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July 28 2021


Iranians and Cubans: Fighting for Freedom and the World’s Attention

Patria o muerte”, or “ homeland or death”, is a revolutionary slogan all Cubans are taught at an early age. Reinforced by the government, the idea is that every citizen should be prepared to die for the state. On July 11, however, Cubans flooded the streets in over 40 cities shouting “Patria y Vida”, or “homeland and life.” Instead of dying in service and at the expense of the state, Cubans showed their desire to live freely in their country. Their protests against the autocracy come as Cuba confronts food and medicine shortages in the face of a resurgence in COVID cases. 

Protesters were met with security forces wielding weapons and conducting mass arrests at the orders of President Miguel Díaz-Canel. Internet services and phone networks were suspended by the state as people in the streets of major cities faced attacks from Communist Party militants. These protests mark the largest wave of pro-democracy demonstrations in nearly 30 years for Cuba and signify a radical shift in the fight for an end to 60 years of oppression.

Halfway across the world, similar protests have been taking shape against another oppressive regime, the Islamic Republic in Iran. What originally started as mass protests in the Khuzestan province, as it experiences its worst drought in 50 years, has now once again boiled over to nationwide protests calling for the end of the regime. Khuzestan, like much of Iran, has been neglected by its government and has been experiencing water shortages that have resulted in power outages, devastating households and businesses as well as destroying agriculture and livestock farming. This coupled with the regime’s mismanagement and banning of foreign vaccines, has added to the people’s long list of grievances and anger towards the government. The chants “Death to the dictator” and “Death to Khamenei”, which have been heard on Iranian streets for more than a decade, are ubiquitous in today’s protests. Similar to the Cuban government, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei unleashed the regime’s security apparatus, which includes the violent Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, on peaceful protesters. The regime, as it has consistently done since 1979, has engaged in a brutal campaign of suppression, ranging from the use of live ammunition against peaceful protestors to mass arrests.  So far, the regime’s crackdown has resulted in the confirmed murders of at least three young men by the government’s security forces and just as the regime did in the last major protests, nearly all means of online communication have been shut down in an effort to cut Iranians off from the world. 

The question about what the U.S. can do in light of these protests looms in the background. President Biden, who ran on restoring human rights at the core of American foreign policy, undoubtedly faces pressure to take action. Typically, the U.S. response to international protests involves American political leaders offering messages of support for the dissidents as well as calling out the perpetrating governments for their abuses. This is to arguably not only to support protesters but to also remind perpetrating governments that the international community, including the U.S., is watching and monitoring abuses. Fortunately, Cubans have received bipartisan support from a variety of politicians such as  President Biden and Speaker Pelosi in addition to Senators Cruz and Rubio, who called on the Cuban regime to listen to the demands of their people. While many U.S. officials have spoken out about the mass protests in Cuba, there has been little public support for Iranian protesters (with Senator Rubio and select members of the House being the sole exceptions). Despite the clear demands of Iranian protesters and countless videos emerging that depict violence and brutality being carried out by the regime against the people, the U.S. has unfortunately not been vocal. 

Solidarity demands more than words when autocrats are killing and abusing innocent civilians. In order to aid democratic movements in a meaningful way, the U.S. should focus on ensuring Internet access for Cubans and Iranians, especially as more protests arise and state-sanctioned violence ensues. Internet blackouts are a tool used to prevent those within the country from communicating with one another to organize and mobilize, as well as communicate with the outside world through social media to post messages or videos that document the government’s abuse. Lack of access to international communication services spurs countries to create their own national internet, where security is compromised and censorship is rampant. This tactic allows the governments in Iran and Cuba to evade accountability and obscure their transgressions from the international community. Such tactics also essentially seek to hold the population hostage, and aim to destroy the hope and morale of democratic movements inside such countries. The U.S. government can help by updating and expanding OFAC guidelines so that companies like Google, Amazon, and Apple can sell personal communication tools and services to Cubans and Iranians through simple and legal means. 

Finally, it is critical that the U.S. improve programming for Radio Televisión Martí and Voice of America Persian. Both of these networks are conduits from the American government to Cubans and Iranians and serve as vital channels of communication to people who otherwise would not have access to fair and balanced news. By strengthening these programs, America will send the message to Iranians and Cubans that they are a priority for the U.S. government.  Now more than ever, as uprisings against ruthless regimes continue, it is imperative to actively show support for dissidents while promoting democracy and fighting disinformation. 

If America can effectively provide assistance to democratic movements enduring these oppressive regimes, citizens will eventually be able to rid themselves of injustice and live out their dreams of “homeland and life”.

Jacqueline Schluger is a NUFDI Summer Fellow and a rising senior at George Washington University studying International Affairs and Security Policy.