The flame of freedom burns brighter than ever

Cuba turned rebellious – the country has seen the biggest protests since 1994
Kuba Verhaftung Demonstrant
Polizisten verhaften einen Teilnehmer der Proteste gegen die Regierung © picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Ramon Espinosa

This weekend, protests erupted in more than 50 towns and cities all over Cuba. Thousands took to the streets, in a movement that as initiated spontaneously, largely via social media. What triggered the protests was the growing despair of the population over a perfect storm of crises: the economic crisis, that has been exacerbated by the pandemic and has led to severe shortages of basic necessities, frequent power outages and the explosion of new cases of Covid that have swamped the health system of the country. For a mix of economic and ideological reasons Cuba chose not to import vaccines, instead relying on one developed in the country itself, but the downside of that is that relatively few Cubans have been vaccinated until today and the hospitals are full of patients but out of medicines and oxygen. Last year, the country had sent, with great propaganda fanfare, medical personnel around the region to help countries in crisis. Now the crisis has hit home and the country seems suddenly helpless.

As usual, the government blames all problems on evil foreign forces, especially on the US and its sanctions regime that has been escalated under the Trump administration. What remains unexplained is the obvious contradiction: It is an axiomatic belief among the socialist left that capitalist trade is inherently unfair and causes poverty. At the same time, it is claimed that Cuba has problems because the US does not engage in such capitalist trade with Cuba. Such contradictions undermine the argument in the eyes of may Cubans as well. In reality, the roots of the problem lie deeper: The regime has refused to follow the example of China or Vietnam and engage in a thorough reform of the economic system towards a more market-based one. Instead, it only opened the country to international tourism and allowed the creation of shops where people could buy scarce goods against foreign currency – as East Germany had once done in its so-called “Intershops”. The foreign currency income from tourism had already been hit by the renewed sanctions regime, but even more so by the pandemic. At the same time, the population feels increasingly bitter over the contrast between the scarcity of goods in regular shops and the generous supply in hard-currency shops which are out of reach of ordinary Cubans that do not have family in the US who send remittances, as well as the contrast between the sparking new hotel facilities on the one hand and the crumbling public housing stock in which they have to live. Socialism promises people a brighter future, but the experience of Cubans has been the exact opposite: the situation gets worse year by year, the desperation and disillusionment grows.

It is therefore not surprising that the slogans heard at the protests quickly changed from demands for better supply of basic necessities, and end to power cuts and better medical care, to clearly political slogans: “Down with dictatorship!”, “Freedom” and “Fatherland AND Life – echoing a popular rap song that takes direct aim at Fidel Castro’s famous slogan “Fatherland or Death!”.

There has never been such a massive assault on the system, as Carlos Alberto Montaner, one of the most respected Cuban dissidents in exile, points out. Even in 1994, the protests that erupted after the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of its economic support for Cuba were mainly concentrated on the capital. The current protests, by contrast, started in provincial towns and quickly spread to practically the whole country. The internet has made a huge difference – latent anger can be converted much faster into joint action. An even more important point is this: Cubans lost their fear of the system.

The regime reacted to the protests with massive repression. Many protesters were arrested, some 150 people are still missing, and the protesters were vilified as counterrevolutionaries and agents of the US. The arrests included a journalist reporting for the Spanish newspaper ABC, demonstrating that the regime does not care about negative effects on international public opinion. Spain has strongly protested against the arrest. The regime mobilised its own supporters as well in a move to intimidate the protesters. The strategy seems to be to go all-out for massive repression, including the use of violence. Unlike Fidel Castro who confronted the protestors in 1994 in the streets, the current president Diaz-Canel is a party apparatchik who lacks the moral authority to talk to the protesters. His attempt to do so failed miserably.

The US have called the protest a cry for freedom from dictatorship and demanded that Cuba respect the human rights of the protesters. Other countries in the region as well as the Organisation of American States issued similar statements. So far the Biden administration has not relaxed the sanctions put in place by Trump. The president of Mexico, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a leftist populist, called for a peaceful solution via dialogue, but he also warned against any foreign intervention, for which he claimed to see signs, and demanded an end to the economic sanctions as a humanitarian gesture. The Peronist president of Argentina made a similar statement. The Russian government of Vladimir Putin, which has rebuilt very close ties to Cuba, also issued a strong statement warning against external attempts to destabilise the country.

Part of the motivation for such warnings is the worry about the effects that a collapse of the Cuban regime would have on the Latin American Left as a whole. Cuba is one of the main supporters of the Maduro dictatorship in Venezuela; it is doubtful whether it could survive without the military help it gets from Cuba. The regime in Venezuela is indeed showing clear signs of panic over the events in Cuba. But even other moderate democratic leftist governments would regard the fall of the regime with mixed feelings – the example of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the communist block had strong repercussions for the broader European Left in the 1990s. Moreover, Cuba still has a certain ideological influence in the region. Moreover, Russia and China have built strong ties with leftist governments in the region, so their interests would also be affected.

However, it is not clear yet whether these protests mark the beginning of the end for the regime, or if they will be suppressed again. Ever since the wave of democracy revolutions in the 1980s and 1990s, the dictatorships of this world have learnt a few lessons and have often been successful in suppressing protests, the latest example probably being Myanmar. So far, the regime seems to be ready to use all available means of repression ruthlessly. The protest movements lacks a political leadership, and its coordination via social media is vulnerable to state suppression: In Cuba, as had happened in Myanmar, the internet got more or less switched off. On the other hand, the regime seems to be at a dead end, both ideologically and economically. Repression will not supply basic necessities, nor will it cure Covid. Continued repression would almost certainly kill any chance of an easing of US sanctions and might, in fact, make them worse. The European Union has an important opportunity in this context: it needs to communicate clearly to the Cuban regime that violent repression would also trigger economic sanctions by the EU. In the current economic crisis situation, such a threat of sanctions has more weight than normally. It would help protect peaceful protesters against violence by the state.

This could be the moment where a more reformist faction of the communist nomenclatura emerges. So far, there is little sign of this, although reports about the removal of a vice-minister of the interior due to disagreements about the handling of the protests (vigorously denied by the regime) might be an early indication of such cracks in the edifice. However, if the protests continue and cannot be easily stifled by repression, anything is possible. Many observers like Carlos Alberto Montaner believe that this might be the beginning of the end of the Cuban dictatorship. The next days will be decisive.