In the thirteenth episode of High Noon, Inez Stepman speaks with Barbara Estrada and Hanna Liubakova, two journalists fighting to get the word out about the Cuban protests for libertad and the year-long struggle in Belarus to peacefully oust “the last dictator in Europe.”
Each has played a critical role in getting news from the Cuban and Belarusian protests out, respectively. They share which stories of courage or brutality have touched them the most, and offer suggestions for what those of us in the West can do to help protestors risking their lives for freedom.
These interviews are presented together on High Noon for purposes of both solidarity and warning. American exceptionalism is rooted in our Constitution, our culture, and our people. If we destroy what’s exceptional about America, nothing will stop the tyranny that still holds sway so many places all over the world—just 90 miles offshore or on the other side of the globe—from establishing itself here.
High Noon is an intellectual download featuring conversations that make possible a free society. Inviting interesting thinkers from all parts of the political spectrum to discuss the most controversial subjects of the day in a way that hopes to advance our common American future.
Welcome to High Noon, where we discuss controversial subjects with interesting people. I’m Inez Stepman of the Independent Women’s Forum, and today we have a very special, somewhat unusual High Noon episode for you. I’ll be speaking with two journalists covering uprisings for freedom inside two very different regimes halfway around the world from one another, that nevertheless seem to, not only have key similarities with each other, but also warnings for us in America.
First, we speak to Barbara, @hollaitsbarbara on Instagram, who has been covering the heartbreaking and moving protests across the island of Cuba, where the communist regime has been repressing basic liberties and creating scarcity of basic items like food and medicine for more than six decades.
She gave us a real view into what it’s like to live in Cuba beyond the props of white beaches and five-star hotels that are displayed to tourists and, as we discussed, useful idiots. As one Cuban reggaeton pop star tweeted, “From going through so much hunger, we ate fear.”
Next, I interview Hanna Liubakova, a journalist who, for the past year, has put her freedom on the line to cover the mass protests against “the last dictator in Europe” as he’s known, Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus. There also, protesters are facing beatings, arrests and torture, to call for democracy and the right to self-determination as a free people.
It’s remarkable how similar the dynamics, even the psychological dynamics are in many authoritarians regimes: Crush information, cut off the internet, intimidate dissenters, use tactics like threatening people’s jobs before resorting to physical repression. These are the similarities of authoritarians regimes across very different peoples and cultures.
The reason I recorded this special episode of High Noon is to stand as both an act of solidarity, but even more importantly, to stand as a warning. We remain extremely lucky in our American privilege. When you’re “canceled” in America for heterodox thought, it might mean you lose your job or your social circle.
We’re still a long way from being thrown in prison, disappeared or tortured for speaking against the dominant narrative. But America’s exceptional because of its founding values and its Constitution, not because these experiences of want and oppression, unexceptional in the history of the world, can’t happen here too.
In a recent essay posted on Substack, Antonio García Martínez, who lost his job when his published fictional novel about the tech industry ran afoul of the woke Twitter brigades, wrote poignantly, “Some mistakes a free people get to make only once. We are fortunate to still enjoy freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and other liberties protected by our Constitution, but our Bill of Rights is only what Madison referred to as ‘a parchment barrier’ in Federalist 48. It has to be given life by a culture and people who cherish their freedoms.”
As you’ll see in this episode of High Noon, those freedoms are all too easy to lose, and extremely difficult to get back. It can be done, and this solidarity poster behind me, which was used to rally people in Poland to throw out communist tyranny proves it can be.
But it’s far better and far easier to fight to turn back from the cliff than it is to rebuild from the bottom of it. I hope you enjoy my conversations with these two brave women today, and remember the stories of those fighting right now in 2021 for the liberty and representative government that we must continue to hold as precious.
As we all know, on Sunday, July 11th, a historical uprising began on the island of Cuba. My first guest today, Barbara, her Instagram handle is @hollaitsbarbara, has been one of the leading journalistic voices pushing out video and stories from Cuba as well as helping to popularize support protests in countries like the United States and Germany, where she resides. So welcome, Barbara, to High Noon.
Hi. Thank you for having me.
Could you first explain to people who maybe are just seeing these headlines in the news, why now? Why now, after 62 years, are so many people in Cuba risking their lives to oppose the communist regime there?
Yeah, great question. I think to really understand the present, you need to understand the past and the history of the country. This has been something that’s been ongoing, like you said, for 62 years. But with everything when it came to COVID and just the climate was becoming more and more … It had reached a point where people just could no longer handle it anymore.
It almost kind of resembled the 1990 decade, where they call it “the special period” and that’s kind of like the time period where a lot of Cubans didn’t really have any access to any food. Just things are very, very scarce when it came to accessibility of just basic needs like food and medicine.
And so it was kind of reflecting it, but I think also the Cuban government will try to paint this whole situation and focus it on the embargo, or focus it on the rising cases of COVID. But essentially, it has nothing to do with that, because if you hear what the people are shouting in the streets of just across the country, they’re shouting for freedom. And I think it’s a culmination of everything. It’s a complex situation, because it has been 62 years, that so many fabricated things have led up to this moment.
You’re part of the Cuban diaspora I believe, right? You family fled the regime.
Could you tell us maybe a short history of what the regime has been like for the last six decades, and why your family left?
So for the last six decades, to understand just that long period of history in Cuba, one needs to understand, it comes in waves, right? And so at the beginning, things weren’t so bad. Because obviously, when Fidel Castro took power, he made a lot of promises.
And so to, almost in a way, keep those promises, he made everything still kind of seem like how things were before. Which when I speak to my own family, and even to my father who’s 84 years old, and he lived in Cuba before, way before Fidel Castro even came into power, there was this sort of abundance of goods, of opportunities.
The universities were thriving. Even the hospitals and everything, Cuba always pride itself on having the best medical schools and the best doctors and all that stuff. And then, as the time went by, the decades went by, then you started seeing this differentiation from abundance to then scarcity.
And that was primarily one of the reasons why my family left. I mean, my parents have a 20-year gap period, so they each left for different but very similar reasons. Obviously, there was no opportunity that was ever going to give them the opportunity that I have, that my siblings have. That’s what they wanted, a better future for their family.
I know that whenever I do speak to my dad, because I find him to be very interesting since he is part of Cuban history. I mean, he was born during the Batista regime. And that was different. I asked him about, “What’s the difference between the revolution of the 1950s when Fidel took power, and now?”
And he said, “Well, the only difference is that the people were, back then … In this case, the rebellion was armed.” Versus now, the people don’t even have any access to fight back, so they’re essentially getting killed and they’re just using their bare hands to defend themselves, versus they’re going up against guns and being gassed, and a bunch of atrocities.
I mean, I’ve even seen images and videos of people having the police releasing German shepherds on people. It’s brutal. It’s bloody. But when it comes to my family, their story was that we simply want a better future for our family, and also freedom of speech. That was something that my father didn’t have, something that … He comes from a very small town in the countryside of Cuba, and people there knew each other.
Everybody knew each other. And then he started to realize that people were going missing. And he’s like, “Well, that’s a little odd.” And eventually, as some of his friends were going missing and him finally realizing like, “Wow, my friends are getting assassinated by these so-called revolutionaries. I don’t have a life here. I just … No.” And so he left, along with the rest of my family.
So what is next for these current protesters? I mean, it seems like things … It’s hard to tell because the internet is so spotty, but it seems like things are a little bit quieter now than they were a few days ago. Is this going to be a longer struggle? Are people reorganizing, or has the regime kind of succeeded in tamping down most of the protests? I mean, where does it stand? We’re now at Friday, the 16th. Where does this protest stand as of now, and what’s its future?
There’s a mix of opinions, because every region of Cuba is different when it comes to the type of people. I know some people have talked about this region like, “I’m so embarrassed because everybody there is a snitch. And this region, I’m so embarrassed because nobody there wants to do anything.”
I think what’s going on right now, there is a lot of fear and the government is using a lot of fear tactics on people. I’ve heard things as like, “If you go out and protest, you’re going to lose your job.” It’s almost like at that risk now that it’s like, they’re trying to find all ways and any ways possible to keep things under control.
But from when I talk to people on the Cuban island, I know that right now, I think they’re reorganizing and finding other ways too, because also, as much as we can take out into streets for so long, physically and mentally, people get tired and they have to then regroup and reorganize, because that’s something about this movement.
Because it feels different, right? Everybody, especially the Cuban-American or just the Cuban diaspora is saying, “This feels different.” And I think what’s going on right now, and this is the question that everybody’s asking is, “What’s missing here is a leader.”
There isn’t anybody. There isn’t a face right now that’s really leading this movement. And I’m not surprised, because out of the fact that, if there is a leader to this movement, they do run a risk of getting killed, and we’ve seen this time and time again in historical revolutionary social causes, movements, right? If we’re going to look at the Civil Rights Movement for Black lives in the ’60s with Martin Luther King Jr.
And so, right now I think it’s just a matter of trying to figure out what’s going to happen next, but I can guarantee you this is not going to end like that in a matter of just five, six days. This is only the beginning.
You mentioned some alternative explanations and you said those are not the heart of the protest, right? So we hear that the US embargo, regardless of what people’s opinions on whether that helps or hurts, the US embargo is not the primary cause of these demonstrations. A poor response to COVID is certainly likely to be happening in Cuba, but is not the primary cause of these demonstrations.
There’s been some responses in the United States from organizations like Black Lives Matter or from the Democrat Socialists of America that have really pointed to those alternative explanations in an attempt to, essentially … in some cases, to outright support the regime.
But in other, softer statements, more just to try blame something else other than the communist regime in Cuba for the fact that people are now willing to have dogs sent on them. They’re willing to be arrested. They’re willing to risk their lives, really, to protest for liberty and for democracy on the streets.
What would you say to folks in the United States or elsewhere who are reluctant to actually point the finger squarely at the regime, and the heart of the regime as the reason why people are willing to risk their lives?
I mean, my message to those people who don’t want to blame the regime is that it’s blatant privilege. People tend to have these very big opinions about what is going on, when I would love to invite them to actually see the real Cuba, not the Cuba that the Cuban government wants you to see, which is like, Varadero, the really nice beaches that, by the way, none of the locals really do have access to those beaches.
I remember my mom telling me when she was there as a young teenager, she wasn’t allowed to go to any of those beaches. And I invite them to check it out. I actually even invite them to go into a hospital. And I’m not talking about the hospital that’s for the elitists, for the tourists, no.
I’m talking about, go to a hospital that locals go to, because when I went to Cuba in 2018 for the first time, I didn’t want to see any of that. In fact … because I knew everything, right? I grew up in Miami. Everybody there tells you the real deal details.
And I remember sitting at a restaurant there, in Varadero specifically, not wanting to enter because it was so flashy and it was like, you could tell that it was well-kept and the décor was definitely imported from elsewhere. I don’t know where they got it, but it seemed very much like you could find it at Home Goods or TJ Maxx.
And I was sitting there with a friend and the taxi driver, and I could tell not just myself, but even the taxi driver who was taking us around feeling like this was the first time he had ever sat in a restaurant like that. And just looking at things like water that was imported from Italy and just the abundance of things, to me, obviously, and to people who are in support of the communist regime, if you see all of this, you’re like, “Oh, there’s nothing going on here.”
Like if you check the hashtag “Varadero” on Instagram, there’s currently tourists there right now, like Russian tourists. And I’m like, “What parallel universe is this?” It is baffling to me how people can just continue on treating this country, just because it’s considered small and not powerful, as something that is a joke.
I mean, I can’t even name the facts and the figures. I would be more than willing to mention this, but I’m sure they’re beyond millions of Cuban people that have had to flee this country for a better future. And that alone will tell you everything.
There’s Cubans everywhere in this world. I’ve heard of Cubans even in New Zealand. How far is that from Cuba? So is it because we just like to travel the world? That’s not it. If you speak to any Cuban person and if you really think about it, it is what it was back in its glory days, a paradise. And why would anybody want to leave that? The finger has to be pointed at the Cuban regime, or the Cuban dictatorship.
Yeah. It seems to be a feature of a lot of these regimes that they set up a parallel kind of demonstration for people who are coming to visit, whether they’re tourists or they’re diplomatic ambassadors or so on. I mean, the USSR did the same thing. Even under the government of Stalin, there were of course “journalists” there. Walter Duranty of the New York Times wrote his Pulitzer Prize-winning column saying that there was nothing going on, nothing terrible going on in the USSR.
Of course, at the same time, there were millions of Ukrainians starving to death, which he famously covered up. It definitely seems to be a common feature across the world that these regimes will set up … Pardon my bluntness here, but they’ll set up a façade for the useful idiots from the West who will come and praise what’s happening there.
I mean, why do you think that people from the West consistently fall for these kinds of facades? I mean, especially in the age of the internet, it’s so easy to see that this is not actually the day-to-day life in these regimes.
I really would love to invite them to a conversation. I’ve never really spoken to somebody, to my face and come and attack me about what it is that they believe so deeply about this sort of ideology that seems to be so thriving, because if that is the case and they love this sort of political view, then I invite them to move there.
That’s my thing. That’s something about, even when the Black Lives Matter organization decided to put out that statement, for me it’s like … and I even laughed at Senator Marco Rubio tweeted this out where … and posted this on my social media and it said, “If anybody from the Black Lives Matter movement wants to move to Cuba, my doors are open. My office doors are open.”
Because it’s true. I think even with something like that, it needs to be lived. Everybody who has these … Again, I’m just going to go back and reiterate my point, but everybody that has these big opinions are just saying it in the comfort of their home, where they have access to food and wifi, and the Cuban people don’t have that right now.
So, I don’t understand what it is that is so great about this sort of ideology. It works on paper, but it’s not working in reality. You see that time and time again throughout Latin America. Cuba is not the only country. You see that in Venezuela.
You saw that in the ’70s and in the ’80s in Chile. You saw that in Argentina. You saw that in Nicaragua to this day. There are several places where you see this sort of political ideology not work. Obviously, in present day, Cuba is at its most extreme when it comes to this ideology, but it is what it has been for the past 62 years.
So if there’s one story, one particular story that’s moved you the most … because you have done such a great job, as I said in the intro, amplifying the very few stories that have been able to get out because of course, the regime has initially completely blocked internet service there. Now, it’s sort of spotty and cutting in and out. Has there been one story that just maybe you could barely even stand to look at, but you think is important for people to know?
So, the one that I saw is a video. It was these policemen going up, climbing a ladder up a rooftop of a building, because at this time, at this point, there was a lot of police chasing and dragging young boys to join their side and then, obviously, fight their own people.
And this boy was up on the rooftop. I don’t know if he was trying to hide. I’m not so sure. But from what I read, he had a mental disability, and clearly he couldn’t really fend for himself. I don’t think he really had a weapon, and they came after him with guns and they shot him.
I don’t think he survived that, because from I saw, he didn’t get up. And that was rather moving. That was really hard. I mean, there’s so many, I can’t even name one. That’s one of the many that I’ve seen. I think another one that I saw that was really heartbreaking was that this young boy was protecting his father from getting beaten by the police, so he went on top of his dad to cover him on the ground, and that was really hard to see. And this is just some of the few cases of the many that we probably haven’t even seen.
Yeah. That people are willing to risk that for freedom, I think as you said, says it all. Just a final question. If you are not in Cuba, if you are in America or Germany or in one of these western countries where we do have freedom of speech, we are able to speak out.
What would you recommend people do to support the freedom fighters really in Cuba, the people who are risking beatings and worse, and arrest and even death, to try to regain their freedom? How would you tell us to support them?
First thing is, add pressure to your local state, federal government. What Cuba needs now more than ever is the international support. That is president in the movement and riding this wave of change, because everybody from the inside is asking for help.
I keep hearing voice messages on WhatsApp of people just begging for … I could hear it in their voice, they’re just crying for help from the outside, because they cannot do it alone. And in that, I’m hoping that adds enough pressure for these governments from the outside to figure out a plan.
I know it’s very controversial to talk about a military intervention inside the country, and to each their own opinion on that. I have my own thoughts on it. I do believe that there should be some sort of military intervention. Don’t know from who, but I think at this point, that needs to be done.
And if anybody is trying to figure out, “Okay, what can I do? What should I ask my government?” Just ask for them to pay attention to Cuba and do something. That’s step number one. Step number two is to share on social media, because I feel like I, plus everybody else who is of the Cuban diaspora is sharing this, but I don’t really see many people who aren’t a part of that community sharing on social media.
It is the least thing you can do. And also, sign a petition. There’s a petition on change.org to really bring more awareness on this, and another one as well on top of it. There’s tons of protests across the world for Cuba. Join one. In wherever city or town near you, join one in solidarity for the cause.
Because I know there was a lot of social justice movements last year that people went out on the streets, and it was all over the world. [inaudible 00:22:32] for example, the Black Lives Matter movement for George Floyd, and that was a worldwide thing. And we’re just asking for the same response for Cuba, because this is going on for way too long, and nobody can stand this for another 62 years. It is done. This has to end.
Thank you so much, Barbara, for continuing to push out these voices from Cuba, and for joining us today on High Noon.
Thank you, thank you.
If you’re listening to this podcast, you’ve just heard an appeal from a journalist covering the protests in Cuba against the communist regime there that has been abusing and oppressing its people for more than six decades. Now we’ll be turning from Cuba, just a short boat ride away from our Florida shores, to another regime on the opposite side of the world that seems to have some remarkable similarities.
In just a couple weeks, we’ll be at the one-year anniversary of an election that sparked most protests in Belarus, a former Soviet country on the border of Russia that, since shortly after the USSR’s dissolution has been ruled by an anti-Democratic strongman, Alexander Lukashenko, who’s often referred to as “Europe’s last dictator.”
One year ago, thousands poured into the streets to protest a rigged election which re-crowned Lukashenko over an opposition leader who had become a surprising rallying point to that Lukashenko regime. About one year later however, Lukashenko still sits in his palace from which he most recently thumbed his nose at the international community by forcing a commercial plane in his airspace to land so that he could arrest a journalist onboard.
Hanna Liubakova is a journalist from Minsk, Belarus. She’s a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council. She’s previously worked with Radio Free Europe as well, and most importantly for this conversation, she has been providing wonderful coverage of the protests for the last year as well as the response of the Lukashenko regime’s treatment of journalists, and the response to all of this from the West. So welcome, Hanna, to High Noon. Thank you for coming on.
So let’s start with an overview of what the last year has really been like in Belarus for the many Americans who aren’t following the struggle halfway around the world. What is it like there? What are protestors facing there?
Well, I usually say that what’s happening in Belarus right now should be called “lawlessness” because people are being detained for going out to the streets, doing grocery, for just walking downtown, for wearing some clothes in national colors, which is red and white, and this is apparently forbidden in Belarus.
It’s also, we make jokes that there is real equality in Belarus right now, because basically, every social, professional, age group, gender group, is facing repressions. Pensioners, businessmen, artists, whoever. So they are all detained. They’re all being repressed. They’re fired. They’re threatened.
There are currently more than 500 political prisoners in the country, and there are thousands of people in prison. And basically, since August last year, there have been more than 35,000 detentions, which is a lot for a country of nine and a half million.
So the scale of repressions is incredible, but this is not only about Lukashenko and his regime. I think what I’m also trying to show is that people, a lot has changed in the first place. The evolution of the society is incredible.
People finally stood up to the regime. They are united. They show solidarity all the time. They show that they just want this regime to go. They just want Lukashenko to resign, and they want a free and fair election. So this kind of willingness to have democracy in the country is very important, and I think that’s something that I admire, that’s something that gives me a lot of hope, despite all this kind of darkness, all these repressions that are currently taking place in the country.
One of the most remarkable things about the protests in Belarus is how long they’ve gone on. And as you say, in the face of mass detention in some places, you reported on torture that’s happened in these detention centers, in the fact of all that, these protests, whether in mass or in smaller ways or in sort of less organized ways, have continued to go on month after month after month.
I mean, what is the end game here? I know you can’t predict for sure, but it doesn’t seem like this movement is going to be able to be quashed permanently. They just keep coming back and coming back, no matter what the regime does to them.
I do agree that … Well, firstly, the reason that we’re back. I think people have said their final “no” to Lukashenko, and because he … Well, he’s been in power since 1994, and basically he’s the first and the only president that Belarusans have seen, and they’re just tired of him, and they’re tired of his mismanagement, of his lies, falsifications, manipulations, of his disrespectful attitudes towards the elderly, towards women, towards workers, basically everyone.
And even before the elections, when I traveled across the country, I saw that. Just so much has changed and I knew that he wouldn’t win the elections. And what we’ve seen after the elections, all these thousands of people protesting basically every Sunday, that was a sign of this immense, incredible change.
And because he reacted with so much brutality that people just understood that this is not someone they want to see in power, and people feel disgust. And then there is this kind of emotional change when there is so many lines have been crossed, that just there is no room for a compromise at the moment.
That’s why Lukashenko has to increase repressions, because he knows, he perfectly understands that the majority of people currently want change. They want new free and fair elections. They see it as a solution to this crisis, and this is something that he’s super scared of.
That’s why the commercial flight was forced down, because he just wanted to show how strong he is by arresting a young blogger, basically, journalist who he considered his personal enemy. And that’s why a lot of repressions, basically, are taking place now and is just increasing.
Only today, dozens of journalists have been detained. My former colleagues, my friends, yesterday and a few days ago, there was an attack on human rights defenders. Dozens of organizations have been closed. So it seems that Lukashenko wants to clean up the field completely.
He wants to destroy any potential dissident in the country, any system, any initiative that was active. So that’s his goal, because he is very scared of this kind of willingness of people to see change in the country, and that’s why he just wants to prevent that. He feels just backed in a corner, and this is not actions of a strong man.
Let’s talk about that plane landing. Because for a lot of Americans, this is the first time that they really had any interaction or read in the news about the Lukashenko regime. What has the response to that been from the west, from America, from the international community? Because I mean, this was an international terrorist incident, right?
The government forcibly landed a commercial airliner including the people from many different countries who were onboard, in order to arrest a blogger that was critical of his regime. I mean, this violates all kinds of international norms. What has the response been to that?
I would say that the response has been stronger, perhaps, than Lukashenko expected, because if you look at the response that followed after the elections, the EU introduced three packages of sanctions. But since December basically, there was no significant response to repressions.
Because well, politicians did not see protests on the streets, because people have been repressed. They were just scared to come out to the streets. They have been sent to jail for many years for that. But because politicians did not see these protests, kind of no reactions, no response followed.
And then, the kind of Belarusan issue started to disappear from the international agenda. And then Lukashenko basically helped democratic forces in a way, by forcing this plane down to land in Minsk, because it’s just so outrageous. It violates, obviously, so many international conventions. It violates basically the common sense of how we function in the world, in the globalized, interconnected world.
So firstly, the immediate response was that the EU and other countries banned flights over Belarus, over the Belarusan airspace. And this is something that obviously affects the industry on the one hand. On the other hand, it also affects immensely the regime, because there is this monopoly in Belarus, and they … like airplane-wise, air company, and they lost a significant amount of revenue.
Another issue is that sanctions were very swiftly introduced. Individual financial sanctions, but also sectoral sanctions. And that’s something that Lukashenko is very much scared of. That’s basically the only tool, the only mean and the only kind of response he is reacting to.
And he immediately started to chaotically criticize the EU, the west. He blamed Anglo-America for trying a coup attempt in the country. And that’s something that really kind of scares him, because he’s really scared of losing support from his oligarchs, from those businessmen. Very important ones.
At the same time, I would say that while the EU has reacted very promptly, very swiftly, there are still loopholes in those sectoral sanctions. And while we think that was a very strong, effective response, as long as these loopholes are not closed, the sanctions would not be effective. The Belarus regime is still able to sell some products of [inaudible 00:33:58] industry, of oil industry to the west, so these sanctions would not affect the regime in Belarus as much as we perhaps expected.
Can you expand a little bit on the role that journalism has played in all of this, that the importance of a free press has played in this? Because it really seems like he was willing … Lukashenko was willing to flout international norms in order to get his hands on a single blogger. I mean, does that speak to the power of trying to control the information?
I mean, we’re seeing the same thing in Cuba where, of course, the regime there has alternatively completely shut down the internet, but then it’s come back in spotty ways. But the inability to get the word out to the international community, to try to shut down that kind of communication seems to be a common thread between these two regimes.
Yeah. Well, I think Lukashenko perfectly understood that he lost control over the internet in the past years. He keeps state media under control, but then the internet is not really the space, the field where he was able to become … to monopolize.
The internet, for the past year, has became a really kind of free platform for people to speak out, to communicate with each other. And then the power of Telegram. Telegram is a social kind of messenger where you can communicate with people, but you also can create channels that can have a lot of followers and you can spread a lot of information.
And then we knew that the internet would be shut down during the elections, because that’s something that Lukashenko has already done a few years ago. So we were preparing for that. And many people is told all these circumvention tools to still have access to those channels.
And that’s why, when the internet was shut down in the first three days of the … on the election night and right after the elections, everybody switched to Telegram, because people needed information about what was happening across the country.
So all these kind of Telegram channels that people already read, that people already had been reading and getting information from, became even more popular. People trusted them. Unlike perhaps in other countries, social media in Belarus is perhaps one of the most trusted sources, because it’s not controlled by the regime.
And then you have this Telegram channel called “Nexta,” which became the most popular one. It had almost two million subscribers around the election time. And Raman Pratasevich was editor in chief of this Telegram channel. That’s why Lukashenko became so angry with him, because firstly, it was super popular.
It gave information to people about the protests, about where people could gather. So Lukashenko all of a sudden blamed Raman Pratasevich for organizing protests, and Raman is just a blogger. He was just spreading information. So Lukashenko is ready to blame technology, not himself, not his mismanagement and everything that he has done, but basically, technology.
And what we see now, is these repressions against journalists because basically, every independent media outlet has been destroyed. Journalists are being detained, arrested, basically every day. Since last year, there have been more than 500 cases of detentions of journalists, many of them injured, tortured, beaten.
People like my colleagues, journalists were shot with rubber bullets. So Lukashenko just wants this information … wants to hide information. He doesn’t want people inside the country and outside the country to know, to see what’s happening in Belarus because the information is something that provokes a reaction of the west, or of people inside the country. So he perfectly understands the danger of this information, and he just wants to silence journalists, people, every kind of social group that was vocal and that was speaking out against him.
Women have played an unusual, I should say, or a role in these protests. I mean, early on, you saw them putting their bodies in between the security forces and the domestic police that were beating protesters and men, knowing that those videos would encourage more people to get fed up with the regime if they saw the male soldiers and policemen beating female protesters.
And I know the women in white … Again, another sort of similarity between these two countries halfway around the world. The women in white are coming out again as a form of protest just today, right? And yesterday. What is the role of women in this whole protest, and how have they played a unique part in continuing, I guess, hope for the protesters and also in creating these kinds of information and images that, when possible, get out on social media and around the world?
Actually today, July 16, is a very symbolic day. Exactly one year ago, three women joined forces so they stepped in. They were behind those electoral campaigns, behind those potential candidates that were barred from running in the elections. And some of them were detained.
So, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya was registered as a candidate. But then she did not feel like she’s able to run this campaign alone, and then those two other women also joined her in her efforts to tackle the regime in Belarus. And that became such a powerful move. It inspired people so immensely that basically, those three women became the symbol of this revolution, and they were able to unite also people across the country, perhaps for the first time.
It was like the opposition Democratic forces became united so quickly, so strongly that people felt it and followed it. And then, because Svetlana Tikhanovskaya became this kind of symbol, this face of the protests, people voted for her. People wanted her.
She also promised them to have free and fair elections. She did not want to be president. She just wants to bring justice, to bring respect to people back. So they felt it. They voted for her. And then she was forced to flee the country.
And what we have saw afterwards, we saw torture. We saw violence, brutality. And then, after those three most darkest days in Belarusan history, women came out to the streets again and women were wearing white, white clothes. They were holding flowers, and riot police were completely shocked by that image.
They did not know how to react. They felt confused, and that was the kind of pushback. And that was the moment when women were able to change the dynamic of the protest yet again and basically that’s how this protest remained peaceful, because women became this really, really kind of strong symbol. Women in white.
And firstly, they were not repressed. They were not arrested. But then, the regime I think now might be targeting women even more in a way, because some women are threatened with their children being taken away if they continue protesting and so on. So there are many ways of how the regime tries to stop women from expressing their discontent.
Nevertheless, they are on the streets. Very often, they are very active. And basically, many people say that this revolution has a female face. And there is a lot of truth to this statement, because well, women just played an immense role.
What is the business climate … I mean, I guess my question is, what does Lukashenko going to have left in terms of his ability to have the funds that he needs to pay his security apparatus, to keep the oligarchs happy around him, right?
It seems like there’s a flood of refugees now that are leaving Belarus. Surrounding countries like Ukraine and Lithuania have been received a lot of refugees and then are thinking about closing and I think have closed, you can correct me, have closed the borders.
What’s the end game of this? Because it seems like people are cutting off any avenue that the regime might have to actually sustain its power long-term at the level that it needs to, to be able to continually repress what seems like a broadly popular uprising against it.
I think, well, firstly, predictions even before the elections were not optimistic at all. And there is stagnation and people feel it. And now, because of this general political and human rights crisis, not many investors are interested in investing in such a country.
Then we have repressions. Then we have small businesses and medium businesses that are scared, that are being closed and people are being put in prison, so they flee the country. Lukashenko was bragging for years about the tech industry, IT industry in the country, that it’s booming, it has a lot of references.
And now, many of these tech professionals have to flee because they’re being repressed as well, right? And it obviously affects the country immensely. Reputationally, economically, and we cannot predict the level of this crisis, I think, right now.
But what is real is that many businesses have been shut down already. Then we have sanctions which also affect, again, businessmen. Again, oligarchs, all these kind of funds that the regime is having from those businesses, large businesses that are controlled. Because well, large parts of the Belarusan economy are controlled by the regime, by the state.
And we do not know, however, to what extent Russia is ready to support Belarus and Lukashenko and his regime. Last year, the Kremlin promised basically one and a half million dollars to Lukashenko, and there have been already two tranches of this loan. Nothing more came, but still, Putin most recently said that he’s ready to support Lukashenko as long as this would be needed. And we don’t know what Lukashenko would be giving in exchange for this support.
So all these processes are very disturbing, firstly because it is affects people. People just lose their businesses and have to flee. But also because Lukashenko is ready to sell independence of the country, because he just needs to stay in power. And yeah, we just … It’s disturbing to see all these kind of processes that are going on.
Yeah. What is the role here that Putin and Russia play? Obviously, they’re the big player in that region. As you said, Putin has publicly supported Lukashenko after originally, there was a period of time where it seemed like it was possible that Lukashenko’s regime might be more trouble to Putin than it was worth, and people at least hoped that that might be the case, but those hopes seem to have faded. What would it take to make it not worth it for the Kremlin to continue to prop up the Lukashenko regime?
Well, firstly, Lukashenko is becoming very toxic for both Putin, for the Kremlin, for the west, for Belarusans, even for those people who are still loyal to Lukashenko. And it’s very important to show that the price, the costs of supporting Lukashenko are going to be more expensive for Putin, for the Kremlin, basically, for Russians, to show that it’s not worth it.
Putin is not a big fan of Alexander Lukashenko. I think we all know that, but he just has to kind of hang around, because there is no alternative that Putin considers feasible for Russia, because he thinks that every opposition candidate is pro-Western, and he’s scared of this.
Also, he’s scared of protests, of this revolution toppling a dictator through street protests because that might be a bad example for Russians to do the same in their country. So that’s why Putin is interested in the status quo. But again, I mean, more should be done, obviously, on the side of the West to show Putin that any agreement between Lukashenko and the Kremlin would not be considered, would be basically reconsidered in the future, and that the price of support just has to be very high for Putin.
Just like in Ukraine, there’s this kind of information warfare about what the protests actually represent, right? Whether they represent a move towards liberal democracy, or whether they are, let’s say, uniquely concerned with getting rid of Lukashenko and his particular regime and his particular band of oligarchs. What is your take on what the protesters ultimately want to see in Belarus?
I think there is no … Well, we cannot really … It’s not comparable to the situation in Ukraine. It’s not comparable to any other situation. I think the situation in Belarus is very much black and white. People want democracy. People want new, free and fair, transparent elections. People want to have their voice be respected.
And that’s what they’ve been showing for the past year. This is not a geopolitical choice. At least for now, this is not about choosing between the West, Russia or any other direction. This is a very much internal issue. And as I said, this evolution of the society, the evolution of minds and values is very important.
Belarusans have shown that they want western values, right? As we usually call them. They want democracy and they want human rights, their rights basically be respected in the country. So that’s, I think, a very much legitimate demand.
Absolutely. So you’ve been diligently covering this for more than a year. I’ve been following you on Twitter. I recommend that anyone who’s interested in what’s going on in this part of the world follow you as well. Is there a story or a particular incident that you ended up covering that stands out in your mind as either something that left a mark on you over time, or is something that you think is particularly representative and important to understand, for people who might be just starting to discover that the Belarusan people have been struggling for their freedom and their democracy for more than a year?
In August, when I was in Minsk and I was covering protests, we basically … Well, myself and my colleagues always had to have a toothbrush, a spare pair of socks, a spare T-shirt, because we were not sure whether we would sleep tonight at home or in jail.
So that’s something that we’ve chosen this profession as journalists because we want people to know the truth. We want to help people to get objective, useful information, and real information, real facts about what was happening.
But then, you just understand how dangerous it actually is. I’ve lived in Belarus for years, obviously, and then it was never a free and safe country for journalists. But then, you would never expect a real war, and a real war zone basically in your city, which is a very kind of quiet, calm city.
And yeah, you just end up kind of almost in a conflict zone, where you have been shot or tear gas applied against you. So it was very dangerous. We were running. At the same time, I just remember these moments when I was covering … I was kind of approaching protesters and they were thanking me.
They were saying, “Well, thank you for what you are doing, because it’s so important.” There were moments when were almost detained by police, and then people surrounded us and prevented us from being detained. They just kind of put journalists inside the circle, and that’s how police were not able to drag us to a police van.
It gives so much power, so much enthusiasm and so much motivation and encouragement, and then you just understand that well, your work is super important. So that’s something, I think, that this past year changed my understanding of the profession, of what I do and how important journalism is.
Hanna, thank you so much for joining us here on High Noon. And thank you to our listeners for joining us for this very special episode of High Noon. As always, you can send comments and questions to [email protected] Please help us out by hitting the “subscribe” button and leaving us a comment or a review on Apple Podcasts, Acast, Google Play, YouTube, or iwf.org. Be brave, and we’ll see you next time on High Noon.