The Meaning of the Protests in Cuba

The Meaning of the Protests in Cuba

The July 11 protests fused economic and political grievances. A struggle is taking place in Cuba over what happens next.

On December 16, 2020 in Rincon, Cuba, a man stands in front of a sign with an image of Fidel Castro (Sven Creutzmann/Mambo photo/Getty Images)

On Sunday, July 11, a protest broke out in San Antonio de los Baños, a small Cuban town just south of Havana. Much like the famous Maleconazo protests in 1994, simmering discontent over an economic crisis came to a boil in the heat of summer. Back then, hundreds of Cubans poured into the streets along the city’s seawall and were met by a counter-protest led personally by Fidel Castro, which brought an end to the protests with only limited police action. What happened on July 11 was far bigger and was only suppressed through a massive police response. Many protesters are currently detained, and some have already been sentenced to serious jail time in summary trials.

Thanks to the expansion of the internet in Cuba over the past decade, the rest of the world was able to follow the protests live. As millions of people watched the demonstrations unfold, a struggle began over their meaning. Successive waves of misinformation, including mislabeled photos and videos, contributed to initial confusion; one hoax involved videos falsely claiming that the major city of Camaguëy had fallen to protesters. The falsities weren’t confined to social media. On July 14, Alexis Rodríguez, a reporter with the right-wing Spanish newspaper ABC, published a story claiming that a brigadier general had resigned from an important post in the Ministry of the Interior over the excessive force used against protesters. While the story collapsed within hours, almost a month later the article remains uncorrected.

Beyond the fake stories, much of the partisan analysis of the protests ignored information deemed inconvenient for political reasons. On the right, many pointed to the chant of “libertad” as evidence that the protests were only about political change. It followed that the embargo wasn’t a key part of Cuba’s current crisis and that an even harder line towards Havana was warranted. On the left, many downplayed the protesters’ explicit political demands, and explained the protests solely in terms of U.S. responsibility for Cuba’s economic woes, which have been exacerbated by the embargo and recent sanctions.

A battle over the meaning of July 11 is also taking place within Cuba—one we see only the occasional glimpses of in public, but which burns hot in private conversations. But in order to understand the true nature of the protests and the potential for future unrest, we need to start by examining how the Cuban government’s reform model led to this moment of crisis.

When Fidel Castro became ill in 2006, he handed power to his brother Raúl, who slowly began to implement a series of major economic reforms. Raúl wanted to move Cuba toward the more market-friendly model of socialism that China and Vietnam had transitioned to decades earlier. As the government eased restrictions on private businesses, it also began to cut subsidies that the poor depended on, which Raúl would sometimes refer to as “undue gratuities.” He wanted a “prosperous and sustainable” socialism, but he studiously avoided political reforms that might threaten the absolute control of the Communist Party.

In 2019 Raúl stepped down and passed the reins to Miguel Díaz-Canel. This transfer of power was only finalized earlier this year, when Díaz-Canel became the head of the Communist Party as well as the head of government. Díaz-Canel appears to share Raúl’s approach: in the months since he took over the leadership, he has pursued economic reforms without substantive political change.

In recent years, the Cuban economy has suffered numerous setbacks. Much of the recovery from the terrible economic crisis that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union depended on the country’s relationship with Venezuela since 1998. Venezuelan oil was consumed domestically and refined and exported abroad for extra income. But over the past decade, following the collapse of Venezuela’s oil export economy, the petrostate has had trouble keeping up with its economic commitments to Cuba.

At the same time, the rise of right-wing governments in Brazil, Bolivia, and El Salvador led to the shuttering of Cuban medical mission programs that had served not only as a form of diplomacy but as an important income stream for the Cuban government. Under President Trump, the United States intensified its embargo, placed Cuba back on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, and permitted lawsuits from Americans whose property was nationalized after 1959. These lawsuits not only cost the Cuban government money, they also scare away current and future investors. Biden was initially expected to reverse Trump’s sanctions, but he left them in place and, after July 11, added new ones.

Finally, the pandemic has devastated Cuba. The country’s tourism sector, one of its most important sources of revenue, came to a standstill in 2020. Travel restrictions also significantly reduced the flow of consumer goods from Cubans who travel abroad and return with overpacked suitcases, an informal import system which had long served as an alternative to the high prices and unreliable stocks of government stores. Last year Cuba’s economy shrank by 11 percent. In a country that imports the majority of its food, the contraction hurt the island’s poorest most of all.

Then, when things seemed like they couldn’t get worse, in January the government began to unify its two currencies as part of a larger package of economic reforms. In a more prosperous period, the measure would have caused some inflation but paid off in the long run, helping to raise public salaries. In the current climate, it was like throwing a match into a room full of fireworks. On July 11, amid consumer scarcities, political frustrations, a massive surge in COVID-19 cases, and rolling blackouts in the middle of Caribbean summer, the fireworks ignited.

In a system with democratic mechanisms, these conditions would doubtless produce protests, but specific individuals and political parties could be blamed. It would be a major political crisis, but not necessarily a systemic crisis. Cuba lacks that safety valve. Cubans who had been politically frustrated but mostly just wanted to live their lives in peace are now talking about major changes. The protests of July 11 fused economic and political grievances in a way that Díaz-Canel will find difficult to separate.

Videos and photos from July 11 show a cross-section of Cuban society on the streets. While there were some longtime dissident activists involved, like the still-jailed Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara, the overwhelming majority do not appear to have been committed political activists. While we are still reconstructing exactly how protests played out across the country, it is safe to say that the internet played a key role in mobilizing people and in shaping public perception of the state response. According to reporting by independent Cuban media site El Estornudo, the initial protest in San Antonio de los Baños was organized through a Facebook group called “La Villa del Humor” (The City of Humor), where locals shared news or memes. In the months before the protest, as the economy stuttered and a COVID-19 outbreak worsened, the posts turned increasingly political. Eventually someone called a street protest, and events snowballed from there.

Thanks to the internet, what might have been an isolated event thirty years ago became a nationwide protest movement. Cubans shared videos, photos, and livestreams. Especially worrying for the government, protesters took to the streets in the thousands not only in and around Havana but even in regions that have historically been strongholds of government support, like the eastern provinces. The sheer numbers meant that even Cubans who did not personally participate likely knew someone who did. In addition to calls for “libertad” and democratization, many also chanted “patria y vida,” the slogan from an explicitly dissident song. While it is difficult to gauge public opinion without reliable polling, it’s important to note that most Cubans stayed in their homes.

The pro-government coalition has shrunk significantly since its peak in the 1960s, but it remains a key part of why the Cuban government has been able to remain in power; repression alone cannot explain its longevity. Fidel Castro maneuvered his way to the top of a popular political revolution against a violent tyrant, enacted popular reforms, and turned himself into a symbol of Cuban sovereignty and nationalist pride. The embargo and other U.S. attempts to exert influence have acted as a sort of finger-trap; in trying to rip the government’s coalition apart, U.S. actions have only helped to hold it together.

During and after the protests, however, major cultural figures with long working relationships with the government have taken surprisingly critical stances. The massively popular Cuban band Los Van Van, whose name is a reference to the government’s 1970s sugar harvest slogans, put out a statement saying they “supported the thousands of Cubans who are demanding their rights, who should be listened to.”| They added that “we say no to violence, but also to atropello,” meaning abuse or unjust action, usually by someone in a position of power. Legendary singer-songwriter and longtime supporter of the government Silvio Rodríguez called for conversations with those who had taken to the streets. He argued that there needed to be “more bridges,” and recognized the merits of some of their frustrations. Rodríguez also promised to intercede with the government on behalf of nonviolent protesters who had been detained. Cuba’s best-known living novelist, Leonardo Padura, who has historically been very careful about public criticisms of the government, wrote that the protests were a “cry that is also a result of desperation” and one which should be heard by the government. While these statements sound measured, the fact that such prominent cultural figures spoke out at all is an important sign of frustrations and rumblings within Cuba.

The real battle being waged right now concerns the large segment of the population that is politically frustrated but largely demobilized. The opposition is trying to appeal to these people, in the hopes that the next time protests break out, they can be counted on to take to the streets. The government’s objective is to prevent that mobilization. This battle will happen largely behind closed doors or in private group chats through Facebook messenger, WhatsApp, and other online applications. In the short-term, it will be shaped by how the protests and the government response come to be understood by everyday Cubans.

The government seems unprepared for this struggle for hearts and minds. One major problem is the low quality of Cuban state media. Even before the growth of internet access, state sources were notoriously untrustworthy and ineffective. One decades-old joke goes, “If Napoleon Bonaparte had had Granma [Cuba’s largest state-run newspaper], nobody would have found out about Waterloo.”

Perhaps even more critically, the past decade has seen the growth of a young and diverse liberal dissident movement that has been skillfully outmaneuvering the Cuban government on numerous issues. While Cuba’s policies on LGBTQ rights have improved a great deal since the dark days of forced labor camps for gay men in the 1960s, the failure to pass marriage equality laws and the tight government control over the pace and direction of the LGBTQ movement have left many frustrated. In 2019 police arrested individuals attempting to stage an independent LGBTQ pride march in Havana. That the state also failed to include marriage equality in the new constitution after a negative campaign by right-wing evangelicals has only compounded this anger.

Similar dynamics can be seen in the government’s approach to race. The Cuban state has moved away from the old line that the Revolution solved the problem of racism, but it has been outflanked by Cubans criticizing its failure to combat contemporary racism, with many pointing to the rampant racism of the private sector and the still massive racial wealth gap. Many of the dissident movement’s prominent figures are Afro-Cuban and after July 11, the government tried to sideline the protesters by labeling them “marginals” (coded both in terms of class and race).

This attempt to diminish the protests could backfire. Many of the Cuban government’s supporters have long privately shared the frustrations of those who took to the streets on July 11. They are unhappy with the government’s lack of transparency, its frequent heavy-handedness when making policy decisions, the slow and uneven pace of its economic reforms, and the absence of political reforms that would increase their say in policy. Havana’s failure to respond to these criticisms has given credence to its liberal critics, who question whether the government can be reformed at all.

Thousands of Cubans took to the streets on July 11 to protest not just shortages but also a lack of political freedoms. They deserve a say in the future of their country, and we should not remain silent about arbitrary arrests, summary trials, excessive force, or other abuses of their rights. Failure to confront these issues directly is neither strategically nor morally sound.

At the same time, it’s important to emphasize that many of the Cuban-American right’s hardline policy proposals, from the embargo to military intervention, have no real constituency in Cuba. For six decades, the United States has imposed a brutal sanctions regime. Billions of dollars have been spent on attempts to overthrow the Cuban government, not out of a concern for its people but for geopolitical reasons. The United States has also long been a base for terrorists in exile to strike at Cuba and then retire; three years ago, Luis Posada Carriles passed away a free man in Miami despite masterminding the murder of seventy-three people, including twenty-four members of the Cuban National Fencing Team, in a bombing of a Cuban civilian airliner in 1976.

There is no doubt that sanctions imposed mid-pandemic have contributed to the crisis. American politicians and Cuban-American hardliners that supported them bear partial responsibility for the COVID-19-related deaths of Cuban citizens. A struggle for the support of a divided Cuban people is taking place, continuing a longer struggle for self-determination going back 200 years—and it is one that only Cubans living on the island should decide. The job for those of us outside of Cuba is to give them the space to make these choices for themselves.

Andrés Pertierra is a Latin American & Caribbean PhD student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison specializing in the history of Cuba and U.S.-Cuban relations. His work has previously appeared in publications like the Nation and Dissent.

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