Argument

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Cuba Doesn’t Know How to Handle the New Protests

The island hasn’t seen anything like this for decades.

By , an English journalist and writer.
People protest in Cuba.
People take part in a demonstration against the government in Havana, Cuba, on July 11. Adalberto Roque/AFP via Getty Images

For seasoned Cuba watchers, it has been a remarkable couple of days. For the first time since the mid-1990s, mass protests have rocked the communist-run island. Now, like then, the main sources of discontent are food shortages, government repression, and a stagnant economy.

But 1994, the last time Cuba witnessed anything like this, Cuba was at the height of the so-called “special period.” The country was ravaged by shortages following the collapse of its benefactor, the Soviet Union. When the USSR fell, around a third of Cuba’s GDP disappeared almost overnight. Rolling blackouts became the norm, and food was hard to find. Protests back then were much smaller, however, and consisted of several hundred demonstrators in Havana.

This time around, the economic crisis isn’t quite as catastrophic, but the protests are both bigger and more threatening to the communist government. In part, that’s because of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s death in 2016. In the aftermath of the 1994 riots, Castro, along with his entourage, traveled down to the Malecon, Havana’s iconic seawall. Castro declared that anyone who wanted to leave Cuba could do so. “We are not opposed to anything, to letting those who want to leave, leave,” he declared. Over the ensuing months, the wily Cuban leader opened Cuba’s maritime ports, allowing thousands of balseros (“rafters”) to depart for the United States, a regular safety valve the former Cuban leader deployed to get rid of malcontents.

For seasoned Cuba watchers, it has been a remarkable couple of days. For the first time since the mid-1990s, mass protests have rocked the communist-run island. Now, like then, the main sources of discontent are food shortages, government repression, and a stagnant economy.

But 1994, the last time Cuba witnessed anything like this, Cuba was at the height of the so-called “special period.” The country was ravaged by shortages following the collapse of its benefactor, the Soviet Union. When the USSR fell, around a third of Cuba’s GDP disappeared almost overnight. Rolling blackouts became the norm, and food was hard to find. Protests back then were much smaller, however, and consisted of several hundred demonstrators in Havana.

This time around, the economic crisis isn’t quite as catastrophic, but the protests are both bigger and more threatening to the communist government. In part, that’s because of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s death in 2016. In the aftermath of the 1994 riots, Castro, along with his entourage, traveled down to the Malecon, Havana’s iconic seawall. Castro declared that anyone who wanted to leave Cuba could do so. “We are not opposed to anything, to letting those who want to leave, leave,” he declared. Over the ensuing months, the wily Cuban leader opened Cuba’s maritime ports, allowing thousands of balseros (“rafters”) to depart for the United States, a regular safety valve the former Cuban leader deployed to get rid of malcontents.

Another key difference this time around is social media. Protests reportedly began on Sunday in San Antonio de los Baños, a town around 22 miles from Havana, where Cubans took to the streets to protest against electricity blackouts and to demand access to COVID-19 vaccinations amid a rapidly escalating coronavirus crisis. This week, Cuba had an estimated 5,000 new COVID-19 cases. As images of the protests spread via social media, further crowds of anti-government protesters appeared across the island, from Holguín, Santa Clara, Matanzas, and Camaguey to Guantánamo and Santiago de Cuba. Videos of police—usually a source of fear—being pelted with rocks went viral.

These videos went viral on social media platforms outside of Cuba as well, where they were amplified by a digitally connected diaspora. #CubaSOS was trending on Twitter by Saturday evening, and there were large street protests in the Miami exile community throughout the night. The government has responded by taking much of the island offline.

Much of the discontent can be traced to a broken economy. State-run stores that sell goods priced in U.S. dollars—a source of resentment for Cubans, most of whom are unable to afford the items offered—were looted in Havana. Crowds gathered next to Havana’s capitol building and chantedlibertad” (“freedom”), “down with the dictatorship” and “patria y vida” (“homeland and life”). In the city of Cárdenas, footage emerged of the first secretary of the local communist party’s vehicle being overturned by a crowd of protesters.

It has long been acknowledged even inside the Cuban government that the island’s state-run economic model does not work. Castro said as much himself in an interview with American journalist Jeffrey Goldberg in 2011. In 2008, following Fidel’s incapacitation, then-Cuban leader Raúl Castro attempted to reform the moribund command economy, liberalizing key sectors and seeking rapprochement with then-U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration.

However, following the presidential election of Donald Trump in 2016 and resistance to Raúl Castro’s reforms from hard-liners within the Cuban leadership, Cuba’s optimism during 2015 and 2016 dissipated. Economic reforms approved by the 6th Communist Party Congress back in 2009 stalled. Then, in 2018, then-86-year-old Raúl Castro passed power to a handpicked successor, Miguel Díaz-Canel, a long-time party functionary who had served as vice president for the previous five years. One of Díaz-Canel’s slogans since then has been “we are continuity,” an uninspiring and frustrating message for young Cubans who are tired of limits on free expression and basic food staple shortages.

The pandemic has exacerbated Cuba’s economic problems. Despite being praised internationally for its handling of the coronavirus in the first half of 2020 (Cuba reported just 2,726 cases and 88 deaths by August 2020), in recent weeks, coronavirus cases have risen sharply. In parts of the island, the hospital system appears to be close to collapse. Longstanding medicine shortages have taken on renewed significance as more Cubans turn up at hospitals with COVID-19 symptoms. Some of the country’s medical centers are reportedly without aspirin.

Cuba has been dependent on foreign visitors for much of its income in recent decades. With global tourism near dead for 18 months, the island’s economy has taken a severe hit. In 2020, the Cuban economy shrank by 11 percent, its most precipitous fall since the cut off of Soviet aid in the early 1990s. Díaz-Canel last year introduced his own package of emergency economic reforms while increasing wages, which triggered a spike in staple food prices. Prices could rise between 500 percent and 900 percent in the coming months.

Discontent went public at the end of 2020 when artists and intellectuals of the San Isidro movement gathered outside Cuba’s Ministry of Culture to protest limits on free expression. In a bold and rare act of defiance, 300 artists, intellectuals, and activists stunned the Cuban leadership by gathering outside the ministry to demand the freedom of rapper Denis Solís González, who was detained by Cuban authorities after sharing a video where he sang about repression in Cuba. Authorities responded to the San Isidro movement in a familiar fashion: by denouncing the protesters as U.S. agents.

The Cuban authorities have responded in much the same way this time around, even as the number of protesters grows. In the aftermath of yesterday’s protests, the authorities blocked access to online social networks. On Sunday at 3 p.m. local time, Díaz-Canel appeared on state television to denounce protesters as “counter-revolutionaries” and “mercenaries” paid by the United States. Díaz-Canel also appeared to call for civil war, ordering government supporters onto the streets in a “call to combat.” “The order to fight has been given—into the street, revolutionaries!” Díaz-Canel said in his television address.

Videos have since emerged showing the Cuban police firing shots at unarmed protesters. So far, the government has detained at least 100 people, and the country’s notorious special forces—known as the “black wasps” due to the color of their uniforms—have been recorded wearing plain clothes and attacking protesters with batons. The White House issued a statement on Sunday night calling on the Cuban government to “hear their people and serve their needs.”

What is clear is the ongoing protests are completely unprecedented. Even during the darkest days of the “special period,” nothing on this scale—spontaneous, mass grassroot uprisings spreading from Havana in the west to Santiago de Cuba in the east—occurred.

It is too early to characterize this weekend as Cuba’s 1989 moment. But Cuba’s communist rulers are rapidly approaching a similar juncture to the one leaders of their Eastern European sister parties faced three decades ago. The Cuban Communist Party can liberalize the system and risk their own displacement, or it can deploy the full force of the state against the population, albeit right on the doorstep of the United States.

It has arrived here because its preferred option—to continue with the status quo and exhort ordinary Cubans to make ever greater sacrifices—is suddenly no longer an option. As the older revolutionary generation shuffles off this mortal coil, with only a handful of Sierra Maestra veterans left in the Cuban government, younger Cubans have lost their fear.

James Bloodworth is an English journalist and writer. He is the author of Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain.

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