Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Don’t Let Cuba’s Protest Momentum Evaporate

U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration should listen to activists on the ground.

By , an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.
Cuban activists and supporters rally outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington on July 27.
Cuban activists and supporters rally outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington on July 27. OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images

On July 11, demonstrators launched an anti-government protest in San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba, a small town 22 miles from Havana, that quickly spread to almost every city in Cuba. The uprisings, Cuba’s largest protests in decades, continued for days, even after the Cuban government called on “true revolutionaries” to take action against protesters and police and special forces responded with a severe crackdown.

The protests were sparked by a recent economic downturn and a surge in COVID-19 cases amid a slow vaccine rollout, but discontent about life under the dictatorship has been building for years—creating mass exoduses every decade. Among those most likely to flee are Cubans of African descent, starting with the 1980 Mariel boatlift, when approximately 18,000 Cubans of African descent fled the island. Afro-Cubans in San Antonio de los Baños and across the island, especially young people, have been at the forefront of this summer’s movement.

I am an Afro-Cuban American and a researcher who has spent time in Cuba, including in the neighborhoods where these protests started, collecting the stories of people who have been marginalized and silenced by the regime. The first thing the United States needs to do in crafting policy solutions is listen to the brave people risking their lives and freedom to lead these protests, especially Afro-Cubans who have lived at the bottom of the regime’s racist and classist system.

On July 11, demonstrators launched an anti-government protest in San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba, a small town 22 miles from Havana, that quickly spread to almost every city in Cuba. The uprisings, Cuba’s largest protests in decades, continued for days, even after the Cuban government called on “true revolutionaries” to take action against protesters and police and special forces responded with a severe crackdown.

The protests were sparked by a recent economic downturn and a surge in COVID-19 cases amid a slow vaccine rollout, but discontent about life under the dictatorship has been building for years—creating mass exoduses every decade. Among those most likely to flee are Cubans of African descent, starting with the 1980 Mariel boatlift, when approximately 18,000 Cubans of African descent fled the island. Afro-Cubans in San Antonio de los Baños and across the island, especially young people, have been at the forefront of this summer’s movement.

I am an Afro-Cuban American and a researcher who has spent time in Cuba, including in the neighborhoods where these protests started, collecting the stories of people who have been marginalized and silenced by the regime. The first thing the United States needs to do in crafting policy solutions is listen to the brave people risking their lives and freedom to lead these protests, especially Afro-Cubans who have lived at the bottom of the regime’s racist and classist system.

The first thing the United States needs to do in crafting policy solutions is listen to the brave people risking their lives and freedom to lead these protests, especially Afro-Cubans who have lived at the bottom of the regime’s racist and classist system.

The soundtrack to the uprising is “Patria y Vida,” a song featuring several Afro-Cuban rappers resident in Cuba and in the United States. The two who live on the island, Maykel Osorbo and El Funky, are part of the San Isidro Movement (MSI), a protest group of artists, writers, and academics. They have been challenging the regime publicly since 2018 through actions like hunger strikes and sewing their mouths shut. Both have been detained in the past. Osorbo and Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, another MSI artist, are currently detained. Alcántara was transferred to a maximum security prison a few days ago. These arrests are common practice. Only the rapid spread of mass protests across the island is new.

The chorus of “Patria y Vida” (meaning “homeland and life”) is a counterpoint to the revolution’s “homeland or death” slogan. It is a cry of hope chanted at rallies in Cuba and by members of the diaspora around the world. It quickly became the hashtag to follow this month’s movement on social media. The rappers also challenge former leader Fidel Castro’s long-standing lie that the 1959 revolution ended racism in Cuba: “We are artists. We are sensibility. The true story, not the incorrectly narrated one.”

That false narrative denied the identity, dignity, and heritage of the estimated 70 percent of Cubans who are of African descent. They are the people most likely to live in poor neighborhoods and the ones least likely to have access to health care, educational opportunities, or tourism jobs. Afro-Cuban organizations have been outlawed and suppressed for more than 60 years, and the regime has treated efforts by Afro-Cubans to build community groups as a threat to the state and the party. Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel has attempted to dismiss the leaders of the protests, many from marginalized neighborhoods, as he regularly does with any dissenters on the island. The state newspaper Granma labeled the protesters “grupúsculos,” or troublemakers and social undesirables, in a write-up of Díaz-Canel’s remarks after the protests.

What do protesters want? They want an end to food shortages, which the regime has weaponized, delaying the distribution of staples like bread. They also want access to COVID-19 vaccines. The regime has so far refused to join the COVAX program providing shots for developing countries, and the rollout of Cuban-made vaccines has been significantly delayed. They want access to routine health care. I found the regime’s selective rationing of care has meant only those with U.S. dollars can be sure to get the treatment they need. This leads to women regularly giving birth without anesthesia and people dying of preventable deaths.

They want to be able to go to college without being forced to support the communist party and to study and learn at institutions that value racial justice and individual choice. They want to be able to log onto the internet without censorship and having to pay high fees. Most importantly, they want to participate in choosing what comes next for the country without fear of being sent to jail.

Since the protests have started, some have called on the Biden administration to revisit the U.S. trade embargo of Cuba and the policy restricting remittances, or money transfers between families in the United States and Cuba. Neither move would give Afro-Cubans what they are asking for. The U.S. embargo matters less to the average Cuban than what I’ll call the internal blockade the regime uses to make a profit and punish its people. For example, even under the trade embargo, U.S. producers are allowed to sell food and medicine to Cuba. The regime buys about $100 million worth of chicken from U.S. producers annually but sells it as a luxury good. Allowing remittances won’t help all that much. In the past, the Cuban government skimmed 12 to 20 cents on the dollar off every payment and will probably do so again. What’s more, Afro-Cubans tend to have fewer family members living in the United States, so little money would reach them.

What can the U.S. government do? It can rally the global community, especially countries that regularly trade with Cuba, to support the protesters by focusing attention on the regime’s racist human rights abuses. Since the start of these protests, the regime has arrested or abducted many who speak out. We can’t say how many. Their families don’t know where they are or when they might be released. This is in addition to more than 100 cases I have documented of Afro-Cuban dissenters who have been jailed since 2000. The true number could be at least double that. U.S. President Joe Biden should work with the international community to make releasing these political prisoners a priority.

Biden should also fast track efforts to provide increased internet access to the island. It’s a way Cubans can connect with one another, maintain pressure on the government, and show the world what is really happening on the island. This is a technical challenge, but solving it would show the United States supports free expression.

As Americans discuss how to engage over the coming weeks and months, let’s make this about the Cuban people, not us. To quote again from “Patria y Vida”: “No more lies. My people demand freedom. No more doctrine.” Because of the regime’s propaganda, U.S. liberals and conservatives can find their policy preferences wrapped up in U.S. racial and domestic politics about Cuba in a way that does not happen with a dictatorship like North Korea. As many of us chanted as we protested in cities across the country—and most recently in Washington last Sunday—“Cuba belongs to the people of Cuba!”

Amalia Dache is an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. Twitter: @amaliadache

More from Foreign Policy

The Taliban delegation leaves the hotel after meeting with representatives of Russia, China, the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Qatar in Moscow on March 19.

China and the Taliban Begin Their Romance

Beijing has its eyes set on using Afghanistan as a strategic corridor once U.S. troops are out of the way.

An Afghan security member pours gasoline over a pile of seized drugs and alcoholic drinks

The Taliban Are Breaking Bad

Meth is even more profitable than heroin—and is turbocharging the insurgency.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addresses the U.N. Security Council from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 4, 2020.

Belarus’s Unlikely New Leader

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya didn’t set out to challenge a brutal dictatorship.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid

What the Taliban Takeover Means for India

Kabul’s swift collapse leaves New Delhi with significant security concerns.