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Resistance and Repression in Cuba

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During a visit to Moscow in 1991, members of the Cuban-American National Foundation had a quiet meeting with a top KGB official.

Diego Suarez,

who was at that meeting, told me last week by phone from Miami that, in the KGB man’s opinion, Havana’s internal-security apparatus was more sophisticated than the Kremlin’s.

A former senior U.S. official told me on Wednesday that when he and others met with the same KGB general—

Oleg Kalugin

—in Washington in 2001, he told them that the machine controlling the Cuban police state was more “effective” than the Soviet system had been.

This testimony is worth contemplating in the wake of unprecedented antigovernment demonstrations across Cuba last week. The island’s rich ruling elite have spent decades cultivating a monstrous, merciless state-security structure for occasions such as this. Now it has unleashed a wave of terror on the island that would make Stalin blush.

Watching the Interior Ministry and the military do their dirty work, it’s hard to believe regime collapse is imminent. Yet last week’s protests overwhelmed a network that is supposed to be airtight. The breadth of the uprising reveals a nation at the breaking point. Any lingering pretense of regime legitimacy has been shredded—at home and abroad.

On July 11 in the municipality of San Antonio de los Baños, some 22 miles from Havana, a group of pro-democracy activists launched a protest. It was far from the first of its kind. This column has been documenting the work of Cuban dissidents for more than two decades. But on that Sunday something new happened.

Cuba’s internal security is constructed in concentric circles. Closest to home, there is the “committee to defend the revolution,” which has spies in every nook of life and rewards them for ratting out “counter-revolutionaries.” Next there are regime-controlled activists and “rapid response brigades” to meet and punish anyone who ventures outside to protest.

According to

Maria Werlau,

executive director of Cuba Archives, the ratio of secret police to the population is higher than it was under the Stasi in East Germany. National police, shock troops and elite-trained military squads are another layer of defense.

With Big Brother everywhere, Cubans are taught to tremble before authority and to keep nonconforming thoughts to themselves. Yet in a flash on that day, large numbers of ordinary Cubans made the decision to raise their voices against their oppressors. The outcry spread as if a fuse had been lit. The fear factor failed.

The regime was caught off guard. It shouldn’t have been. The island was simmering with discontent before 2020, but Covid-19 has put regular privation on steroids and exposed the injustice of a system in which the Communist Party enjoys lavish privileges and everyone else grovels for crumbs.

A further unprecedented development: What was happening in San Antonio de los Baños didn’t stay there. Images of Cubans chanting “liberty” and “down with communism” went viral. Within hours, thousands were marching in more than 30 cities. Some reports say that the protests extended to 60 towns and municipalities.

Dictator

Miguel Díaz-Canel

loaded up buses with trained military hit men and sent them, dressed in civilian clothing and carrying metal bars and sticks, to attack the demonstrators. They chased, beat and dragged citizens in the streets. Uniformed enforcers, some dressed in riot gear, were also used. Some fired weapons. One man was killed.

In the aftermath of the marches there were home-to-home searches for enemies of the revolution. Democracy advocates on the island say some 5,000 people have been arrested and the whereabouts of nearly 200 are unknown. Arrests include important dissident leaders like

José Daniel Ferrer

and

Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara

and the journalist

Henry Constantin.

Many protesters were young. They knew their demands would be answered with brutality. They went out anyway, out of desperation, hoping that someone in power would hear their pleas.

Some have. The nephew of

Gen. Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Calleja,

who sits atop the military’s tourism conglomerate, uploaded a video last week condemning repression and calling for change. Some intellectuals and artists quit their associations with the regime, including film director

Carlos Lechuga,

who on Facebook called the president a murderer. Speculation is rampant that family members of the ruling elite are heading out of the country.

The corrupt former president of Brazil,

Lula da Silva,

is blaming the U.S. trade embargo for the events. That’s either stupid or evil. Cubans want liberty and justice.

More blood will be shed. But the financially and morally bankrupt authorities won’t be able to feed their security apparatus indefinitely.

The six-decade lie that the revolution produced well-being and equity has been laid bare. What Cubans—and the world—have seen cannot be unseen.

Write to O’Grady@wsj.com.

In response to the July 11 uprising in Cuba, President Miguel Diaz-Canel initiated an internet blackout to prevent anti-government protestors use of social media to energize the people. Image: Yamil Lage/AFP via Getty Images

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