What would’ve happened if Cuba had been located elsewhere within the Caribbean sea, let’s say, near Jamaica’s latitude or close to the Leeward Islands? Certainly, a lot of things would be radically different in terms of climate, geography, currents, etc. But what about Cuba’s history?
Then again, you are never far away enough from the USA in Latin America.
You might have read or heard about the recent protests in Cuba, a proper social uprising, one that caught everyone by surprise, probably even Cubans themselves. Technically, this is not the first time it has happened , so it is way too early to predict what will happen. But it appears as if the fear conditioning has been shorted by irreversible anger, hunger and exhaustion at the dictatorship’s abuses.
To explain the causes, immediate and long-term, is more or less straightforward. More pressing for us, on the outside looking in, are two difficult conversations we need to have: One for the international left, about the strains of authoritarianism that we still hold on to; and for the United States and global powers in general, about the real effectiveness of their international policies.
First thing first, one thing should be made very clear: The GOP and US’ right-wing need to back the f**k off and f**k the f**k off. They won’t, of course. But I want to be very clear about this and leave it for the record: This is not about them. It’s not just that they won’t support democratic rights for their own citizenry. It’s the fact that y’all didn’t say a single f**king thing when Chile and Colombia went through our own uprisings against authoritarian governments. Not that I expected it, the crowd that follows F**ker Carlson and the Itsy Bitsy Ladybits Drier think “Columbia” is a giant coke plantation, and that Chile is that meal that gives them flatulence for a month, even in its soft flavor. For that matter, I would include several US “liberals” and Democrats . It was galling, galling seeing these fascists an undeniable protest, and less knowledgeable Latinos retweeting videos from their accounts.
At the same time, I feel like a hypocrite asking the US right wing to back the f—-k off, considering that this uprising is comprised of people across the Cuban political spectrum and that does include the diaspora, including that GOP majority. Trauma doesn’t usually help moderation.
But on the other hand, no, there’s no excuse to continue supporting the GOP while standing up for the Cuban protests. Indeed, in terms of racism, homophobia and grift, the Cuban regime has a lot in common with the GOP. Or in other words:
Many Cubans are so anti-communist that they are outright fascists. If the suffering you endured in Cuba makes you become a fascist piece of shit instead of an anti-authoritarian, you're a small-minded individual.— Intricate Entity (@intricate119) July 29, 2021
The second thing we need to make clear is that Cuba is a dictatorship, a brutal authoritarian regime that has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths, tortures, and unlawful imprisonment, like all dictatorships do. More pressing, as of today, the protests that started on July 11th had resulted in several hundreds of people whose whereabouts are unknown . The specifics of the word authoritarian matter here because on one side of the (nutter) spectrum, some will claim it’s a totalitarian regime. It isn’t. The Cuban government has been simply too inefficient, at any point in its history, to become a full totalitarianism. On the opposite, it is an authoritarian government because even though people actively and publicly oppose and criticize the regime, they are guaranteed to, at the very least, be detained and interrogated for hours. I don’t know who said it, but there’s this quote that says that the difference between a totalitarian and an authoritarian regime is that in the former you are detained before you voice your opposition and in the latter you are detained after.
The Cuban government has sent out fighter jets to intimidate the citizenry. https://t.co/2j1moxCAUG— Comandante Shinji 🇨🇺 (@ShinjiTheCuban) July 15, 2021
It’s nothing brag about that you are not North Korea is what I’m saying. But very much like the DPRK, Cuba received substantial economic support from the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War, which allowed Cuba to thrive, relatively, and make substantial and undeniable steps forward in education and healthcare, despite the US embargo. This lifeline was cut, pretty much overnight, as the USSR collapsed, and just like with the DPRK,
the ’90s were a trying and traumatic time . However, unlike North Korea, Cuba wasn’t an isolated kingdom and a buffer zone for another global power. It was right next to the USA, permeated by remittances from the diaspora and by balseros, risking their lives because it’s still only 250 kms between Havana and Florida. How did the regime survive?
Well, Cuba happened to have something in common with the UK of all places: Just as there will be no chance for a major, pro-Republic movement as long as Lizzie is still alive, the Cuban regime would still endure on the popularity of Fidel alone, with enough spare change to keep Raúl Castro in power for a decade or so. And then there was the economic lifeline provided by Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution since the 2000s. However, a key factor remains. It is not the main one, but the one that has been pervasive and structural to Cuba’s economy for close to 60 years: The embargo. In many ways, the embargo gave Castro’s regime exactly the National Epic it needed in the form of the rallying cry of victimization, year after year, from one US Presidency to another. But no one has benefited more from this than the GOP and far-right Cubans in Florida, as Rick Wilson puts it:
In the following, I will resort to these articles by Spanish anthropologist Emilio Santiago Muiño, who lived there between 2012-2014 researching for his doctoral thesis. These articles expand on the thread below, unfortunately, all of these are in Spanish, but I’ll quote accordingly.
A whispered truth from a Cuban friend in Miami: "A lot of Miami Republicans are just fine with the Cuban government being in power forever."— Rick Wilson (@TheRickWilson) July 12, 2021
Tan cierto es que Cuba está sufriendo injerencias externas que buscan desestabilizar (llueve sobre mojado tras 60 años de infame bloqueo) como que la explosión de descontento popular es auténtica, legítima, compleja y no se explica solo por el bloqueo [Hilo]— Emilio Santiago (@E_Santiago_Muin) July 14, 2021
In brief, as Muiño explains, the immediate trigger for the Cuban protests were a combination of a sustained worsening of the perpetual economic crisis, the systemic shock of the pandemic, as it managed to pierce Cuba’s relative isolation and success controlling Covid, all of this mismanaged by the regime. The deterioration started, whoopty-f**king surprise, as the orange agent rolled back Obama’s thawing policies towards Cuba with a vengeance. The most cruel of all these sanctions were the limitations on remittances , which are key to Cuba’s economy. If you’re part of the Cuban diaspora and you support such a move, you’re not a Cuban, you’re a mother——er y chinga tu madre. Compounding the shitstorm, the Cuban government, in the wisdom of its revolutionary orthodoxy, made every conceivable poor economic decision. In particular, ending the dual-currency policy.
At least two things are beyond me: Currency policy and quantum physics. But as Muiño explains in the simplest of simplest terms, ever since the ’90s, as the regime started opening itself to global markets mainly by developing the touristic industry, they implemented two currencies: One for day to day, internal use, and another tied to the US dollar, controlled by the government, in which remittances and the income from tourism was collected. This system, according to Muiño, became a parallel GDP for millions of Cubans, with which they could acquire products beyond meager rationing, invest in their own small businesses. For the state, it was the only way to participate in the global economy. You can find a thread with a more detailed explanation below:
To understand what's really going on in Cuba right now — the massive protests across the country — you have to grasp three things:— JMC 🌹🏴 (@red_dilettante) July 12, 2021
(1.) The Leninist government's years-long crisis of legitimacy;
(2.) the causes of recent hyper-inflation;
(3.) the mixed politics of dissidents
This led to shortages that collapsed its health system and rolling blackouts, as was common during the ’90s. In a country where, in order to buy basic groceries, you have to rise early and queue for hours , the lockdowns resulted in more hunger and more people having nothing to lose. The government of Miguel Díaz-Canel, who succeeded Raúl Castro earlier this year, responded predictably by sending in the troops, and worse still, calling on loyalist civilians to “defend the revolution” . This is nothing out of the ordinary for any dictatorship (or the UK during the Troubles), but there’s something particularly disgusting in incorporating civilians in systematic human rights violations. If there can be such a thing as a predictable irony, Díaz-Canel blamed the uprising on CIA agents: Chile and Colombia’s far-and-not-so-far-right blamed our uprisings on Venezuelan and Cuban provocateurs.
The repression was effective enough in lulling the movement for now. The government made some concessions, lifting restrictions on food and medicine brought by travelers, which doesn’t mean much as flights to and from the island have been further reduced. Other news managed to shift the cycle: The deaths of five retired generals in quick succession, mostly a sign of how dire the Covid pandemic has been on the island . But more importantly, the Olympics started, Cuba’s pride and joy , wherein they punch way above any other country in the region. But even the five gold medals and twelve overall they have won as of this writing have left a bad taste in their mouths, as the regime seized on the good news as a distraction, leading many in Cuba to avoid celebrating them, as journalist Abraham Jiménez Enoa describes:
El castrismo quebró la felicidad de los cubanos. El régimen y sus partidarios politizan los triunfos en #Tokyo2020 mientras una parte de la ciudadanía se niega a celebrarlos por esa razón. Es triste ver la isla partida en 2 y estar tan lejos una reconciliación nacional. #SOSCuba— Abraham Jiménez Enoa (@JimenezEnoa) August 2, 2021
Will the Olympics be only a truce or will the regime survive once again? Perhaps it’s a question of who will control the internet of the internet on the island, either the Kock-funded bot farms or the regime’s “coincidental” internet outages. As Muñio explains, the right-wing (either in the Cuban diaspora, or the GOP at large and all over Latin America) has the offensive advantage in this movement, having capitalized and milked that boogeyman for all its worth. But that’s the trick the Cold War logic plays on all of us and, more importantly, on the game we as progressives and leftists play.
The Cuban regime and the global right wing love playing this either-or game. They need it to define and sustain themselves against a reality that keeps proving them wrong. According to Muñío, the Cuban protests and the opposition to the regime involve a wide spectrum, including anarchists, traditional liberalism and democratic socialists . There is also a generational clash between a revolution controlled by the elderly and a youth that, through the internet, has developed its own identity. But that very youth dwindles year by year. As Abraham Jiménez Enoa explains, young people in the island only see a future in leaving at a rate of over 40,000 per year (including refugees and regular migration) . This in a country that already has one of the lowest fertility rates in the region. Like the Revolution and every building, car, and road, Cuba is aging rapidly.
On top of that, inequality has been steadily growing since the ’90s, affecting Cuba’s Black population in particular. This is partly as the Black Cuban diaspora is certainly smaller than the white one, with Black Cubans receiving only a third in remittances compared to white Cubans . But as with any other former slavery-based economy, Black people suffer from continued systemic and cultural discrimination, which the Cuban regime has failed to transform substantially, despite directly targeting it during the early stages of the revolution . They have approached racism in very much the same way all Latin American institutions do: Ignoring it or claiming it doesn’t exist since we are all mixed-raced.
There cannot be a left-wing that is not anti-racist, there cannot be a left-wing that is not Feminist and fights for LGTBI+ rights. And above all, there cannot be a left-wing that doesn’t fight for more democracy, in every institution, at every level. In the global left, outside the US experience, there are still too many that defend or whatabout the Cuban regime, because they hold on to a legacy that perhaps never really existed, to a momentous shift in geopolitics. But we need to let go of it. If I had been alive in 1959, I most certainly would’ve welcomed the Cuban Revolution. It made sense back then, and it was a giant middle finger against US imperialism. But that’s a moment, not a movement. Castro’s greatest success was living off of that moment.
But then there is the embargo, the US’s… ehmm, fourth? biggest foreign policy blunder, after Vietnam, Afghanistan, and overthrowing Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran… there could be more. It’s not the sole source of Cuba’s ails, but is the one that more easily could be removed and start transforming the nation. It’s a policy on autopilot, not only from Trump to Biden , and one which should put into question the very logic of sanctions, whenever those sanctions don’t affect the people in charge. As Abraham Jiménez Enoa describes it in the podcast below, the embargo amounts to 30 percent of the problem, but one that directly undermines the people.
Please listen to @JimenezEnoa : the thing I always note about hearing from CUBANS on the island is that their vision for their country doesn't align with either the hard left or right in the United States. https://t.co/3dHmtOWOGk— Lulu (@lourdesgnavarro) July 18, 2021
Embargos and sanctions need to be reconsidered in global geopolitics. They need to be targeted and surgical, but they should go together with the opposite, deliberate investment in the people of an oppressed country, allowing them to lap their own governments until they reach a critical mass that will help them regain the reins of power. That investment should go beyond basic aid. Invest in education, invest in public infrastructure, invest in renewable energies. This will certainly require compromises with an authoritarian regime, but the work remains. Cuba only needs investment.
Jiménez Enoa also criticizes the warring mindset of the right-wing diaspora, which can only conceive of transforming the island via a coup or an invasion. I’ll be blunt and say something controversial here, but this is not just the understandable trauma of becoming refugees and the exile. Nowadays, especially after the Mariel boatlift and the balseros during the ’90s, Cuba’s diaspora is much more diverse than the early waves of upper-class whites . However, it is still those upper-class whites that dominate the politics and representation of US Cubans, including those two who I don’t need to mention. They still operate under the logics of latifundistas. That community has been unable to recognize their privilege, in Cuba and in the US, and have never done the work of reflecting on how the inequality their parents and ancestors established helped sow the seeds of the Revolution.
Now imagine a Cuba that begun to democratize and with the embargo lifted. With a highly educated workforce , preserving a robust welfare system (one that I’m certain Cubans don’t want to privatize if and when the regime falls apart), with a healthcare system that was the envy of all Latin America . One in which the professional brain-drain is reversed. One whose cultural sector, despite and because of the revolution and the regime, enriched every single art in Latin America. Cuba could thrive. That’s scary for a regime that wants to preserve its privileges but also for a certain country to the north, one that is sustained by the myth of its own freedom and prosperity.
Let Cuba Live! , it’s the first step, but the only one that demands the US to mobilize. I think Cubans can do the rest on their own.
*This is a reference to a landmark song by Silvio Rodríguez’s, an iconic Cuban singer that finally stopped pussyfooting about the regime’s oppression.
Header Image Source: OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images