As the Cuban people reach their breaking point, what will Biden do?
Tomorrow marks the anniversary of the July 11 nationwide protests in Cuba. Since that historic day, authorities have cracked down on anyone expressing dissent with the government. Some 300 individuals have been sentenced to prison terms ranging in length from five to 30 years, and many others, including minors, are still awaiting trial. Their crime? Most have been jailed and convicted merely for expressing their opinion.
The most recent July 11 related trial took place just days ago with two of Cuba’s most recognized dissidents – Maykel “Osorbo” Castillo and Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara – sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Both are Cuban artists and activists charged with “contempt,” “public disorder” and “desecrating national symbols.”
Castillo, who won two Latin Grammys for his song, “Patria y Vida,” will serve nine years behind bars. Alcantara, a founder of the San Isidro Movement and one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2021, will serve five years. According to Amnesty International’s Americas Director Erika Guevara-Rosas, “[these trials] are two emblematic examples of how [Cuban President] Miguel Diaz Canal’s government uses the judicial system to criminalize critical voices, including through charges of alleged crimes that are incompatible with international law.”
In addition, Cubans have become increasingly desperate to flee the island by any means. According to the Miami Herald, in the seven-month period between October 2021 and May 2022, 140,000 Cubans left the country either by sea or, increasingly, via third countries in Central America. This total drastically surpasses last year’s sum of 14,015, and even tops those who came because of the 1980 Mariel Boatlift that brought some 125,000 to South Florida shores.
The reasons for the spike in migration are not new and can ultimately be attributed to Cuba’s failed economic and political systems. Over the past several years, however, conditions on the island have worsened as a result of the pandemic, related contractions in Cuba’s travel sector, the recent shift to a single Cuban currency, the loss of Venezuelan subsidies and rising inflation.
Together, these factors have led to more sustained food shortages and a greater frequency in electrical blackouts, prompting many to seek refuge elsewhere. With little doubt, the persistent denial of civil and political liberties, coupled with the fear of prosecution for those who participated in the 2021 protests, has added a new level of desperation.
Another complicating factor fueling the migration spike has been the lifting of visa requirements for Cubans traveling to Nicaragua, which many now use as an initiation point to make their way to the U.S. border.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, a former Sandinista and guerilla leader, is a close ally of Cuba’s leadership. And while his government has said “the move was intended to promote commercial exchange, tourism, and humanitarian family relations,” there’s little doubt that it also provides two important benefits for the Cuban government. First, it allows for the exit of dissidents thereby releasing internal pressure on the government. Second, it potentially increases the inflow of dollars via remittances that are sent to Cuba from this exiled cohort, now living abroad and with greater access to dollars.
Together, these alarming trends point to deteriorating sociopolitical conditions in Cuba that deserve the attention and concern of the international community. Adding to the potential powder keg, Russia recently said it wouldn’t “rule out the possibility of it placing military hardware in Cuba or Venezuela.”
With Russia now engaged in an unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine, those statements are a not-so-subtle reminder that while Cuba may appear weak, its allies have power and posture on the international stage. As such, President Biden’s exclusion of Cuba from last month’s Summit of the Americas seems plenty justified. And a number of Cuban activists agree.
With the November midterms now just four months away, the Biden administration has been wise to tread cautiously when it comes to U.S.-Cuba policy. In the immediate aftermath of the July 2021 protests, Biden condemned the repression and imposed a series of sanctions on Cuban officials and entities of the government, including the head of Cuba’s armed forces.
More recently, however, the Biden administration has called for an end to flight restrictions, a reinstatement of the family reunification program and a lifting of the family remittance cap, all policies put in place by former President Trump. It will be interesting to watch whether these latest policy shifts, announced so close to the July 11 anniversary, will have any political effect come November.
While the world continues to be challenged on multiple fronts, the international community should remain vigilant as to happenings on the island. Cuba’s status as a failing state continues to reach new levels of political, economic, and social depravity for its citizens. And such conditions might create a desperate scenario for Cuba’s leadership, including further dependence and alignment with Russia, China, Iran and other American adversaries that could be threatening to the United States and its allies.
Add to that, the recent and unexpected death of General Luis Alberto Rodriguez Lopez-Calleja – a member of Cuba’s Politburo and head of GAESA, a conglomerate of military-owned companies that manage Cuba’s economy – is bringing new instability to Cuba’s leadership circles.
This July 11, President Biden should bring attention to these onerous realities. The brave activists still fighting for freedom in Cuba deserve it.
Cristina Lopez-Gottardi, PhD, is an assistant professor and research director for public and policy programs at the Miller Center at University of Virginia.