy: blaming the United States.
In another segment, state-run TV aired a phone call in which Ramon Saul Sanchez, a Miami-based exile whom Cuba accuses of being behind a series of terror attacks decades ago, appears to pledge support to Garcia and asks whether he should send a flotilla of boats into waters near Cuba on the day of the planned protests. Garcia is reluctant.
Garcia confirmed the call took place and said it was recorded without his knowledge.
Sanchez, who has denied the terror attack accusations, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Cuban government has said their evidence points to a movement that is looking to topple the leadership and is backed by outsiders.
Such subterfuge is not without precedent. A 1975 U.S. Senate committee report revealed attempts by U.S. spies to kill Castro using “devices that strain the imagination,” including exploding cigars and poison pills. As recently as 2009, the United States backed efforts to create a “Cuban Twitter” to stir unrest on the island.
Nearly half of Archipielago members reside outside of Cuba, according to figures provided by the group. Around one-quarter live in the United States.
The U.S. State Department did not immediately reply to a request for comment. In late October, a department spokesman said the United States supports the right of Cubans to protest but that the rallies were not a “demonstration… of the desires of the United States government.”
The U.S. government has threatened sanctions amid a wave of arrests following the July 11 protests, believed to be the largest since Castro’s 1959 revolution. Cuban authorities say those arrested were guilty of crimes including public disorder, resisting arrest, and vandalism.
Many who have publicly advocated for protests say they have been harassed or put on notice by state security and government supporters in a bid to keep them off the streets next Monday.
It is not clear how many plan to march on Nov. 15, either at home or abroad, nor what the Cuban government’s response will be.
“I think the question is whether Cuba can put the July 11 genie back in the bottle or not,” said Bustamante. “November 15 will be one measure of that.”