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Cuban government vowed to prevent today's planned march

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In Cuba, opponents of the government urged citizens to put on white shirts and march in the streets. Activists and artists attempted to get permits in cities across the island for today's planned march, but they were denied, and they've been facing detentions, heavy surveillance and intimidation by the government security forces. Organizers of the march had hoped large protests, like those that erupted in July - the largest seen in decades in Cuba - would repeat today. We're joined now by NPR's Carrie Kahn, who's been talking to opposition leaders in the run-up to today's protest. Welcome back, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Thank you.

CORNISH: The march was supposed to take place or scheduled to take place at 3 p.m. today. Did Cubans actually make it out onto the streets?

KAHN: On social media, I have not seen marchers out on the street. The few videos and photos posted are mostly of pro-government supporters prohibiting organizers from going out and police outside some key organizers' homes who've also have their internet and phone lines cut. The same thing happened during the July protests, and it took days for the internet to be fully restored and for videos and photos to circulate, so I just think it's going to take time before we really know all that happened this afternoon.

CORNISH: Tell us more about the organizers - who they are and some of their demands.

KAHN: Sure. Many are young artists and activists - very active on Cuba's relatively new internet. They want an end to censorship and want freedom of expression. Many are upset about Cuba's economy. People line up for hours daily just to get food, for gas. Electricity outages are very frequent. The economy has just been battered by the pandemic and tough Trump-era sanctions that are still in place. Many are also demanding that hundreds arrested after those July protests be released. I spoke with Daniela Rojo last week. She's a 26-year-old single mother of two and is part of this online group called Archipelago, and they called for the march through their Facebook page.

DANIELA ROJO: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: She says organizers have just faced harsh retaliation from the government - police interrogations, arrests, firings from state jobs. And I talked to Rojo on Friday. A few hours later, she was picked up and has not been seen since.

CORNISH: How does the government respond to all of this?

KAHN: Well, they say, as they usually do about dissidents, that organizers are just paid puppets of the U.S. trying to destabilize Cuba. They say the story today should have been all about the successes Cuba has made during the pandemic. COVID restrictions were lifted today, schools reopened. Tourists can now come to Cuba without quarantining. Cuba manufactured its own COVID vaccine and has vaccinated nearly 70% of the population. Here's Cuba's Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez, speaking on Friday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRUNO RODRIGUEZ: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: He said that there's no way that Cuba will allow this persistent aggression by the U.S. to continue or to dampen the achievements of the government.

CORNISH: What do you feel is different about the demonstrations this time around?

KAHN: Well, back in July, the marches really took the government by surprise. They were spontaneous. And this time, organizers gave advanced notice, and it was just a bold gamble. And it gave the government a lot of time to prepare, and the security forces have really struck hard. For example, yesterday, plainclothes police surrounded the apartment building of one of the march's organizers so he couldn't leave and then draped this huge Cuban flag over his window so he couldn't even be seen.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Carrie Kahn. Thanks for your reporting on this.

KAHN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF QUEEN SONG, "IN THE SPACE CAPSULE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.