What’s next for the Cuban opposition? And for the government?
The Cubans woke up to a week-long showdown on November 15th. The Archipiélago civil society coalition called for nationwide demonstrations to test whether Cuba’s unprecedented, largely spontaneous protests last July could be repeated. The Cuban government, on the other hand, bet that reopening the country to tourism would turn into Cuba’s most explosive year in three decades.
The headlines since then have made it clear that the test of the opposition has failed. The 15th came and went with only a modest wave – hardly the wave of corpses that was demonstrated in the summer. The organizers of the protests were placed under house arrest, “rejected” by neighbors or kept out of contact with the outside world through targeted internet outages. Few simple followers took to the streets. Weeks of denunciations in state media – not to mention the continued detention of over 500 demonstrators from July – appeared to be having their intended effect. When the protest leader, playwright Yunior García Aguilera, boarded a plane to Spain the next day without telling his colleagues, it seemed a bitter symbol of defeat.
But that does not mean that the way is clear for the Cuban government to regain lost support (or tolerance). The reality – and the country’s future – is not that simple or satisfactory. The implosion of 15N (as it has been called) shows that Cuba’s pro-democracy movement is fragile. But also the claim of the Cuban government to the legitimacy of the people.
When thousands of Cubans took to the streets in more than 50 island cities in July – inspired by livestreams of a protest in the city of San Antonio de los Baños – the world was rightly shocked. Protest of this magnitude has not been observed on the island since Fidel Castro came to power in 1959. In retrospect, however, what is surprising about the protests is not that they took place, but that they did not take place earlier.
The Cuban economy began to deteriorate noticeably in 2017 – initially as a result of the freezing of necessary internal reforms, the aggressive withdrawal of Obama’s engagement policy under Trump and the economic decline of the closely allied Venezuela. Even so, the Cubans showed patience. 2020 saw the pandemic and with it the collapse of Cuba’s all-important tourism sector and the worst decline in GDP since the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. While Cuba managed the novel coronavirus remarkably well in its first year, the number of cases in the Delta Tribe soared in 2021 and the island’s much-touted healthcare system is under unprecedented strain. Add to this a catastrophic monetary unification process that began in January (which resulted in significant inflation) and by the summer people had reached their breaking point.
Economic factors alone may make the July protests inevitable with hindsight, but they have surprised not only the Cuban government but also established pro-democratic dissidents. Founded this summer by a group of young Cubans who had recently become political activists, Archipiélago set out to see if lightning could strike twice.
Much worked against this opportunity. First, the Cuban authorities declared the originally planned day of protest, November 20, to be the day of national defense and forced Archipiélago to bring the date forward. Officials then denied the group’s requests to hold demonstrations on the grounds that they were illegal and incompatible with the “irrevocable” nature of socialism under the Cuban constitution. By the time November hit, the intensity of Cuba’s multilateral crisis of July had eased somewhat. The authorities had stepped up the introduction of their homemade COVID vaccines and reduced the number of cases. Private sector reforms – which the government accelerated in response to July 11th – had rekindled hopes for new economic opportunities.
The Cuban authorities thus had time and sufficient warnings to prepare. Up to 15N government institutions sponsored block parties to celebrate the reopening of the country. Meanwhile, agents from the State Security Service and neighborhood surveillance committee surrounded the protest organizers’ homes. To take the heat away from the others, the leader of the Archipiélago, Yunior García, decided a day earlier to march alone down a thoroughfare through Havana in a symbolic demonstration of defiance. But authorities did not let him leave home, and the resulting confusion likely contributed to the poor performance on the 15th.
However, it is premature for the Cuban government and its supporters to declare victory. The island is still a long way from recovering its economic losses. Tourism is likely to be slowly recovering, and there doesn’t seem to be any immediate relief for the double- to triple-digit (or more) inflation that Cubans are experiencing. Recent market reforms legalizing small and medium-sized businesses are unlikely to immediately benefit those from marginalized communities who were the protagonists of the July protests. The striking announcement last week by its close ally Nicaragua that it would allow Cubans to enter the country without a visa suggests that the Cuban authorities know they are not out of the woods yet. That decision puts the wheels in motion for Cubans hoping to make it to the US-Mexico border – a way for Havana to ease internal pressures by encouraging migration of the discontented, as has been the regular (and sometimes more openly) was done.
Any economic recovery in Cuba will also be seriously tempered by the ongoing freeze in relations between Cuba and the United States. During the election campaign, President Biden promised to undo much, if not all, of the Trump administration’s efforts to exercise “maximum” [economic] Pressure ”on the Cuban government. He has yet to do this, although the average Cuban bears the brunt of the cost. Many Cuban Americans would now view easing sanctions as a concession to Havana while protesters from the summer are still in jail. That, plus the Democratic losses in Miami, where rumors of “socialism” drove Republican votes in 2020, has left the government in a political bind. On the other hand, the continuation of the “maximum pressure” policy – no less during a pandemic – has only fueled the Cuban government’s allegations that internal disagreements were the product of a US-backed siege.
But the Cuban government would be wrong if it overestimated the power of its anti-US embassies. Many Cubans who are critical of US sanctions (like García Aguilera) see no reason why these sanctions justify restrictions on their civil liberties. And the turmoil of recent years has fueled a more open contempt for the island’s political system among citizens who were previously content to muddle through in hopes of gradual reform. Even before this summer, social media had helped draw attention to a newer, dynamic cohort of government critics, including many artists, who advocate political freedoms regardless of their views on US politics. (See in particular the cases of the San Isidro movement and the historic sit-in before the Ministry of Culture in defense of the former at the end of 2020.) This is a generational change that has renewed traditional Cuba and, in some ways, displaced it in the ranks of the opposition and politicized it many average Cubans. You just have to pay attention to what the demonstrators chanted on July 11th: not just “We want medicine!” and “We want food!”, but also “Freedom”, “Down with Díaz-Canel” (Cuba’s head of state) and “Patria y Vida!” – the title of an anti-government song that went viral in February.
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The point, as the Cuba Study Group recently noted, is that “Cuba’s ‘nueva normalidad’ [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 The Cuban government has broken down on political communications and will not be restored. Many young Cubans got an impression of what it means to inform yourself and to organize yourself, be it for explicitly anti-government political issues or to collect relief supplies for natural disasters or pandemics. Archipiélago is a product of this wider change. US funding of Cuban opposition movements has a long history and present. But the government’s attempts to purge Archipiélago with allegations of foreign “subversion” have failed, and not only because there is still no evidence in this case.
So yes, the collapse of 15N shows that Cuba may still be a long way from a political turning point. Archipiélago’s future is in the balance and García Aguilera isn’t the first prominent activist last year to be forced to choose exile rather than stay in his country. But the intertwined economic and political ills that have fueled angry awakening among growing Cuban citizens are not going away. At most, there will now be a bitter stalemate. The country can see a modest financial recovery, but emigration is also likely to increase, leaving no room for real national dialogue and consensus building, either internally or with the Cuban diaspora. Only the most cynical and selfish in Havana can call this a victory. As Cuban scholar Julio César Guanche put it, this means “confusing politics with hunting chickens: running behind them and catching one to see the rest still escape.”