The young artists and intellectuals who had organized the march were easily overpowered by the Cuban state, which banned the protest and prevented leaders from leaving their homes. While fear played a key role in suppressing turnout, the protests were also a bust because their predominantly middle-class planners—who are pushing for more freedom of expression and democracy—failed to connect with more working-class sectors of society, many of whose members took to the streets in July in anger over falling living standards. In an unexpected twist, Yunior García, the young playwright who had become the face of the organization that called for the protests, Archipelago—landed in Madrid on Wednesday. It remains unclear whether he has been exiled.
Material living conditions in Cuba have recently plummeted dramatically. The end of cheap Venezuelan oil, the legendary dysfunction of the island’s economy, and the implementation of a long-overdue monetary reform program all play roles in the country’s dire economic situation. But the crisis has two proximate causes: US sanctions and Covid.
From 2017 to 2020, the Trump administration adopted a “maximum pressure” policy that throttled the Cuban economy. The administration meted out 240 powerful sanctions—including travel restrictions, pressure on other governments to stop contracting for Cuban doctors, and a reduction of remittances—which shaved billions from the state’s annual hard currency inflows.
Then came Covid, wiping out tourism and pushing things over the precipice.
“They’ve had to cut imports by about half,” said Emily Morris, a development economist at University College London. “Given that half of all import spending is on food and fuel, you can see what a devastating effect that was going to have on the economy.”
Ever since the pandemic, almost surreally long lines have formed outside supermarkets. People now turn up the night before to get a place in line, some carrying bedsheets and cardboard boxes as mattresses. By dawn, hundreds wait to buy chicken, soap, and cooking oil.
And while the government managed to maintain electricity for households in 2020, that started to falter this year. Before flaring through the rest of the island, the July protests began in the western town of San Antonio de los Baños after an eight-hour power cut.
“The first cries were not for freedom,” said Marta Ramírez, a feminist activist opposed to all governments. “The first cries were more urgent: food, medicine and electricity.” At the time, hardened sanctions were also stalling production of the island’s locally developed vaccines, contributing to sky-high Covid rates that further compounded the anger.
So while this summer’s mass demonstrations were spontaneous, they took place within a pressure-cooker situation created, in large measure, by US foreign policy.
The Trump sanctions were only the most recent incarnation of long-standing US efforts to overthrow the Cuban government by making everyday Cubans suffer—a strategy that’s been in place (with a blissful blip under Obama) since Eisenhower.
The Biden administration had previously signaled it was ready to soften sanctions. Then July 11 happened. Ever since, policy change has been on hold, with administration officials arguing last week that “circumstances changed” regarding Cuba policy.
In other words, the most powerful country in the world is still trying to grind a socialist state to dust by collectively punishing its population. This is the context in which political struggles inside the island take place.
Enter a new generation of democracy activists
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve met some of the fledgling activists who planned Monday’s march. It’s been a pleasure: Many are young actors, cinematographers, and journalists, who have benefited from the Cuban Revolution’s emphasis on education and culture. They are likable, principled, and Internet-savvy—and more determined than their parents’ generation to fight for their political and civic rights.
They also contrast sharply with traditional dissidence on the island—which was right wing, without much of a base, and, according to a 2009 US embassy cable, more interested in squabbling about money than bringing about political change.
Earlier this month, I spoke with Yunior García, who shot to fame last November in anti-censorship protests outside the Culture Ministry, and was anointed by the media as the face of Archipelago, the Facebook group of 35,000 that called for the protests.
García says that “Cuban problems are for Cubans to sort out.” He insists that nobody in Archipelago takes so much as “a cent” from foreign governments. “I’m opposed to any interference from any foreign government in Cuba’s internal affairs,” he told me.
Over the last month, the state media has run a frenzied propaganda campaign against García casting him—predictably—as Washington’s pawn. While presenting no compelling evidence of US financial patronage, state media did document some links that may have prevented broader support for the protests on this fiercely patriotic island.
Earlier this year, García went to the US ambassador’s residence to meet with the acting head of the US Embassy in Havana as well as a former US army captain. While García said he went to discuss censorship and the human cost of the US sanctions, the state media says these meetings prove he’s a “political operator.”
Washington spends $20 million a year on so-called “democracy promotion” programs that are intended to build active opposition to the Cuban government.
“A dissident can have an authentic concern about freedom of expression,” said William LeoGrande, professor of government at American University in Washington, D.C. “But the minute that they begin to accept support from the US, then they put themselves at risk, because the US is trying to overthrow the Cuban government.”
In 2018 and ’19, García attended a series of seminars in Madrid and Buenos Aires titled “Times of change and the new role of the armed forces in Cuba,” which, according to the project’s website, aims to “inform dissidents and critics” about potential allies in the Cuban armed forces in the event of a “political opening.”
“The Cuban Armed Forces are very powerful,” said Dr. Laura Tedesco, a specialist in political leadership in Saint Louis University and one of the course conveners. “So it’s important to think how they can be integrated into a society that is not a dictatorship.”
Tedesco said she invited García to the seminar partly because she believes Cuban artists “yearning for freedom” make them the “weakest link” in the socialist regime. García said he attended the seminar looking for inspiration for a play.
Both Tedesco and the other course convener, Professor Rut Diamint, who has previously carried out research for the US National Endowment of Democracy, have refused to disclose the seminar’s funding sources.
Prospects for dissent ebb away
When I interviewed him in May, Vice Minister for Culture Fernando Rojas insisted that there is space for “multiple forms of dissent” on the island. “We have to talk to people who are critical,” he said.
But he tempered his position because of US financing of dissidents and anti-regime online media, which he describes as “low-intensity warfare.”
“I do not consider anybody who receives US funding as an honest person who wants to change this country for the better,” he said. “But [we] have to be very careful not to commit incorrect acts against innocent people.”
Yet this is exactly what’s happening: Reactionary elements of the regime (not to mention lazy bureaucrats) have long closed down space for debate by tagging those who make critiques they don’t like as “counterrevolutionaries.” Left-wing activists are also regularly spied on; many were beaten up by police during July’s protests.
Amid fights in food lines, a miasma of online US-funded disinformation, and Communist Party smear campaigns, politics here is turning toxic. State security intimidation tactics—which include cutting activists’ Internet and phone lines and subjecting them to hours of interrogations—have only confirmed the belief of many Archipelago coordinators that they are up against a dictatorship.
The Cuban state may have won the latest round. But with the smoldering economic crisis hacking deep into what support the government still has among the population and external aggression yet to ease up, the prospects for expanded freedom of expression on the island do not seem bright.
The international level
In the international media, the fight of this new generation of Cuban activists is framed as a battle for democracy against an authoritarian state. Which is correct. But the conflict also carries another political meaning.
While Cuban media claims that dissidents are merely “pawns” are clearly exaggerated, these activists are being used by politicians in Florida and Washington. A repeat of mass protests or dramatic repression would have empowered hard-liners.
“The emergence of a protest movement strengthens the political hand of the regime changers in Washington to block any return to normalized US relations with Cuba, at great cost to the socioeconomic evolution of Cuban society, and the Cuban people” said Peter Kornbluh, Cuba analyst at the National Security Archive, and coauthor of Back Channel to Cuba.
Havana will hope that events of this week will banish any pipe dream the Biden administration may have had about the government falling.
While the return of tourism (which began this week after Cuba fully vaccinated 79 percent of its population) might allow the state to palliate the economic crisis, so long as sanctions stay in place, the right of Cubans to food and medicine will continue to be trampled.
In the current twisted context, unless they are tactically astute, these Cuban activists’ brave push for expanded freedoms could well result in the deterioration of political, civil, and economic rights for everyone on the island.
That would be a tragedy.