Cuba reopens to tourism as threat of protests looms

By Marc Frank and Nelson Acosta

HAVANA, November 15 (Reuters)Cuba reopened its schools and borders to international tourism on Monday as opposition groups urged supporters to demonstrate for greater political freedoms, creating a tense confrontation between the government and its critics on the Caribbean island.

For months, dissidents have been calling on social media for a “Civic March for Change” following street protests in July, the largest on the island in decades.

Cuba’s communist government banned the protests scheduled for Monday, saying they are part of a destabilization campaign led by the United States, which maintains an embargo on Cuba during the Cold War. US officials have denied this.

Islanders did not report any major gatherings at noon local time, but dissidents continued to call on social media to launch protests at 3 p.m. (2000 GMT) in 10 cities across Cuba, from the capital Havana to Pinar del Rio and Guantanamo.

In Havana, there was a noticeable increase in the number of plainclothes and uniformed police officers, although the streets seemed quieter than normal as some parents kept their children at home.

“I decided to keep my 6-year-old house from its first day of school because I was afraid something might happen,” said Jennifer Puyol Vendesia, a civil servant.

Protests planned for Sunday by a Facebook group called Archipielago, which led the call to protest, fizzled out.

Government supporters surrounded the Havana home of Yunior Garcia, playwright and leader of the archipelago, on Sunday. This prevented him from walking alone, as he had planned, to rely on peaceful marches.

Neither Garcia nor his wife answered the phone on Monday. Garcia’s neighborhood was quiet and his apartment building was still covered in Cuban flags that government supporters had hung on the roof the day before, according to a Reuters witness.

Garcia and others had called on Cubans to applaud in support of their movement on Sunday afternoon and hit pots in the evening, but residents of Havana and several provincial towns said their neighborhoods remained quiet.

Dissenters call on Cubans again to hit pots on Monday at 8 p.m.

The timing of the protests – the same day that tourism and schools are expected to reopen in the wake of the pandemic – has touched the government.

State security and pro-government supporter groups have been monitoring the homes of prominent dissidents since Monday morning, according to human rights groups and social media reports.

On Monday morning, Saily Gonzalez, another leader of the archipelago, posted a video on Facebook that appeared to show government supporters rallying outside his Santa Clara home. In the video, the group, some dressed in red in support of the government, called her a traitor and warned her against the march. Gonzalez yelled back, telling them that she would walk despite their threats.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday condemned the Cuban government’s “intimidation tactics” ahead of the planned march and vowed that Washington would seek “responsibility” for the crackdown.

“We call on the Cuban government to respect the rights of Cubans, allowing them to assemble peacefully (…) and keeping Internet and telecommunications lines open,” Blinken said in the statement.

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez responded on Twitter, telling the United States to stay out of Cuban affairs.

Eunice Pulles, wearing a white shirt on a Havana street to show her support for the dissident movement, said she believed most would be too intimidated by police and government supporters to join her in protesting .

“There will be no protests because people are afraid that we will be repressed,” she said.

(Report by Marc Frank and Nelson Acosta in Havana, edited by Dave Sherwood and Rosalba O’Brien)

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