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Cuba's government is using police and other tactics to crush plans for dissent

NOEL KING, HOST:

The Cuban government is using police security forces and civilian supporters to crush not dissent but plans for dissent. They're blocking people in their homes to keep them from protesting in the streets. CNN correspondent Patrick Oppmann is in Havana this morning. Hi, Patrick.

PATRICK OPPMAN: Good morning.

KING: I want to start by stepping back. This past summer, there were some of the biggest protests in Cuba in decades. Those were very significant. What were Cubans protesting?

OPPMAN: You know, they took to the streets by the thousands across this island in a way that we have never seen Cubans do before since the Cuban Revolution to demand more political freedoms, better economic conditions, less censorship, really just expressing their frustration at decades of Communist Party rule here. Of course, the Cuban government claims that this was all plotted by the United States and is a result of U.S. economic sanctions. But the Cubans we spoke to in July who were risking everything to go out to the streets simply said that they had gotten completely fed up and had nothing left to lose.

KING: OK. So that was July. Now we're in November, and protest organizers clearly wanted a repeat. But the Cuban authorities appear to have gotten out in front of them.

OPPMAN: The Cuban government was ready this time, first because the organizers tried to get permission, which is actually allowed under the Cuban Constitution, to protest. And what the Cuban government did with that advance notice was deploy police and plainclothes state security agents across the island. We saw activists prevented from being allowed to leave their homes by mobs of angry government supporters. There were other people who arrested other activists. And unlike those spontaneous protests in July, the Cuban government knew when this protest would take place, who many of the people who were going to be going out were. And that allowed them, using this state security apparatus that they've spent decades building, to essentially stop before it even started, these protests.

KING: At the center of this story is a playwright of all people. Tell us about him.

OPPMAN: Yeah. I interviewed Yunior Garcia Aguilera at his apartment just a few weeks ago. And despite the Cuban government claims that he's been bankrolled by the U.S. and is a, quote, "mercenary," Yunior lives in a really rundown part of Havana. He's not the typical dissident. He's a playwright who has won awards from the government for his work, and he's a critic of the U.S. embargo on Cuba. But Yunior also believes that Cubans have a right to demand changes from their government, and this is what he told me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YUNIOR GARCIA AGUILERA: (Speaking Spanish).

OPPMAN: So what Yunior is saying there is that the government's actions have shown there's no rule of law - the fact they prevented him from leaving his house - that there's no possibility for citizens to legally, peacefully and orderly show their dissent to those in power is what he said to me. And so he really says that he's holding up a mirror to the government, and it's their actions that make the best case for what he's saying about Cuba's system.

KING: So this is very interesting, this tactic by authorities. Instead of letting people out in the streets and then cracking down on them, as we often see all over the world in protests, we're going to barricade them in their houses. Is it working? And do you think people will continue protesting very quickly?

OPPMAN: It worked, certainly, over the last several days because, you know, in July, the - Cuba's president had to get on TV as authorities were kind of standing around not knowing what to do. And he said, I'm giving you the order to combat. This time, the order was already given. Government supporters blocked Yunior from leaving his apartment. On Sunday, I talked to one self-described revolutionary named Eduardo (ph). And he said to me that he was keeping bloodshed between government supporters and government critics from taking place. You know, that's the kind of tension there is right now in Cuba, and that tension's not going anywhere.

KING: Patrick Oppmann, CNN's Havana-based correspondent. Thank you, Patrick.

OPPMAN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.