What is the next step for the Cuban opposition? What about the government?
Cubans woke up on November 15 to an upcoming showdown. The ArchipiÃ©lago civil society coalition had called for nationwide protests, hoping to test whether Cuba’s unprecedented and largely spontaneous protests last July could be replicated. The Cuban government, on the other hand, was betting that reopening the country to tourism would turn the page on what had been Cuba’s most volatile year in three decades.
Headlines since then have made it clear that for the opposition the test has failed. The 15th came and went with only a modest ripple – hardly the body wave that manifested in the summer. The organizers of the demonstration were confined to house arrest, subjected to âacts of repudiationâ by neighbors or held incommunicado through targeted Internet blackouts. Few of the base’s supporters took to the streets. Weeks of denunciations in state media – not to mention the continued imprisonment of more than 500 protesters from July – seemed to be having the desired effect. When the leader of the protest, playwright Yunior GarcÃa Aguilera, boarded a plane for Spain the next day without telling his colleagues, it seemed a bitter symbol of defeat.
But that doesn’t mean the way is clear for the Cuban government to regain the lost support (or acquiescence). The reality – and the future of the country – is not so simple nor so satisfying. The implosion of the 15N (as it was called) shows that Cuba’s pro-democracy movement is fragile. However, so too is the Cuban government’s claim to popular legitimacy.
When thousands of Cubans took to the streets of more than 50 island towns in July, inspired by a live broadcast of a protest in the city of San Antonio de los BaÃ±os, the world was rightly shocked. No demonstration of this magnitude had been observed on the island since Fidel Castro came to power in 1959. But in retrospect, what is surprising about the demonstrations is not that they have taken place, but that they did not happen sooner.
The Cuban economy began to deteriorate markedly in 2017, primarily due to the freezing of necessary internal reforms, the aggressive rollback of Obama’s policy of engagement under Trump, and the economic collapse of its close ally, Venezuela. Yet the Cubans have shown patience. 2020 brought the pandemic, and with it, a collapse of Cuba’s all-important tourism sector and the worst drop in GDP since the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. While Cuba has managed to control the new one remarkably well coronavirus this first year, the delta strain has seen the number of cases skyrocket in 2021 and the island’s much-vaunted health system is facing unprecedented pressure. Add to that a disastrous monetary unification process that began in January (leading to significant inflation), and by summer people had reached their breaking point.
Economic factors alone may have made the July protests inevitable in hindsight, but they took not only the Cuban government, but established pro-democracy dissidents by surprise. Founded this summer by a horde of young Cubans who had recently become political activists, ArchipiÃ©lago investigated whether lightning could strike twice.
Much was working against this chance. First, Cuban authorities declared the day of protest originally scheduled for November 20 as National Defense Day, forcing ArchipiÃ©lago to postpone the date. Officials then rejected the group’s demands to organize protests, arguing that they were illegal and incompatible with the “irrevocable” nature of socialism under the Cuban constitution. By the time November arrived, the intensity of the multifaceted crisis in Cuba from July had diminished somewhat. Authorities have stepped up the rollout of their homemade COVID vaccines, reducing the number of cases. Private sector reforms, which the government accelerated in response to July 11, had rekindled hopes for new economic opportunities.
The Cuban authorities have therefore had time and ample warning to prepare. Until 15N, government institutions sponsored neighborhood parties to celebrate the country’s reopening. Meanwhile, state security agents and neighborhood watch committees surrounded the homes of protest organizers. To calm the others down, the archipelago leader, Yunior GarcÃa, decided he would walk alone in a Havana thoroughfare a day earlier in a symbolic manifestation of defiance. But authorities wouldn’t let him leave his home, and the resulting confusion likely contributed to the 15’s poor performance.
However, it is premature for the Cuban government and its supporters to claim victory. The island is still far from recovering its economic losses. Tourism is expected to slowly pick up and there does not appear to be an immediate cure for the double or triple digit (or higher) inflation that Cubans are experiencing. Recent market reforms legalizing small and medium-sized businesses are unlikely to immediately benefit members of the marginalized communities who were the protagonists of the July protests. Nicaragua’s flashing announcement last week by a close ally that it would allow Cubans entry visa-free suggests Cuban authorities know they are not out of the woods yet. The move greases the wheels of Cubans hoping to get to the US-Mexico border – a way for Havana to ease internal pressure by encouraging the migration of the malcontents, as it has done periodically (and sometimes more. openly) over the past six decades. .
Any economic recovery in Cuba will also be seriously mitigated by the continued freezing of relations between Cuba and the United States. During the election campaign, President Biden pledged to undo much, if not all, of the Trump administration’s efforts to exercise “as much as possible. [economic] pressure âon the Cuban government. He has yet to do so, although average Cubans have paid the price. Many Cuban Americans would now view the sanctions relief as granting concessions to Havana while the summer protesters are still being held. That, added to Democratic losses in Miami, where rumors of “socialism” pushed pro-Republicans votes in 2020, left the administration at a political stalemate. On the other hand, the pursuit of “maximum pressure” policies – during a pandemic, no less – has only fueled the Cuban government. accusations this internal dissent is the product of a US sponsored siege.
But the Cuban government would be wrong to overestimate the power of its anti-American messages. Many Cubans critical of US sanctions (like GarcÃa Aguilera) see no reason why these sanctions justify restrictions on their civil liberties. And the tribulations of recent years have fueled a more open contempt for the island’s political system among citizens who were previously content to cope with the hope of gradual reform. Even before this summer, social media had helped draw attention to a more recent and vibrant cohort of government critics, including many artists who claim political freedoms regardless of their take on American politics. (See in particular the cases of the San Isidro Movement and the historic sit-in in front of the Ministry of Culture for the defense of the first at the end of 2020.) This is a generational awakening that has renewed, and in a way moved, the Cuban tradition ranks the opposition while politicizing many average Cubans in the process. Just pay attention to what the July 11 protesters chanted: not just “We want drugs!” and âWe want food! “, But also” Liberty “,” Down with DÃaz-Canel “(the Head of State of Cuba) and” Patria y Vida! – the title of an anti-government song that went viral in February.
The fact, as the Cuba Study Group recently noted, is that âthenew normal‘ [new normal] now includes a diversity of citizens who recognize the value of public protest and will continue to demand, at home, that their fundamental rights be recognized and respected. Moreover, since Cubans gained access to the Internet on their cell phones at the end of 2018, the Cuban government’s virtual monopoly on political communication has been broken and will not be reclaimed. Many young Cubans got a taste of what it means to seek their own information and organize independently, whether for explicitly anti-government political causes or to gather supplies for natural disaster relief or disaster relief. pandemic. ArchipiÃ©lago is the product of this larger change. There is a long history and a present of funding Cuban opposition movements by the United States. But the government’s attempts to sully Archipelago with allegations of foreign “subversion” have failed, and not just because there is no such evidence yet in this case.
So yes, the 15N disintegration shows that Cuba may still be far from a political tipping point. ArchipiÃ©lago’s future is in limbo, and GarcÃa Aguilera is not the first prominent activist last year to be forced into exile rather than stay in his country. But the intertwined economic and political grievances that have fueled an anger awakening among a growing number of Cuban citizens are not going away. At best, a bitter impasse will set in now. The country could experience a modest financial recovery, but emigration is also likely to increase, as there is no room left for genuine national dialogue and consensus building, either internally or with the diaspora. Cuban. Only the most cynical and selfish in Havana can call it a victory. As Cuban scholar Julio CÃ©sar Guanche said, to do so “is to confuse politics with the act of chasing chickens: running behind them and trapping one, seeing how the others still escape”.