Literal darkness, a severe lack of food and fuel, hospitals barely offering any aspirin, grinding poverty and no real prospect of a better future. For people my age, this paints a rather familiar picture. This is what Romania looked like at the end of the 80s, before the Revolution. But here we are talking about Cuba. A lovely country, led by horrible people. The Cubans have come to the end of the rope and have finally taken to the streets. The wonders of social media have led to an extraordinary mobilization, most of the demonstrators being young people! It’s an amazing feat for a country with a history of bloody repression when it comes to any form or resistance. Tens of thousands of people swarmed the streets of large cities crying out FREEDOM! Similar other slogans could be heard, considered not just heresy, but illegal in a country where the Communist Party holds all the power reigns and is the real warrantor of this freedom. By the time it came back to its senses from the whirlpool inflicted by this powerful tool, the regime in Havana cut the Internet. But it was too late. People were already protesting in the street, so the government switched to what it does best: violent repression!
Protests first broke out in San Antonio de los Banos, a city close to Havana, severely affected by the numerous power cuts in the recent period. They spread quickly to engulf the entire island. With the number of infections growing from one day to the next, running short on basic foodstuffs, without medicine and no real access to vaccines, Cubans rallied in the streets. The technological liberalization started under Raul Castro allowed the first images of San Antonio de Los Banos to reach every corner of the island. Within the space of a few hours, at least 60 large cities joined the protest, and the images have now swept global media.
I’m not sure whether the spark ignited in mid-July will finally bring democracy to this communist state, but certainly the Facebook and Twitter generation in Cuba will want to see a change happening real soon, and the Internet is one of the weapons capable of disrupting communist order.
The crack in the Great Cuban Communist Wall
President Miguel Diaz Canel favored traditional media, which in Cuba means state-controlled media outlets, but only after the army and the police got a grip on the major cities. The leader in Havana ranted and raved that the protests are a counterrevolution staged and financed by the United States. Washington responded almost immediately. US President Joe Biden condemned the brutal intervention of security forces, stating that Cuba is a failed state, while communism is a failed system.
The current leader in Havana, one of Raul Castro’s protégés, toned down the aggression over the coming days, but continued to blame the Americans, telling Cubans that the penury they are struggling with is the effect of the great blockade and embargo imposed by the Americans.
The US embargo on Cuba, the longest ever recorded in modern history, prevents US businesses to interact with Cuban companies. 1958 was the first time the USA imposed a ban on selling weapons to Cuba, during the Batista regime. Two years after the Cuban Revolution spearheaded by Fidel Castro and Che Guevarra, which removed Fulgencio Batista from power, the United States introduced a new embargo on Cuban exports, with the exception of foodstuffs and medicine. Why? Back then Cuba was nationalizing US-owned oil refineries without compensating the American state. In 1962, JFK extended the Cuban embargo to ban all exports. Under the new ban, all trade was forbidden, including food and humanitarian aid.
This year’s developments mark a test Diaz Canel is bound to fail, as the Cuban people know very well that poverty goes hand in hand with endemic corruption, being rooted in the rank incompetence of politicians uncapable to devising the most basic of strategies to sustain the national economy. And there’s more. Diaz Canel doesn’t have the revolutionary aura of his predecessors, Fidel and Raul Castro. This kind of discourse, typical of an antiquated political regime, can only mean that the strongman in Havana is seeking new legitimacy with the Cuban people and that, indeed, there is now a crack in the Great Cuban Communist Wall.
Things are looking worse now than back when the USSR collapsed
The previous large-scale protests in this country in Central America date back to 1994, and they were staged only in Havana. Without Internet and the technologies to convey information in real time, it was easy to quell the furious crowds. Besides, Fidel Castro was still alive and running the country since 1959. Barely four years before, the USSR, Cuba’s top partner, had collapsed. The Soviets were trading oil for Cuban sugar. Havana used part of the oil for domestic consumption and sold the rest on the global market, making billions in the process. As a tradeoff to Soviet subsidies, Cuba would support communist movements all over Latin America and Africa. Cuba cashed in some 6 billion USD every year from its oil business with Russia. Shortly after the USSR collapsed, this staggering source of income was gone, and Fidel Castro asked the Cubans to chip in and help rebuild the country. This did the trick until the summer of 1994, when the shortage of fuel, food and medicine, the frequent and long blackouts were too much to bear, and Cubans desperately took to the streets. The then leader, Fidel Castro, made an appearance in the old town of Havana, where thousands were voicing anti-government slogans. Foreign journalists were reporting on scene, and I vividly recall the moment when Fidel turned up. The crowds kept still for a moment, then burst out cheering. Of course, there were hundreds of communists loyal to the party standing in the crowd.
When he traveled to San Antonio de Los Banos, Diaz Canel tried to repeat history. Yet his gesture only highlighted the huge differences between Castro and himself. After all, in 1994 Fidel put US president Bill Clinton in a tight spot, when the US had to deal with large waves of Cuban refugees. The reason was that El Lider Maximo had provided the Cuban people with a way out, telling them they were free to go. Now, however, Diaz Canel is providing no alternative, only violent repression. And the US retribution was swift. The White House announced clear-cut sanctions for the Ministry of Defense in Havana and for a government unit of special forces Boinas Negras, or the Black Berets, whom it accuses of numerous violations of human rights. Adding to that is a series of restrictions previously introduced by the Trump administration. And the way things are progressing, the Biden administration seems unwilling to make any concessions.
Reforms – the regime’s only chance for survival
What can Cuba do to pull through? One option would be to turn to its traditional partners, or to other communist states. China is already invested in Cuba, having injected significant amounts of money in the alternative energy sector, the light industry and telecom sector. Cuba only exports sugar and nickel. Compared to 2018, Cuban exports more than halved. Russia too has erased part of Cuba’s debt, and promised new investments in the oil industry.
In the middle of all this, Diaz Canel has stopped making any difference. He is now irrelevant for his allies of old as much as for his own people. If is he and the Communist Party are to survive, the leader in Havana is now presented with a unique opportunity of playing the reform card.