Vásquez: Cuba’s uprising and the social change that caught the dictatorship by surprise
By Ian Vásquez |
Last December, I wrote an op‐ed (in Spanish) titled “Losing Fear in Cuba” pointing to what appeared to be a significant, new development: ordinary Cubans were becoming unafraid to publicly protest the communist regime. The mass uprising across the country this week in which Cubans shouted, “Down with the dictatorship,” and chanted “Liberty” was astounding because it was unprecedented in Cuba’s police state. But it also showed that Cubans have indeed lost their fear of openly defying the regime.
This is a profound change in Cuban society that caught the dictatorship by surprise. It has forced a regime that wishes to retain power at all costs to violently repress the population—through beatings, disappearances, and killings—in a widespread and public manner, a departure from its usual method of more limited or hidden forms of repression.
Independent Cuban journalist Reinaldo Escobar describes the impact of the July 11 uprising in this way: “The majority of Cubans has a new perception about the prevailing level of disapproval….The images that show protesters in numerous cities yelling ‘We are not afraid,’ ‘We want change,’ or the simple repetition of the word ‘Liberty’ made clear to every individual that what he was thinking and did not dare to say was not an extravagant personal thought, but rather a shared feeling.”
The regime, of course, has long been unpopular, but expressing as much has been dangerous and typically done in private. The mass protests have validated such sentiments and shown just how widespread they are. They were also unprecedented in Cuba in several ways. The protests were the first to be massive, on a national level, and simultaneous; they were the first to demand an end to the dictatorship, and to destroy government vehicles, other state property and photos of Fidel Castro.
For those reasons, former Salvadoran guerilla leader Joaquin Villalobos says the regime has been forced into a position it has sought to avoid. That’s because the regime has long relied on a system of selective repression and massive social control and intelligence that seeks to prevent things from getting out of hand. According to Villalobos, typically “The arrests are selective, torture should not leave any marks, and some of the opposition, instead of being assassinated, die of ‘accidents’ or commit ‘suicide.’” The recent uprisings, he explains, broke through the extensive system of prevention and espionage.
So why did the uprising happen? The proximate cause was the country’s severe and deteriorating economic crisis compounded by the pandemic, which the government has incompetently handled. Economic conditions are now worse in many ways than at any time in the post‐ Soviet period. With the collapse of the U.S.S.R. and the end of massive subsidies it provided Cuba, the economy shrank by 35%, helping to spark the last, more limited protest in 1994. Venezuela under Hugo Chavez subsequently stepped in to provide massive subsidies, but that spigot too has run mostly dry in the past many years as Venezuela’s own socialist economy has collapsed into crisis. Economist Carmelo Mesa‐ Lago calculates that “most economic indicators are still below the 1989 level.”
The lack of outside financing to keep the socialist economy afloat explains the extreme shortages of food and basic necessities (including water), the electricity blackouts, and the added hardships of Covid‐ 19 due to a decrepit and collapsed state‐ run health system. Those conditions have created tremendous frustration, but they do not explain why a spontaneous, massive national uprising occurred.
My article in December was prompted by the arrest of a group of artists, known as the San Isidro Movement that was set up to protest a 2018 law requiring government pre‐ approval for artists’ activities. The regime used the enforcement of laws intended to prevent the spread of Covid as a pretext to arrest the group last November. (See the Human Rights Watch report on how Cuba has used Covid rules to intensify repression.) What was remarkable was that the day after the arrest, 300 people gathered in front of the Ministry of Culture to protest it. It was Cuban artist Tania Bruguera who then observed that Cubans “are losing their fear and that is something nobody will be able to stop.”
The dissidence of well‐ known Cuban artists, the growing role of influencers on social media, and increased internet access in recent years enabled the July 11 uprising to take place. A combination of leadership from the world of arts and culture and new technology is breaching Cuba’s preventive system of surveillance and control. An example of the role artists are playing in popularizing dissent was the music video “Patria y Vida” that went viral earlier this year and that featured prominent Cuban musicians in Cuba and outside (and some of the San Isidro Movement artists) protesting the regime. (The title of the video means “Fatherland and Life” to counter the regime’s “Fatherland or Death” slogan.)
The newest dissidents build on decades of groundwork laid by a long list of political dissidents and human rights advocates including Oswaldo Payá, José Daniel Ferrer, Berta Soler and the Ladies in White, and Yoani Sánchez, who in a 2010 Cato paper said: “Now that the state is out of money and there are no more rights to exchange for benefits, the demand for freedom is on the rise.” She also observed that the internet was becoming a powerful tool giving rise to a community of cyber‐ dissidents: “this virtual space is like a training camp where Cubans go to relearn forgotten freedoms. The right of association can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and the other social networks, in a sort of compensation for the crime of ‘unlawful assembly’ established by the Cuban penal code.”
How right she was. The new conditions in Cuba have helped solve a collective action problem and emboldened Cuban citizens. The uprising that began in a town near Havana quickly spread to the rest of the country as Cubans saw what was happening on social media. As did the rest of the world. And even though the internet was cut off and has subsequently been partially restored, regime brutality is also being seen by Cubans and people around the world. Cell phones are ubiquitous, and Cubans are filming atrocities and sharing them on social media.
This matters enormously. In addition to shattering the myth that the Cuban people are content with communism since there is rarely any unrest and military troops are never seen putting down the people, the images coming out of Cuba remind the world that the Cuban government is in fact a military dictatorship. Videos show busloads of Cubans arriving in certain neighborhoods armed with bats and sticks to confront the protesters. In fact, those buses belong to the military and the Cubans they transport are its plain‐ clothed members. The thuggishness is not fooling anybody. Other security forces do look more militarized.
Moreover, if things get to the point where the military has to be called upon to shoot on the people, former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda explains that the regime’s days would be counted. Taking such action would undermine its revolutionary credentials while a refusal to do so would mean the fall of the regime. That’s not the situation now, and the military government surely retains the upper hand, but it’s a dilemma that protesters may eventually force on the dictatorship.
The dictatorship has also been taking in lessons in repression from Venezuela, whose government it controls, and from Nicaragua, over which it has much influence. Both of those dictatorships have ruthlessly put down mass protests and so far, remained in power.
It’s not possible to predict what happens next. Cuba is a different place today than it was before July 11. Cubans have lost their fear and the regime’s deteriorating ideological legitimacy matters for all of Latin America, especially at a time when the populist and the extreme left continue to pose a serious threat in countries throughout the region.
Ian Vásquez is vice president for international studies at the Cato Institute and director of its Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.