Sunday’s protests in cities across Cuba were unprecedented in their scale and in the boldness of Cuban citizens to confront authorities and the repression that has plagued them for six decades. While reminiscent in some ways of the Aug. 5, 1994 “maleconazo” that brought a few thousand Cubans to Havana’s waterfront, and to the 1980 storming of the Peruvian embassy, the sweep and scope of this weekend’s protests appear to mark a new and distinct era of broad citizen defiance and disaffection with the island’s 62-year old communist regime.
To be sure, these protests were not a random occurrence, but rather the culmination of both longstanding and historic economic and social failures on the part of the Cuban government. They were also due to a more recent and desperate economic and health crisis that has resulted from a trifecta made up of the COVID-19 pandemic, the resulting contraction of Cuba’s tourist sector, as well the general loss of Venezuelan economic support, that is now several years in the making. The protests can also be tied to Cuba’s limited, but historically grounded and an increasingly vocal social opposition movement led by artists and activists, and now symbolized by the song, “Patria y Vida,” that has gained both national and international attention in recent months.
It’s likely safe to say that protest demands were also the result of what may be a final loss of faith in the Cuban government’s ability to deliver on citizen’s most fundamental needs related to food and health security. Though Cuba has long touted its health and biotech industries as world-class, Cuba’s pandemic response has been dismal at best, with less than 15 percent of Cuba’s population believed to be vaccinated and COVID-19 cases on the rise, and hitting new records of infection in just the last week. Cuba’s COVID-19 crisis has also been exacerbated by the regime’s refusal to import vaccines from other countries as it’s worked to produce its own supply.
And the Cuban government’s ability to offer a solution to the current crisis appears to be severely limited. According to sources, the Cuban economy contracted 11 percent last year, a figure some analysts believe to be higher. In the near term, Cuba’s economy is likely to worsen as the island continues to suffer from pandemic-related shortfalls in tourism, family visits, remittances and other income sources. In the medium range, and once the pandemic is under control, it’s possible the economy might improve slightly, but in the longer term, there is little doubt that Cuba will continue to decline as a direct result of failed socialist economic policies and the government’s unwillingness to liberalize and privatize certain sectors for fear of losing centralized control. As such, it’s likely the Cuban state is nearing bankruptcy and thus lacking any realistic means to provide a viable exit from this emergency.
As president Biden continues his review of Cuban policy, the administration has a unique opportunity to denounce the Cuban government’s longstanding repressive nature and to defend the Cuban people’s right to protest and demand self-governance. In a statement Monday, Biden said the U.S. stands with the people of Cuba, and he called on the Cuban government to listen to its citizens.
In a televised address to the Cuban people on Sunday, Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canal blamed the crisis on U.S. policies, claiming the protests were part of a U.S.-backed plot to destabilize the nation. And while the embargo remains in place, Diaz-Canal failed to acknowledge that U.S. sanctions do not apply to the supply of food and medicine. In an alarming, but not surprising escalation, he also called on “revolutionaries” to fight back against protesters stating the “order to combat had been given.” The Cuban government has also reportedly cut internet connectivity limiting protesters’ ability to communicate with one another and with the international community, deployed uniformed and plainclothes security forces, and arrested an estimated hundred or so people throughout the island, including the detention of several well-known human rights activists.
Having lost the state of Florida in the 2020 presidential contest, there’s no doubt Biden will tread carefully and, for the time being, is likely to continue maintaining Trump-era policies. These include Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, restrictions on travel and remittances, sanctions on financial, trade and business transactions, authorization of lawsuits related to previously confiscated properties, and the curtailment of U.S. embassy operations in Havana in response to still unresolved sonic attacks that seem to have targeted U.S. embassy staff.
Biden administration officials are also surely worried about the possibility of a looming exodus similar to those that occurred in the summer of 1994 that led to the outpouring of some 32,000 rafters and during the 1980 Mariel Boatlift that led to the emigration of some 125,000 Cubans to South Florida shores. This, coupled with the exacerbating political and social instability in neighboring Haiti, is sure to be keeping administration officials tense as they considering possible plans for a response or offers of assistance.
Regardless of what happens next, Sunday’s protests were a historic moment in Cuba’s long fight for democracy. Cubans appear to have lost their fear of the state’s repressive tactics and that’s a frightening reality for any dictatorship and a necessary first step in any transition. The next step, assuming protests persist and intensify, may eventually fall on the shoulders of Cuba’s military.
For the time being, Diaz-Canal will be careful to make his next move and is likely consulting with Cuba’s closest allies that include China, Russia and Nicolas Maduro’s failing Venezuelan regime. In the coming days, Biden is likely to act cautiously as well, as he begins to define the role human rights will play in his broader foreign policy strategy and considers the specific political costs and benefits of any U.S. action.
Cristina Lopez-Gottardi, Ph.D., is an assistant professor and research director for Public and Policy Programs at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.