Protests escalate US-Cuba tensions
U.S. officials are moving quickly to throw their support behind protesters in Cuba who have put communist leaders on the defensive amid dissatisfaction with the economy and food shortages.
The protests — the largest in decades — come as COVID-19 has crippled Cuba’s tourism economy and as power blackouts and food lines renew dissatisfaction in a country where dissent has historically been repressed.
“The Cuban people are demanding their freedom from an authoritarian regime. I don’t think we’ve seen anything like these protests in a long long time if, quite frankly ever,” President Biden said at the White House Monday, reiterating an earlier statement backing the rights of protesters.
On Sunday, protesters in Havana chanted “patria y vida,” or homeland and life — a spin on the revolutionary slogan homeland or death — in the first widespread protests since 1994.
The State Department, in a call with congressional staff, said there were protests in 45 cities across the island, with tens of thousands participating, a Capitol Hill aide told The Hill. Another congressional aide familiar with the call said scattered protests continued Monday throughout the country, though on a smaller scale.
The protests are not just sparking hope of regime change in a country where the U.S. has maintained a decades-long embargo with the aim of promoting democracy. It’s also a major test for Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel, the first head of the Cuban Communist Party who does not hail from the Castro family.
“I think it’s incredibly significant… I think it has the potential to be a game changer. It depends how it’s handled,” by the U.S. and abroad, said Luis Moreno, a former State Department official who served as ambassador to Jamaica during the Obama administration.
“But how the regime handles this is crucial…. If people can continue this for a certain amount of time, and be in it for the long haul, and if some of the security forces go over to the other side, you could have a really pivotal moment, like you almost had in Venezuela, the first time with [opposition leader Juan] Guaido.”
Fulton Armstrong, an American University professor and director of Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration, warned that the U.S. may not see the kind of change it has long sought in Cuba.
“Any protest has to be taken as a potentially noteworthy political event and one that deserves careful analysis,” said Armstrong, who worked on Cuba issues for Congress, the White House and the State Department.
“Is this the fulfillment of the Miami dream of regime change and collapse of Díaz-Canel and what I call Castro regime? No, of course not, but is it a sign that a) the people want better and b) that the government has actually allowed a lot more political activity than we’ve given them credit for.”
The Trump administration returned the U.S. to a hardline policy toward Cuba, reversing the softening of sanctions under President Obama. But Biden has yet to issue any major reversal to his predecessor’s policies.
Armstrong said U.S. sanctions have been compounded by the coronavirus, which he described as a “kick to the gut of the tourist industry” that limits an influx of foreign money, while Venezuela’s own economic collapse has limited its ability to pay for services it has long relied on from Cuba.
Protesters have complained of hours-long blackouts in some parts of the country, long lines for foods, and difficulty accessing medication.
The protests have put regime leaders on the defensive, with many accusing the U.S. of instigating domestic upheaval.
Díaz-Canel took to the airwaves, urging revolutionaries to take to the streets while criticizing the U.S. embargo.
The Biden administration has rejected any allegations of U.S. involvement, but American leaders are putting their full-throated support behind the Cuban people and their opposition to the regime.
“I think it would be a grievous mistake for the Cuban regime to interpret what is happening in dozens of towns and cities across the island as a result or product of anything the United States has done,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters on Monday.
“It would be a grievous mistake because it would show that they simply are not hearing the voices and will of the Cuban people.”
Díaz-Canel on Monday took multiple shots at the U.S., blaming the embargo for “politics of economic asphyxiation” and questioned American interest in toppling its system of government.
“Who is bothered by the regime, the alleged regime, in Cuba? Who is bothered by the Cuban political system, the way we do things? Not our people, not the majority of our people, because they are the ones who have built that system, the ones who have endorsed the system in thousands of democratic processes, where people who have a different opinion to the revolution have participated,” Díaz-Canel said in a speech broadcast on official channels.
“Who is bothered? The government of the United States, because they don’t see the virtues of this system of government in Cuba that is capable of working with all and working for all.”
Republican and Democratic lawmakers are sounding the alarm that erupting protests provide a critical opening for the Biden administration to support a population expressing outrage at the regime.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the son of Cuban immigrants, called for the U.S. to support the demands of the Cuban people.
“As I’ve said over the years, no one wishes that the reality in Cuba was more different than the Cuban people and Cuban-Americans that have fled the island in search of freedom. Let us hear their voices. Listen to their cries of desperation. Support their demands by ensuring we do not perpetuate the regime’s decades of repression,” he said in a statement Sunday evening.
“I will continue to use the strength of my voice and power of my office to ensure the United States stands in solidarity with the brave people of Cuba that are risking their lives today for change in their country and a future of Patria y Vida.”
But Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, criticized the Biden administration for failing to prioritize Latin America.
“It appears the Biden Administration has forgotten about the Western Hemisphere. From the border crisis to President Biden’s silence over the weekend about the historic protests in Cuba, he is making it very clear that his Administration is not present,” Rubio said in an email statement to The Hill.
Still, the Florida Republican in a letter Monday thanked Biden “for recognizing these heroic protests as a ‘clarion call of freedom.’”
Rubio listed a series of steps for the administration to take in support of Cuban dissidents, from opening satellite internet access on the island to declaring any effort to encourage mass migration as “a hostile action against the United States.”
According to congressional aides, lawmakers who raised a U.S. effort to boost internet access on the island were met with doubt by State Department leaders, who said Monday that they were unaware what tools they would have to do so.
Rubio’s letter on Monday also called on Biden to reach out to allies in Europe and Latin America to support the protesters, a challenging proposition as support for the Cuban regime is deeply entrenched in many Latin American countries.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador on Monday blamed poor living conditions in Cuba on the U.S.-led commercial embargo of the island, accusing media coverage of the protests of having an “interventionist slant.”
“The truth is that to help Cuba the first thing that should be done is to suspend the blockade of Cuba, like a majority of countries around the world are requesting. That would be a truly humanitarian gesture,” said López Obrador.