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Cubans protest for greater freedom of expression while government clamps down

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

Tomorrow, Cubans plan to hold public demonstrations in cities across the island, hoping for a repeat of the large protests in July. Artists and pro-democracy activists are calling on people to demand greater freedom of expression. The Cuban government has denied demonstrators permits and says the activists are paid puppets of the U.S. NPR's Carrie Kahn has this report.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: The complaints from Cubans about living conditions and personal freedoms have been heard for decades. But the pandemic has battered the economy. Cuba lost vital tourism dollars, and tough Trump-era sanctions are still in place. Cubans are struggling to get the basics needed for daily life. They're frustrated and increasingly more willing to speak out.

DANIELA ROJO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "We stand firm. We want to march and demand our rights," says 26-year-old Daniela Rojo, reached at her home outside Havana. Rojo is part of a younger generation of Cubans, many of whom are artists, tied to the expanded internet on the island and pushing for change.

ROJO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "The pressure has been intense against those who've called for the marches," says Rojo, a poet and single mother who is part of a Facebook group called Archipelago that applied for the denied demonstration permits. Rojo says members have been called in for police interrogations, fired from state jobs and detained. She spent 23 days in jail after joining in protests on July 11, the largest seen in Cuba in decades. Other dissenting artists say they're being forced to leave the island.

TANIA BRUGUERA: In my case, they proposed me four times to leave Cuba. The last time they even offered to buy the ticket. And I always said no.

KAHN: Tania Bruguera is a Cuban performance artist. She was put under house arrest for 10 months, most of 2021, after participating in an artist demonstration in front of the Ministry of Culture last November in Havana. With police outside her home, she couldn't leave for a new teaching position at Harvard.

BRUGUERA: I told them that I have this opportunity to leave. I know they want me to leave, so I will do it only if they liberate some of my, you know, companions or some of my comrades.

KAHN: Bruguera says, of the list of 46 jailed activists she gave the Cuban authorities, more than 25 were released. But activists say hundreds more remain incarcerated, facing at a minimum public disorder charges that carry a sentence of one year in prison. The rights group Cubalex says nearly 200 more face longer sentences on sabotage and sedition charges.

Last week, speaking to diplomats in Havana, Cuba's foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez, accused those instigating demonstrations of being funded by the U.S. and intent on violence.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRUNO RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "The U.S. government knows that, with its actions, it is provoking instability and violence," Rodriguez said. He said the timing of Monday's march, the same day Cuba will reopen its borders and lift pandemic restrictions, was set to undermine the country's progress and well-being, and that will not be allowed to happen. A top State Department official told reporters Friday that the U.S. is holding the Cuban government accountable and will be monitoring Monday's events. Organizers of the march say they won't be confrontational.

ROJO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "But it's understandable that some people will be too afraid to take to the streets," says organizer Daniela Rojo, who intended to march. Unconfirmed reports this morning say she's been arrested, and NPR has been unable to contact her. Her group has posted several non-confrontational demonstration tips, including banging pots and sitting in public areas dressed in white. Another organizer on Facebook said he'll march alone today along the Havana waterfront holding a single white rose. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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