The wave of protests that engulfed Cuba on July 11 has become a milestone in the island’s recent struggle for a free society. Limited at first, like so many protests across Latin America over the last few years, they soon spread out to most of the country, including small towns. It began in San Antonio de los Banos, a town about 16 miles south of Havana, as a reaction to the worsening living conditions, including shortages of food and other basic goods, power outages and a spike of COVID-19 that demonstrated the inability of the authorities to cope with the pandemic.
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Soon, the protests acquired more political overtones as tens of thousands of protesters chanted for freedom and “Patria y Vida” — “Homeland and Life,” as opposed to the old revolutionary slogan, “Homeland or Death” — a song by rapper Maykel Castillo that has become the mantra of Cuba’s democratic movement. Other slogans were less civil. They focused directly on Miguel Diaz-Canel, Cuba’s president appointed by Raul Castro in 2019, by haranguing “Díaz Canel y Raúl, singaos!” (bastards!). Ramiro Valdes, part of the revolutionary old guard, was forced to abandon Palma Soriano as demonstrators chanted “Murderer!”
Freedom and Change
Most Cuba observers have concluded that these protests are quite unprecedented. Compared to the famous Maleconazo uprising that occurred in 1994 during the dark times of the so-called Periodo Especial after the fall of the USSR, the contrast is striking. At the time, when Cuba suffered economic collapse as a result of the abrupt termination of Soviet aid, the protests took place only in Havana, around the famous Malecon esplanade. Fidel Castro himself, accompanied by a rapid-response squad, went down to face off with the protesters.
The unrest was rapidly quelled, but later that year, travel restrictions were loosened, leading to a flood of emigrants sailing for Florida by any means possible. One important difference with the current protests is their orientation. Back in 1994, many Cubans wanted to leave the country — which they did when allowed. This time, protests are asking for freedom and internal change.
The current demonstrations began in San Antonio de los Banos, home to a famous film festival, but spread simultaneously to Santiago de Cuba, Camagüey and to around other 60 districts before reaching Havana. It culminated at the Capitol, the historical building and symbol of national power, and the Revolution Square, where Castro used to make his epic, nine-hour-long speeches. As reported by blogger and journalist Yoani Sanchez, the protests were far-reaching both in volume and intensity.
As was the case during the Arab Spring, in the absence of legally operating opposition parties, the demonstrations were possible thanks to the internet and to the myriad connections it allows. In fact, in the last few years, the landscape of organized dissent has changed partly through the use of YouTube, WhatsApp, Twitter and other apps, paving the way for the emergence of several new groups, such as the San Isidro Movement, that have enhanced the presence of a different discourse alongside the official dogma, especially among the youth.
The protests seemed to respond to a tipping point of the decay of Cuban society where many of the social gains of the revolution have withered away. It was not just about the dismal response to the pandemic. For instance, the regime rejected to join the global COVAX mechanism for vaccine development and distribution, giving preference (and resources) to developing local vaccines that haven’t been duly tested according to international standards.
Cuba’s public schools today compare to those in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, Caracas or Medellin. The hospitals, the crown jewel of the revolution, are noticeably run down, understaffed and running a dramatic shortage of even the most common medications. The latest protests may have been overwhelmingly peaceful, but they were precipitated by the Cubans’ growing loss of faith and hope in the country’s future, especially among the younger generation.
On Shaky Ground
Compared to most Latin American countries, Cuba is a rather stable society. It is the only fully authoritarian state in the region, under an extreme socialist regime that has managed to survive by curbing the abilities of its citizens to overcome poverty and by exercising totalitarian control over political life. Different from Venezuela, where the attempt to create a hardcore socialist state has brought institutional, political and economic chaos, Cuba has been able to build solid institutions as well as extended and dense mechanisms of political control.
But the structural economic shortcomings of the revolution have brought about political instability yet again. The July 11 protests mark the end of a period and the beginning of a new phase. Despite their intensity and extension, and their impact on the core of Cuba’s power, it is unlikely that they will bring about deep political change. The repressive muscle orchestrated for more than 60 years by the Cuban regime is highly sophisticated and has been exported to other countries.
Different from the Maleconazo, when only the special forces were brought in, during the recent protests, the Diaz-Canel government has used all the gamut of police and militia organizations to crush dissent. By Monday, the number of arrests was estimated to be in the hundreds. By Wednesday, July 14, despite the opacity of Cuba’s official statistics, independent sources related to human rights organizations, both internal and external, counted them to be in the thousands.
The use of force has been so brutal that the vice minister of the interior, Brigadier General Jesus Manuel Buron Tabit, resigned in protest — an unprecedented move. Other regime insiders have also rejected the suppression of protests. Carlos Alejandro Rodriguez Halley, the nephew of General Luis Alberto Rodriguez Lopez-Calleja, called for the armed forces to put down their arms and for a transition for democracy.
General Lopez Calleja is not only Raul Castro’s former son-in-law but also a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and a prominent leader of the Grupo de Administracion Empresarial, S. A. (GAESA), a powerhouse in Cuba’s economy. It is seemingly the first time that dissent emerges at the core of Cuba’s leadership. From exile, Rodriguez Halley directed his pledge to his uncle and to other members of the ruling elite.
As a first response to the protests, the Cuban government has eased most importing restrictions for food and medicines, in an attempt to cater to the most basic needs of the population. But it is unlikely that the authorities will work to reverse either the crude reality Cubans live in today or the issues at the root of the crisis.
The demonstrations are not merely circumstantial but connected to more structural problems. On the two occasions where important protests have shaken the country, protests have been associated with grave social shortcomings resulting from economic collapse. In turn, those economic troubles have derived from the abrupt reduction of foreign aid.
To a large extent, Cuba’s post-revolution economy has been essentially parasitic, benefitting first from Soviet economic support until its collapse in 1991, and later from Venezuela’s largesse. Today, 70% of Cuba’s food is imported, and due to the paralysis of the tourist industry and the reduction of remittances, the government is under a currency crunch. Many of the attempted reforms to step up local production, like dollarization or more flexibility to create enterprises, have been far too timid or have stalled.
Since around 2016, the gravest impact on Cuba has been that of Venezuela’s own economic collapse, especially the steep decline in oil production. This has led to great restrictions in the amount of oil and gasoline contributions to the island, apart from Caracas’ diminishing capacity to pay for Cuba’s services, consisting mainly of 25,000 medical doctors nearly 80% of whose income goes to the government in Havana. If from around 2004 and until 2017-18 Venezuela filled the Soviet Union’s shoes, it is no longer able to do so.
In the early years of the 21st century, Venezuela and Cuba launched a large-scale offensive in Latin America to tilt the balance drastically away from US influence. In the last five to seven years, those attempts have dwindled, not only due to the absence of both firebrand leaders, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, but because of the dramatic economic downturn of Venezuela. This astonishing and rapid decline has pushed the country into a chronic humanitarian crisis, the migration of nearly 6 million people and acute international isolation. More recently, the embattled regime of Nicolas Maduro has become the target of investigations by several international human rights organizations for crimes against humanity.
Quite apart from the loss of the regional influence both countries enjoyed during the first 15 years of the century, and despite continuous claims about reciprocal solidarity between them, it is not difficult to argue that, in Cuba’s eyes, Venezuela has become more of a liability. Given the destruction of Venezuela’s oil industry, it is unlikely that it will recover production, currently as low as it was in the late 1940s. Alliance with Venezuela has pushed Cuba back to Cold War times as a result of Caracas’ confrontation with the US.
The appeasement efforts made during the Obama years, which brought about the lessening of sanctions, an increase in remittances from exiles in the US, and more flights between the two countries, evaporated during Donald Trump’s administration, thanks in good measure to the stark polarization the alliance with Venezuela involved.
One of Cuba’s great assets in Latin America, lasting, though rather diminished, until today is the symbolic capital it accumulated in the aftermath of the revolution, somewhat reinforced by the soft power of exporting medical personnel and other services. But this aura of revolutionary respectability was also related to political stability, which operated as a magnet by offering its allies in the region a solid presence, a reliable strategic stance and vast accumulated experience in dealing with the US powerhouse. This edifice is at risk today as the protests have fractured the image of a small but solid nation.
The instability brought about by the protests and the changing regional political environment of the last five years has left Cuba in unchartered territory, with no clear signs of how it will overcome the loss of Venezuela’s aid, how to redraw a lasting economic strategy or how to profit more from its international connections. Cuba does not have many options. One possibility would be to maintain the current course, with mild variations and betting that no new waves of protests occur.
The current leadership may also decide that risking a closer relationship with one of the world powers competing with the US, like Russia or China, is Havana’s best option. That would allow Cuba to cushion itself from direct or indirect blows from its northern neighbor. But if that were the case, and just as the famous realtor mantra goes, it can only offer location, location, location. Both Russia and China, given their own geopolitical vulnerabilities, could consider making a move involving military considerations. This would significantly raise the geopolitical stakes.
A third option is to negotiate a settlement with Washington by propitiating an internal transformation à la Vietnam that would involve dramatic reforms to move to a market economy. So far, the Cuban leadership has starkly avoided this latter course, essentially because it could weaken the economic power of the military-civilian elite running the country or because they risk losing control of the process. Whichever scenario the government decides to adopt, after July 11, Cuba is no longer the same.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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