Historic protests across the island cast doubt on the regime’s staying power.
https://www.newyorker.com-By Jon Lee Anderson
Recent demonstrations throughout Cuba are the largest mass action by the public since 1994.Photograph by Alexandre Meneghini / Getty
On Sunday, July 11th, the world took note of a historic event in Cuba, as thousands of citizens took to the streets to protest against the government. Many shouted “Patria y Vida!”—Fatherland and Life—the title of a banned but extremely popular rap song that riffs on a slogan coined by the late Fidel Castro: “Fatherland or Death.” Many also shouted “Libertad!”—Freedom—and similar phrases that are not only heretical but, when shouted in protest, illegal in Cuba, where the Communist Party is the sole legal arbiter of political life.
The uprising began in San Antonio de los Baños, a sleepy town near Havana that had been hit by a recent string of long power cuts. But Cubans across the island have become frustrated by their government’s inability to provide them with even such basic amenities as food and medicine, amid a slow vaccine rollout and spiking COVID infection rates. The protests metastasized quickly, as the news and images of what was happening shot across Facebook, Twitter, and other messaging platforms, such as WhatsApp. Within hours, there were protests in as many as sixty towns and cities, from Havana to Santiago, at the southeastern end of the island, five hundred miles away. During the past decade, despite long-standing official restrictions on the media and most other sources of independent information, Cuba’s government has gradually allowed its citizens access to cell phones and the Internet, both of which are now in widespread use. Just as skeptical Party apparatchiks had feared, this technology is proving to be a threat to their order. As Abraham Jimenez Enoa, a young Cuban friend who reported on the protests, told me this week, “The only certainty right now is that the people of this country want a change, and the Internet is helping us fight for it.”
No sooner had the protests spread than an official crackdown also got under way. As black-uniformed special-forces units, police, and stick-wielding plainclothes agents were deployed, new images emerged showing policemen beating protesters and dragging them away. There was also some violence and vandalism carried out by demonstrators: shops were looted and a couple of police cars were overturned.
Just hours later, in a bid to show that the government had regained control, President Miguel Díaz-Canel was shown on television walking down a street in San Antonio de los Baños with a security entourage, and no demonstrators in sight. He later appeared on camera to denounce the protests as a counterrevolutionary measure organized and financed by the United States, and he called on “Cuba’s revolutionaries” to “combat” the miscreants. By nightfall on Sunday, a shocked silence had fallen over the island. Access to the Internet was restricted indefinitely. Even so, news trickled out over the next few days of deepening repression by security forces and of widespread detentions, reportedly including the jailing of several prominent dissidents and government critics.
As leaders around the world condemned the crackdown—President Biden called Cuba “a failed state”—Díaz-Canel seemed to reconsider his more bellicose rhetoric, and, on Wednesday, July 14th, he appeared on state-controlled television to express his hope that “hatred does not take possession of the Cuban soul, which is one of goodness, solidarity, dedication, affection and love.” Directing his comments to “the Cuban people,” he said he wanted to see them enjoying “social peace and tranquillity, showing respect and solidarity toward one another and other needy people of the world, and to save Cuba in order to continue growing, dreaming, and achieving the greatest possible prosperity.” He spoke at length, largely blaming the unrest on “an enormous media campaign against Cuba” and a “deliberate campaign of unconventional warfare” waged by the United States. As for the “adversities” that Cuba’s enemies had exploited to provoke the protests, he said, these were the fault of the long-standing U.S. trade embargo, “the blockade.” Nevertheless, for the first time in the sixty-two-year history of the revolution, the notion that the Communist Party enjoys the immutable support of the citizens had been shattered, and, more than any other time since the end of the Cold War, its ability to remain in control was thrown into doubt.
Joe Garcia, a Cuban American and a former Democratic congressman from Miami who was recently in Cuba and often serves as an informal intermediary between the U.S. and Cuban governments, said that Díaz-Canel, a protégé of Raúl Castro, had stumbled in his first big test since becoming President, in 2018. (Earlier this year, he also became the head of the Communist Party.) “For the first time in six decades, the Cubans have seen a leader blink,” Garcia said. “This problem isn’t going away. They’ve got a health crisis and an economic crisis that their government has been unable to deal with, and telling the Cubans that it’s all the fault of the embargo is not something that’s going to fill their stomachs. Blaming the protests on the Americans, like he did, begs credibility. For the sake of argument, let’s say that the C.I.A. did it. That either means a massive intelligence failure on the part of Cuba’s intelligence services, which are supposed to be among the best in the world, or else the C.I.A. just got a lot better at what it does. Protests in sixty towns and cities across Cuba? Come on.”
The last time major protests broke out in Cuba was in August of 1994, and they occurred only in Havana. In that pre-Internet and pre-smartphone age, demonstrations were easier to contain—and Fidel Castro was alive and still very much in command of the nation he had ruled since seizing power, in 1959. It was the fourth year of the so-called Special Period, which Castro proclaimed after the Soviet Union’s collapse triggered a precipitous end to three decades of the generous subsidies that had kept his regime, and the economy, afloat. The U.S.S.R.’s demise was also a crisis for the global communist ideal, but, while most of the socialist regimes of the era also collapsed, or else quickly adapted to the new circumstances, Castro doubled down. Vowing to never give up on socialism, he said the Cubans would go it alone, if necessary, and survive.
They did survive, but by the summer of 1994, conditions had become harsh. Fuel, food, and medicine were scarce, electrical blackouts frequent, and feelings of despair widespread. Finally, in August, riots exploded along Havana’s Malecón, the seaside promenade that runs past the cramped and dilapidated neighborhoods of Centro and Old Havana, where ill feeling had been festering after several attempts by residents to flee the island by sea had been thwarted by authorities, and resulted in a number of violent deaths. When Castro was alerted to the commotion, he rushed to the Malecón, where a large mob of men and youths had assembled. They shouted anti-government slogans and picked up rocks and masonry from building sites, apparently preparing to go on a rampage. Upon sight of Castro, however, the rioters first fell silent and then began to cheer him, and soon order was restored. It was a remarkable moment, which has since found a prime place in fidelista mythology.
But it wasn’t only Castro’s presence that stunned the 1994 rioters into submission. Hundreds of rough-and-ready loyalists drawn from élite Communist Party worker’s battalions, wielding clubs and lengths of rebar, were trucked into nearby backstreets for the purpose of intimidating any protesters who did not stand down. I was living in Havana at the time, and that day I tried to approach the Malecón. As I did, plainclothes agents in the crowd around me stopped a car with an anti-Castro sign, dragged the driver out, and beat him before taking him away. People around me watched in silence and then moved away. Just then, the trucks full of workers came roaring past.
That night, Castro went on television and announced that any Cuban who wanted to leave the island by sea could so. For the next three weeks, some thirty-five thousand people built improvised boats and rafts and set sail for Key West and Miami. It was an embarrassing episode for Castro, but, as so many times before, he came out the ultimate winner, first by removing a good number of troublesome malcontents from the island, and then by forcing President Bill Clinton to deal with the crisis. Washington, fearful of another exodus like the 1980 Mariel boatlift, which had overwhelmed Miami with more than a hundred thousand Cubans, agreed to give residency to most of the balseros, as the rafters were called, and to double the number of legal Cuban émigrés it allowed in the country at the time, from ten thousand to twenty thousand yearly.
Díaz-Canel’s walk through San Antonio de los Baños on July 11th seemed a clear attempt to emulate Fidel’s iconic 1994 Malecón appearance, and his follow-up television appearance appeared similarly intended to project the power of command. But Díaz-Canel’s appearances only underscored the differences between him and Fidel Castro—and the changing times in which we live. Even if Castro’s offer to Cubans was brutal—“Leave, if you wish,” he said—it did provide a way out. Díaz-Canel, on the other hand, offered Cubans no solutions, only repression, followed by accusations of whose fault it all was: the Americans. “If Fidel had been alive, he’d have done that, and then fed them, too,” Garcia said. “But Díaz-Canel can’t.”
The paradox for Díaz-Canel, who is said by people who know him personally to want to be a reformer, is that he is boxed in by circumstances. Having been embarrassed by the Cuban uprising, he must show strength in order to preserve order. But to placate the public’s rising frustrations, he must also signal moderation, which he has belatedly tried to do; in a second address, on Wednesday, he acknowledged that his government bore responsibility for the issues that had sparked the protests, including both the shortages and the rising prices of food and medicine. But to call for dialogue, or else to “open up,” as many outsiders—the European Union and Pope Francis, among others—have urged him to do, could telegraph weakness to the boldest Cuban dissidents, and provoke new demonstrations. In any event, it seems a certainty that the unrest in Cuba has not ended.
So far, despite widespread expectation that the Biden Administration might engage in a renewed diplomatic opening, it has taken a tepid approach toward Cuba, even leaving in place many restrictions and punitive measures imposed during the Trump years; these include a last-minute listing of Cuba as a state sponsor of terror, which penalizes U.S. and foreign companies seeking to invest in the island, as well as restrictions on financial remittances and travel to the island by Americans. Earlier this year, Biden’s newly appointed national-security adviser for Western Hemisphere affairs, Juan S. Gonzalez, told me that Cuba was not a front-burner issue, given the President’s need to tackle other major crises at home and abroad. Officials have also alluded to the challenges of finding a consensus for possible gestures to Cuba on Capitol Hill, where the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Menendez, is a Democrat from New Jersey, but also a Cuban American, and closer to the Republicans than to the progressive wing of his own party when it comes to Cuba.
It is this political reality, along with the fallout that the Administration could incur from conservative Cuban Americans in Florida in next year’s congressional elections—and particularly in the Democrats’ bid to unseat Senator Marco Rubio—that has effectively kept the Administration from taking decisive action. Garcia told me that it was his understanding that the Administration had been planning some good-will gestures to Cuba, including opening up remittances again and easing travel restrictions, but, since the uprising, making any such blandishments looked difficult. “To do so now,” he said, could appear to Cuban Americans in Florida as “appeasement.”
To avoid a crisis of increasing proportions, both leaders must find a way to persuade their more intransigent allies that the best thing for Cuba, and for the United States, is renewed engagement, and also a credible and sustained opening within Cuba that can address the needs of its citizens and reduce the stresses that now threaten the island’s stability. If the Cuban Communist Party wants to survive, its denizens will have to face up to the reality that its days of unquestioned hegemony are over, and it will have to agree to share power with Cubans who have other points of view, and to give them an equal opportunity to find solutions to the problems of Cuba that they have proved unable to address.
The United States, for its part, should make it abundantly clear that it stands ready to assist Cuba and its people, but that it is opposed to violence and bloodshed, both of the kind the Cuban government has used against its protesters and the kind some Cubans, mostly from the safe distance of Miami, are calling for against their government. For the first time in living memory, Cubans on and off the island need to find a spirit of democratic compromise to find a common way forward.