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It’s about ‘freedom’: Cuban Americans say shortages don’t explain protests

MIAMI — As Cubans took to the streets to protest in numbers not seen since before the 1959 Revolution, Cuban Americans are challenging the view that the demonstrations are just about economic frustration.

While Cubans expressed anger over shortages in food and medicine, rising inflation and power outages — amid the challenges of Covid-19 — many of the chants throughout the island called for political change and included expressions such as “libertad” (liberty), “We want change” and “Down with the dictatorship.”

Many Cuban Americans say that should not be glossed over.

“For the first time in 62 years, they are risking their lives from one end of the island to the other to demand accountability from the regime,” Carmen Peláez, a Cuban American filmmaker and Democratic political consultant, said. “I’m anti-embargo. But it’s not about the embargo right now. That’s not what this fight is about.”

In the U.S., Cuban Americans hold different positions on U.S.-Cuba relations, some falling along party lines. But while conservatives and Republicans are known for a more hard-line stance against Cuba, some progressives have been denouncing the Cuban government’s tough stance against activists’ calls for greater freedom of expression.

Many Cuban Americans have grown up hearing calls for “libertad” for Cuba in the streets of Miami and other U.S. cities, but it’s seldom heard in Cuba. Some Cuban Americans said it was emotional to hear the word being shouted by so many on the island.

“Policy differences aside, Cuban Americans strongly agree and understand that these protests are not about the embargo or even food shortages. It’s opposition to the regime,” said Giancarlo Sopo, a conservative media strategist.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or a Democrat. We all recognize what these protests are about,” said Sopo, adding that the chants called for “libertad.”

Cuba has been run by a Communist government, with a strong grip on society, for over six decades. Though the government has received praise for its ability to offer primary care to its population, it also determines many aspects of people’s lives, including wages, food and internet prices, as well as their freedom of assembly, expression and the ability to choose a president that does not belong to the Communist Party of Cuba.

After the protests, Cuba’s government announced it would temporarily lift restrictions on the amount of toiletries, food and medicine that Cuban citizens can bring back home when they take foreign trips, but for many protesters on the island it’s a small concession compared to their demands, and out of touch with their basic needs.

Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel took some blame for the protests recently, saying failings by the government played a role, though he still says the United States is primarily at fault.

Before the protests began on Sunday, public displays of dissent had been increasing in recent months. In November, authorities broke up a hunger strike by members of the San Isidro Movement, an artists’ collective, sparking a rare protest with hundreds of artists and activists in front of the Culture Ministry. Those who protested formed another group, called 27N.

The leader of the San Isidro Movement, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, went on a hunger strike in May and was forcibly taken to the hospital on the seventh day, drawing international attention and condemnation.

Following the protests, the government faced scrutiny over its shutdown of social media and messaging apps.

The U.N. human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, on Friday urged Cuba’s government to address protesters’ grievances and called for the prompt release of all those detained.

“I am very concerned at the alleged use of excessive force against demonstrators in Cuba and the arrest of a large number of people, including several journalists,” Bachelet said in a statement. “It is particularly worrying that these include individuals allegedly held incommunicado and people whose whereabouts are unknown.”

The streets of the capital, Havana, have been calm in recent days but a heavy police presence remains. Since Sunday’s protests, 55 out of 383 people who were detained nationwide have been freed, according to Cubalex, a human rights group based in the U.S.

The words “Cuba Libre” or “free Cuba” was painted in large block letters on the street in directly in front of the Cuban embassy in Washington D.C. on Friday.

For Cuba’s government, the challenge will be to manage the acute economic crisis and the pandemic, while addressing human rights concerns and growing calls for “libertad” in Cuba and abroad.

Cuban American musician Pitbull said in a widely shared video on Twitter that he felt frustrated “having a platform to speak to the world and not being able to help my own people, not being able to get them food, not being able to get them water, not being able to get them medicine. But most of all, not being able to help and really get them what they deserve, which is freedom.” 

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Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather

A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.

The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.

“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.

The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.

In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.

Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.

“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”

The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.

“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”

Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.

More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.

Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.

Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.

The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.

So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.

Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.

“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”

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Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park

A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.

The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.

He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.

The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.

The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.

“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”

Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.

The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.

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House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight

House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.

The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.

The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.

The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.

Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.

“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”

It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.

The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.

However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.

Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.

Haley Talbot contributed.

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