University of Miami faculty and students respond to crisis in Cuba

A young boy waves the Cuban flag during a march on July 11th on Calle Ocho in Miami, Florida in support of the protests in Cuba.
A young boy waves the Cuban flag during a march on July 11 on Calle Ocho in Miami, Florida in support of the protests in Cuba. Photo credit: Vanessa Bonilla

An ongoing struggle for liberty in Cuba has spurred an outpouring of support for Cuban demonstrators from the University of Miami community.

“Now is the time for all of us to come together in support of those whose heritage has contributed so much to the U,” said university President Julio Frenk in a message to UM on July 16.

On July 11, Cubans poured into the streets of every province across the island. The anti-government demonstrations protested the rising inflation, widespread food and medicine shortages and rolling blackouts that have afflicted the Cuban populace under President Miguel Diaz-Canel’s leadership. The government responded to the dissidence by cutting mobile internet access, censoring social media and deploying police into major cities across Cuba.

“The protests that we saw on July 11 are the result of a, I think, composite of factors,” said Michael Bustamante, an associate professor of history at UM and historian of modern Cuba. “It’s not just one thing or another.”

As of July 13, Amnesty International had compiled a list of 150 detained activists and protestors. Local human rights groups have compiled lists with numbers as high as 187 detained. Inconsistent internet and cellular connection in Cuba have complicated efforts to provide an accurate count of those detained throughout the country.

Grocery stores across Cuba have hour-long lines filed out their doors, pharmacies are without medicine as basic as aspirin and electricity blackouts have become more frequent and long-lasting.

Inflation in Cuba is estimated to be up 500% and rising this year, as tourism, a pillar of Cuba’s economy, is down 90% from this time last year, according to Reuters. And as COVID-19 infection rates soar across the country and vaccination efforts lag at only 18.8% fully vaccinated according to The Washington Post, the unrest among Cuban’s has come to a boiling point.

“The grievances that people are demanding are not only economic, they’re political,” Bustamante said. “There are demands for political change, a more open form of economic management and a more open political system and one kind of grievance breeds into the other.”

Cuban-Americans and the UM community have found many ways to engage in supporting these efforts in Cuba.

Alfred Labrada-Aleman, a Cuban-American senior studying computer science at UM, has been involved in demonstrations and advocacy in support of these protests in Cuba.

When Labrada-Aleman heard the news about the protests on July 11, he said he was simultaneously enraged and filled with Cuban pride. He quickly took to the streets, joining a large march on Calle Ocho outside of the famous Versailles restaurant in support of demonstrations on the island.

“I am someone who is very proud of their heritage,” Labrada-Aleman said. “The Cuban people have had enough and now they’re fighting back.”

Labrada-Aleman says that he hopes that the demonstrations in Cuba and abroad will bring more awareness to the oppression of Cubans. He says that this awareness may not result in political change, let alone a change in regime, but that these efforts may encourage foreign intervention.

“The regime is not going to go out without bloodshed,” Labrada-Aleman said. “No matter what we do, they will fight tooth and nail.”

As Diaz-Canel’s regime holds a tight grip of power in Cuba, Labrada-Aleman says he doubts there is much that civilians can do from Miami other than ensure the world hears of the atrocities taking place in Cuba.

However, Bustamante says that foreign intervention is not the solution to Cuba’s problems.

“It’s not, importantly, what Cubans on the streets or Cuban civil society activists are asking for. They know that that kind of talk feeds into a narrative that attempts to be dismissive of what they’re doing as simply a product of some sort of foreign provocation,” Bustamante said. “Cuba’s future needs to be decided by Cubans.”

Bustamante says that to understand Cuba is to understand both the diversity of its population and its ideologies. It is essential to listen to what the Cuban people want, he says, and to encourage an open dialogue in which differing perspectives have a place in deciding the future of Cuba.

Although Bustamante disagrees with supporters of foreign intervention, he encourages both students and faculty to support organizations that are providing aid to the island.

“There are organizations and institutions that do really solid work supporting communities that are really in need right now,” Bustamante said. “Contribute to those efforts because they’re important.”

Similarly, Sydney Stropes, president of the Federación de Estudiantes Cubanos, says that she hopes for the guarantee of basic human rights for Cubans in the near future.

Stropes, a junior at UM double majoring in nursing and healthcare and religion, encourages all members of the UM community to engage with the FEC to learn about and support the Cuban community.

“I think the road ahead is a long one and one that will not be easy for anyone, but I hope that there is a better tomorrow,” Stropes said. “I want the Cuban people to live a life filled with happiness, comfort and health.”

The Federación de Estudiantes Cubanos is a non-profit organization at the University of Miami that strives to provide support to UM’s Cuban population. Students interested in joining or learning about the FEC can visit their Facebook page here.