Beginning on July 11th of this year, Cubans publicly protested against their government for over a week. In response to the unprecedented disobedience by a citizenry that usually does not protest, the Cuban government cracked down. Plainclothes officers, regular police, and the infamous Black Berets special forces patrolled the streets and beat protestors. The forces were supported by military equipment intended to cause fear but also for use if the balance tipped against the government. Cubans had not protested like this in a long time, the last big protest taking place in the ‘90s. However, that was constrained to just Havana. These were all over the island.
Across the Florida straits, the Cuban emigres cheered protestors on. Fueled by a mix of personal animosity toward the regime they fled and ideological animosity to Cuba’s self-professed Marxism-Leninism, they marched in support. Upset that the American administration was not doing more to aid the Cuban cause, many Cubans abroad demanded that America employ sanctions, provide arms, or conduct a military intervention.
As usual, the partisan press of both countries got to applying their own biases. Fox News called them anti-government, anti-communist protests, and issued headlines like “Washington protesters descend on Cuban embassy, accuse Biden team of supporting communism.” The son of the former President, Donald Trump Jr., accused Biden’s Homeland Security Secretary of not wanting “legitimate asylum-seekers fleeing Cuba to come to the US” because they won’t vote for “socialist Democrats.” Some among the Democrats, including the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, focused instead on the embargo/Trump sanctions element, choosing to highlight the economic nature of the protests rather than any ideological matter. The Cuban press, controlled by the government, urged physical confrontation. The President, Miguel Díaz-Canel, took to TV and branded demonstrators as counter-revolutionaries, saying, “the order to combat has been given.”
The split responses betray a fractured Cuban psyche, separated physically between homeland and exterior, separated politically by the Cold War that hasn’t ended for Cuba, and separated historically by the defining event of modern Cuban history—Castro’s triumph in The Cuban Revolution of 1959. The desire to reconcile these differences, by communication or by force, has been playing out for 60 years. These protests were the latest example of that, and the truth of it all hinges behind one question: what were they about? Were they a cry for freedom, a plea to end the embargo, an anti-revolutionary show of force, or the result of deprivation and hunger? This is the question this piece seeks to answer. As with everything about Cuban history, it’s more complicated than it seems.
The Cuban Revolution created a psychic break, where two ideas about pre-Castro Cuba crystallized over the years. The Cuban government line is that pre-’59 Cuba had few redeemable traits. It was a neo-colony where corruption, oppression, and degradation were the biggest forces. In Miami it’s the opposite, pre-‘59 Cuba is seen as a wonderland of economic prosperity and opportunity—flashy cars, movie theaters, big casinos, domestic industry! Sure, Batista was bad, but good government was right around the corner if private industry could just flourish. Both ideas on their own are a bit silly.
In The Cuban Diplomatic Experience, a thorough analysis of 1944-1952 Cuba, historian Charles Ameringer illustrates how the men in control before Castro mostly came from populist parties. The island was neither heaven nor hell. It was a deeply imperfect social democracy with expectations that it could get better. The men in control mostly came from populist parties that at times sounded like social democrats yet would regularly plunder the nation’s resources with a cartoonish, banana republic zeal. One of the presidents, Grau San Martin, faced a court case for stealing millions from pension funds and the education ministry. Armed men broke into the courthouse that stored his trial documents and stole them with such precision that it could only have been an inside job in cooperation with the next administration. Violent student gangsters financed with government money roamed Havana and worked as election fixers, sometimes taking government posts, often in the police department.
The island was also not a free-market wonderland with no state intervention. In all of the second Republic—from 1940 to 1952—every president or political party that held a congressional majority that did advertised itself as progressive or populist. The constitution, passed in 1940, promised the usual rights we associate with democracy, but it also promised economic rights that in most countries are merely laws, not constitutional mandates. These included employment insurance, one month of vacation, right to form unions, no firing employees without providing just cause before a tribunal, six weeks paid leave before and after childbirth for women, and the eventual break up of the large plots that had been accumulated by sugarcane companies and wealthy landowners. Granted, a constitution is just words on a page. It needs follow-through to matter. In Cuba: A History, Hugh Thomas points out that the hard work of passing complementary laws to actually carry out the mandates was left to be ignored by subsequent administrations. By the time of Batista’s 1952 coup, some progress had been made. Cuba was on a self-correcting course to bring more of the constitution’s words into reality.
The flawed era of Cuban democracy was ended by Fulgencio Batista, who had been a military strongman in the 1930s, a popular president in the 1940s, and a lazy absentee Senator from 1948 to 1952. His military coup did not please many, but the United States recognized his regime and continued their business on the island. Opposition to his unconstitutional takeover, corruption, and violent rule increased steadily over the years. Any political party that would submit to his sham elections and legitimize his rule would be tarnished. Eventually, much of the population, particularly the middle class, turned against him. Toward the end, the United States stopped sending Batista arms. Facing the complete collapse of his army, the dictator fled. The man who offered the most spirited opposition, and had done so for a decade, was Fidel Castro, who was actively waging a guerilla campaign against the dictator. Jonathan Hansen’s Young Castro: The Making of a Revolutionary makes clear that Castro’s movement was so successful because it outlived others that tried and failed to topple Batista. Castro emerged as the leader of the revolutionary movement, in control of the armed forces, with spotless revolutionary credentials.
The first wave of post-revolutionary exiles were the Batistianos and financial backers of the Batista regime. As Castro began to act on his revolutionary program of land redistribution and economic nationalism, he stoked the ire of the United States and the wealthier Cuban population, who also then fled. A series of back and forth economic recriminations followed, with the US deciding to buy less Cuban sugar and refusing to sell the Cubans oil or refine Soviet crude oil. As a response, Castro nationalized US oil facilities in Cuba, which brought on the first embargo of all sales to Cuba except food and medicine. Cuba’s retort was to nationalize all American industry and property. By the end of the Eisenhower administration in 1961, Cuba was embargoed and all diplomatic relations had ceased. The Soviet Union stepped up to shoulder the Cuban economy, filling the gaps left in the economy by the US.
On May Day of 1961, following the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in which a series of CIA-trained and funded Cuban exiles attempted to invade the island, Fidel Castro officially declared Cuba socialist. What followed was a decade where more and more of the economy was nationalized, culminating with full nationalization in 1968 and full integration into the Soviet model. Repression of nonconformists and dissidents, which had occurred in the ‘60s, increased in the 1970s as Soviet technical experts travelled to the island and molded it in their image. Cuba continued to send dissidents abroad rather than allowing discontent to fester within their borders. In 1980, Fidel opened up the Mariel harbor for anyone who could get a boat and wanted to leave. Castro shipped Cuba’s jail and asylum population along with them, landing in Miami.
Source: The World Bank
The island’s growth accelerated tremendously then stagnated with the rest of the Soviet bloc.
When the Soviet Union fell, Cuba’s economy entered a disastrous spiral known as the Special Period. With a 35% GDP shrinkage and shortages of nearly every important good, many looked to escape. So began the era of the balseros, Cubans who put together makeshift dinghies to take them from some Northern Cuban beach to Florida, with many dying at sea. Unlike other refugees, Cubans had the wet-foot dry-foot policy safeguarding them from deportation. It bestowed any Cuban who managed to touch a US shore the right to pursue residency and eventual citizenship. It continued until Obama announced an end to the policy. Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba coincided with Raul Castro’s reform of the economy to be more private and tourist-facing. But by 2017, the thaw was ending. Raul had openly critiqued Cuban business owners (called cuentapropistas, meaning self-employed). New business licenses were frozen, the list of occupations that could be done in the private sector was slashed. Trump followed shortly after with new sanctions. Since then, Cuba has been in a strange limbo, promising reforms but always slowing them down for further bureaucratic consideration, waiting for Trump to go away.
Then COVID-19 hit, and everything got a lot worse.
The Nature of the Protests
COVID-19 is the proximate cause for the ferocity of the protests. This is not to say the pandemic was the only issue. Obviously, something more is at play when one of the big slogans to come out of the movement is “Díaz-Canel singao” (Díaz-Canel is a fucker). Were it not for COVID, there might have been discontent in Cuba and some limited protests but nothing like we saw. The effects of it have been disastrous on the island, having caught it at an inopportune time. Three economic shocks made this crisis much worse.
First was the Venezuela crisis. Thanks to the close personal relationship between Fidel Castro and former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, Cuba received heavily subsidized oil imports. Cuba uses this oil for its own domestic needs or sells it. Either way, it was a multi-billion dollar annual gift to the Cuban economy. In return, Cuba would send medical professionals and military personnel. Following the economic recession and 800% hyperinflation in Venezuela in 2016, those oil exports dried up.
Second were the Trump sanctions. Trump banned the US from doing business with Cuban military-run companies. The problem is whenever Cubans abroad send remittances, money, they must interact with a subsidiary of the military. Cubans send remittances through Western Union, who must do business with its Cuban counterpart, FINCIMEX, the Cuban military-run company that takes a cut of anything sent. This ban had the effect of causing Western Union to cease their operations on the island. Trump’s sanctions drove remittances underground, meaning less would be sent and the government would capture less of it. Trump also severely restricted flights to Cuba, which meant less US tourism money.
The third shock was the phasing out of the dual currency system. Since 1994, there have been two official currencies in Cuba—the Cuban peso and the CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso). It takes 25 pesos to make one CUC. The exchange rate between a CUC and a dollar is one-to-one. The CUC is funny money. It can’t be exchanged for anything outside of Cuba. The reason behind its creation was that the government didn’t want Dollars and Euros on the streets during the Special Period, creating a two-tier economy. Rather than allowing such an economy to emerge informally and outside their control, the regime created its own. In the Cuban dual economy foreign currency must be converted to be used on the island, allowing the government to capture foreign currency from both tourists and Cubans visiting their families or sending them dollars. The regime then uses the foreign currency to make its purchases and direct the economy how it deems fit. Some places you can only buy goods with pesos, some government stores only with CUC.
The government has been trying to get rid of this for almost a decade. Linked is an NPR article from 2013 so you get a sense of the slow pace of change. They aren’t doing it out of any concern for Cubans, but because it’s too confusing for tourists to carry two currencies and deal with monopoly-money exchange rates. But they decided to implement it last year during the pandemic, to disastrous effects. Since COVID dried up tourism and trade, the government found itself with a severe cash shortage, which in turn became a shortage of everything. The devaluation of the peso made it a poisonous economic cocktail. Cubans had always struggled to put food on the table, but now there was no food, much less basic essentials that had always been always extremely rare. Things Americans take for granted like Tylenol, toothpaste, and other basic household/sanitation products vanished.
The economic conditions were enough for any populace to get sick of their government and take to the streets. Certainly, in a democratic country, whatever administration had led the people down the march of economic folly to this extent would be voted out. But Cuba is not this. While hardship was the main reason why Cubans marched, the protests exploded with a flurry of anti-government criticisms usually reserved for hushed behind-the-door conversations. Cubans are fundamentally unfree people in many ways, and they are growing increasingly aware of it.
An Unfree Society
So far we have been addressing the material conditions of Cubans, but it’s easy to overlook the fact that there is more to life than the material. Rights we take for granted—speech, assembly, freedom to print and disseminate points of view—make up civil society. When people are denied these, they chafe, keenly feeling that there is a sphere of life they can’t access without extreme peril.
Cubans lack a civil society. How the sausage actually gets made in Cuban elections is difficult to describe and would require an entire article to explain, but the elections are not free or fair. Cuba is a one party system, with the Communust Party of Cuba (PCC) recognized constitutionally as “the superior driving force of the society and the State.” Rival parties are illegal, as is campaigning. The electoral process is a complicated matrioshka, unclear and hierarchical. It would be more fitting to describe it as election by nomenklatura. In national elections, candidate lists are pruned down by several commissions, ultimately ending up in front of the National Candidacy Commission, a communist controlled body made up of government organizations who put a stop to anyone not deemed sufficiently “revolutionary.” They decide on a single candidate for each seat who can only receive a yes or no vote. In the last election, every candidate put forth was elected. While this process is going on, the regime arbitrarily arrests and harasses any candidates who make trouble for them.
The newly-elected candidates make up the Cuban congress, which does not actually make policy—though it claims to. Policy is made from the top down, by the Council of State, which is a list of 31 officials presented to congress for approval. The Council of State is the top brass, composed of the president, members of the military, revolutionary stalwarts, and other ministers. The Council of State isn’t selected by the congress. They are also picked by the same communist-controlled National Candidacy Commission. The congress is expected to ok the commission’s choice, and seeing as they were chosen by that same body, this has never been a problem. The Council of State rules Cuba, their decisions rubber-stamped by the do-nothing congress. This tightly controlled bureaucracy that makes most important electoral decisions is how the party gives the illusion of choice while perpetuating itself.
Cubans do not have free speech. Deviation from the party line is met with recriminations. These consist of demotions, loss of employment, loss of schooling, acts of repudiation, frequent visits by the police, intimidation of friends and family, and in the worst case jail. Cubans have a sixth sense of what they can and can’t say. They know a slip-up will make their lives harder and end their careers, whatever they might be. They exercise this double consciousness with virtuosic skill, saying the slogans they need to publicly while privately airing all sorts of complaints about their government.
Cubans did not have freedom of travel until 2013. Their leaders could wax poetically about their allies in Africa and South America, but regular citizens could not see any of these places without special permission from the state. Even now, it remains prohibitively expensive. Only relatives abroad can pay for a Cuban’s ticket out of the country. Cubans cannot settle freely in their own capital, Havana, or apply for programs there without special permissions from the state. They can’t pursue a number of careers privately, such as book publishing, audiovisual design, or metallurgy. They can’t import and export freely, having to go through state monopolies. Until recently they didn’t even have the internet. It’s introduction changed everything.
The Cuban government was cognizant that the second Cubans got online they would create life outside of government channels. Until 2008, they needed government permission to obtain a cellphone. Until 2019, they weren’t allowed to have home wifi, which they can’t afford anyway. Wifi is owned by a state company and the rates are prohibitively expensive, once again needing regular topping-up by relatives abroad. The state company can ban websites and shut down any connection. They did this during the protests, blacking out the internet for five days to stop the flow of news. Despite the adversity, Cubans are online, on Whatsapp, Twitter, Youtube, and Facebook. They got to see life outside their borders. With cultural exchange came exposure to ideologies that would have been inconceivable while Fidel Castro held power, and now many, especially the youth, are resolute that there are better modes of living. The recent San Isidro protests—led by a young, mixed-race artist collective against the imprisonment of their members—nearly made the government yield to talks.
This showdown led to the now famous “Patria y Vida” song being released, featuring the prominent reggaeton duo Gente de Zona. Gente de Zona is a big deal. They actually lived in Cuba, and aside from being the most popular Cuban musicians today, they worked with one of the most celebrated latin artists of all time, Enrique Iglesias, in his smash hit “Bailando,” which has over three billion views on Youtube. The title of their song—Patria y Vida—means Fatherland and Life, a play on the Cuban government slogan Fatherland or Death. It is explicitly anti-regime and anti-communist, with lyrics like “no more lies. My people ask for freedom. No more doctrines.” It got under the government’s skin in a bad way. The Cuban President addressed it on Twitter, the official newspaper called it hateful, and the government even hired some songwriters to release retort songs.
It’s impossible to deny there was an anti-communist element to the July protests. The outrage can’t be attributed alone to economic privation or desperation, though that is what ignited the demonstrations. There are Cubans who favor a complete ideological overhaul of the system, and they are now outspoken in this belief, publicizing it through social media.
Having ready access to the internet also means that Cubans are in regular communication with their family abroad, particularly in Miami. This exchange of ideas in no way benefits the communist regime.
The Miami Connection
The Miami emigres have a great deal of animosity toward the Cuban government, and they have good reason to. The government has regularly vilified them, calling them gusanos—worms. Fidel famously said in the 1980s “We don’t want them. We don’t need them.” The gambit didn’t pay off. As I’ve pointed out, the regime—through their subsidiary company—takes a cut of any money the exiles send, and they badly need it to stay afloat. Cubans abroad are nickel-and-dimed for everything: the remittances which the government tries to absorb, the data they buy from the state telecom company, the money they bring when they visit, the money they send to renew their Cuban passport (Cuba does not allow citizens to enter with any other). Few governments today treat their exile population with more disgust, and this has nursed a justified personal hatred in a majority of the emigres. Their enmity has mixed with American right-wing politics, finding a home in the traditionally anti-communist Republican party. This powerful combination keeps the embargo alive.
The embargo—which the Cubans refer to by the more severe term, the blockade—is a tangled mess of legislation and executive actions. It prevents most US businesses from conducting commercial activities on the island. No banking, no hotels, no loans, no exporting (except agricultural goods and some medicine), and heavy limitations on travel. The US has also tried to police foreign companies from conducting business on the island. The embargo costs Cuba and the United States billions of dollars annually in lost sales and exports. By all fair accounts, it hurts the Cuban economy immensely.
The Cuban regime traditionally uses it as an escape-all when pressed on their economic mismanagement. Were it not for the embargo, they claim, Cuba would have prosperity. There is some evidence for this claim. The island saw an increase in economic activity during Obama’s relaxation, and Cuban business owners look back at that era wistfully. However, the Cuban regime has been in no rush to change and alter public perception in ways that would help dismantle the embargo. Even during the Obama thaw, the Cuban regime shot down plans for a truck factory owned by American citizens that would sell to private Cuban farmers. It would have been the first big US investment ($5-10 million) since the revolution.
Getting rid of the embargo is hard enough on its own, seeing as it is several pieces of legislation approved by Congress. It’s nearly impossible considering Florida’s importance in national elections. Since the end of the Cold War, Florida has become a swing state. A few hundred votes decided the 2000 presidential election. Simply put, the Democrats aren’t keen on keeping the embargo but sublimate that belief for a chance at electoral victory. What plays well to the rest of the country doesn’t play well in Florida. Most Cuban Americans don’t think the embargo works, but many are in favor of keeping it, and Democrats can’t win the state without their support. Trump revitalized that position as a culture war issue, equating Cuban communism with the ideology of the Democratic party. His pitch was simple and effective: elect Joe Biden and his party will bring the same politics you escaped from. The tactic worked, and the state is slipping into the red camp. The Democrats’ desire to see it turn blue helps maintain the embargo, a policy that has explicitly failed to accomplish its stated goal of regime change for 60 years.
It has been two months since the protests. The Cuban regime survived, and the American eye has turned elsewhere to deal with more pressing foreign policy concerns. Since then, the Cuban government has been using both carrot and stick to get things back to normal.
First came the repression. Hundreds of extra-judicial arrests have been carried out by state authorities. At least 187 people vanished, cut off from their families and friends until the United Nations complained and the authorities allowed most to return home. Members of the independent press, who operate websites without the government’s permission, have been placed under house arrest. The state also tightened their cyber-security laws, introducing the infamous Decree 35. The language of the new law is so expansive as to criminalize all dissent. It comes with several subcategories and “danger levels.” For example, those who “spread fake news or hurt the image of the state” or “incite mobilization against public order” have a danger level that is considered merely high. Whereas those who “greatly disturb the functioning of political institutions” or “gravely alter the public peace” have a danger level of very high. This is hardly the stuff of a free society.
Repression wasn’t the only problem Cubans faced following the protests. The island exploded with new COVID cases. It was a disheartening surge of the pandemic, upwards of 9,900 cases a day in a population of only eleven million. The healthcare system was quickly overwhelmed, lacking most basic medications, beds, oxygen, and food. The situation is so dire that Cuba was forced to lift its customs taxes on food and medicine brought from abroad, another measure that relies on the goodwill of its foreign population for help.
But the protests did cause the government to yield in an important way. They forced the acceleration of some economic initiatives that have long been promised. The Cuban Central Bank recognized bitcoin and hopes to regulate and integrate it. They also quickly approved laws for the expansion of MIPYMES (micro, small, and medium enterprises). These businesses will have more autonomy, meaning they will be able to export and import according to the law, attain financing, invest for the development of their business, and hire more employees (medium businesses up to 100). As always, it’s a bureaucratic mess with certain areas unclear and with a ban on Cuban-American investment bundled in. Nevertheless, it betrays the regime’s worry. These are changes that have faced long delays in the halls of committees and apparatchiks. Only now, after they feel the pressure of protests, do they come to fruition.
Despite the failure of the protests to force the government to change, the air remains thick with anticipation. There are some lessons to be learned. The PCC no longer holds the same legitimacy as it once did. The Revolution is far in the past. Those that participated in it and benefited from its success are dying off. The new apparatchiks don’t inspire the same fervor as Fidel Castro and his cadre. A self-confident Cuban youth, connected to the world, increasingly sets the agenda and demands a voice in decision making. Cubans want to start businesses. They want to be able to take a Tylenol when they have a headache. They want to see the world. They want to reunite with their families. The idea of a placid population that could always be counted on to work and endure economic challenges is shattered. Obviously, the Cuban state remains strong, their monopoly on force absolute. But if there is such a thing as winds of change, then they have begun to blow.
For additional information on Cuba by the author, Nicolas Ramos, you can listen to his podcast, “History of the Cuban Revolution,” ThinkAboutHistory.
Editor: Craig Carroll Peer Review Completed By 4 Individuals