After stemming historic protests across Cuba by shutting down digital communications this week, the island’s beleaguered Communist government is now beefing up a more traditional way of stifling opposition — citizen spies.
The rapid-response brigades, which are made up of civilian snitches — neighbors, co-workers and plainclothes cops loyal to the regime — are out in force after protesters demanding food, medicine and freedom took to the streets beginning July 11, according to dissident bloggers on the island.
Cuban journalist Yoani Sanchez reported an increase in the activity of the brigades, and “a heavy police presence” on the streets of many large cities across the country on her “Ventana 14” podcast Friday.
“The government lost the street and are using anything they can to stop the protests,” said Ted Henken, a Baruch College sociology professor and expert on Cuba.
The brigades are vigilante organizations first deployed to spy on citizens in the 1990s, at the beginning of the so-called Special Period, when the Soviet Union withdrew its economic support ushering in rationing of food and medicine and leading to a major popular revolt in 1994.
“They never stopped functioning,” said Andy Gomez, the retired dean of International Studies at the University of Miami.
The brigades are often combined with undercover cops, under the control of the Ministry of the Interior, which oversees domestic security and intelligence gathering, he said. Information collected from the brigades are used to target government opponents, many of whom are arrested and tortured, often held for years without due process, Gomez said.
There are thousands of brigade members throughout the island, according to Gomez. Many are fiercely loyal to the regime, while others are forced to sign up to snitch if they want to keep their government jobs.
The spies linked to MININT, as the Ministry of the Interior is known, are universally feared on the island, much more so than the Cuban military, which has never been deployed against Cubans, Gomez told The Post.
“Cuba has never called on the armed forces to put down any social unrest because they consider themselves an army of the Cuban people,” Gomez said.
Since the start of the protests, more than 200 people have been detained, according to human rights groups. Authorities have also raided the homes of dozens of demonstrators who they have identified from videos of the protests, Henken told The Post.
“I was arrested with the same contempt as Hitler treated Jews in Nazi Germany,” said playwright Yunior Garcia Aguillera, a well-known opposition figure, who co-hosts the popular weekly podcast El Enjambre. Garcia, who wrote about his brief detention in a Facebook post Thursday, described how he shared a cell with several other protestors who “were all Cubans, fighting for a free and prosperous Cuba … a Cuba without dictators.”
When protests first spread across Cuba this week, ETECSA, the state telecommunications company, shut down the Internet, accusing the US of funding a cyber-campaign to foment rebellion on the island.
“These days, the US doesn’t need missiles or Marines,” said Bruno Rodriguez, the Cuban foreign minister. “They have bots and automated cyber accounts.”
While the Castro dynasty that ran Cuba since the 1959 revolution officially ended when Fidel Castro’s 90-year-old brother Raul stepped down as leader of the Communist party in April, he is still very much in control, even though Miguel Diaz-Canel is president of the country. “It’s still Castroism without the Castros in charge,” said Henken.
Like the Castros, Diaz-Canel has blamed the uprising on the decades-long US embargo against the island. On Friday he slammed President Biden for calling Cuba “a failed state.”
“A failed state is that which, to please a reactionary and blackmailing minority, is capable of doing damage to 11 million humans,” Díaz-Canel wrote on Twitter. “If President Joseph Biden was really worried about the humanitarian issues facing the Cuban people, he would eliminate the 243 measures imposed by President Trump, including the more than 50 cruelly imposed during the pandemic.”
The advent of the mobile internet in Cuba, which came in December 2018, is the main reason behind the build-up of protests on the island, according to Henken, an editor of the recently published book, “Cuba’s Digital Revolution: Citizen Innovation and State Policy.
“Everyone involved in any protest or march could suddenly document in real time using Twitter and Facebook Live, and no longer needed to be tied to a computer or hotspot,” he said. “It’s a big blow to totalitarianism, which only thrives by keeping people ignorant and isolated.”