Thoughts on the Cuban Protests

Nick Ramos
11 min readJul 13, 2021

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I’ve been getting asked for my opinions on the current situation in Cuba, and on American reactions to it.

Most of the conversation in the United States has revolved around the nature of these protests and what our reaction should be. I’ll attempt my best to explain my beliefs, while avoiding the partisan hackery that has become mundane. Some things are genuine differences of opinion, some things are lies. I’ll make it clear which is which.

  1. THE NATURE OF THE PROTESTS

It’s important to keep in mind Cuba is a one-party state with no organized or effective domestic opposition. There is no alternative party, and while there are dissidents, there is limited support to make dissident politics a mass movement. The government exacts heavy professional costs for affiliating yourself with undesirables, to opponents and their families. Lost jobs, visits by police, surveillance, demotions, repudiations by peers. This keeps opposition muted to grumbling, interpersonal complaining, disillusionment with the system, but rarely action. On an island where hustling for food is the primary concern of most, there is no time or incentives to form a muscular opposition.

That said, I’ve already seen partisan hackery on both sides about the feelings motivating the protest. Is it economic anxiety due to COVID and sanctions, or is it anti-communist government protests? The point is it doesn’t matter, nor are the two mutually exclusive. I think it’s fair to make the following distinction.

The COVID-19 pandemic is the “but for cause” for these protests. Talk to any Cuban, they’ll say you cannot buy anything on the island right now, and what you can get is ridiculously overpriced. GDP has shrunk, tourism is gone, over 6,000 COVID cases in 1 day, no oxygen, shortages of everything. The crisis caught Cuba while they were restructuring their economy and currency to be even more tourist facing, and foreign reserves drying up led to hyper-inflation.

Economic anxiety is the reason why people are taking to the streets. It’s possible to keep quiet about politics when life is just hard, but when it’s impossible, protest is the last recourse. It’s no coincidence that these protests are happening during a massive COVID outbreak, pretending they are mainly ideological is fabulist. That said, there are several necessary conditions that were met to push Cuba along this route. Those are: economic mismanagement, denial of basic rights, and the embargo.

2. ECONOMIC MISMANAGEMENT

Cuban GDP Change, Sources ONEI 2020, 2019, 2013, 2007; MEP 2020.

If I were to get into the number of idiotic macro-economic decisions and byzantine regulations, which constantly shift according to the whims of the government, this would take me hours to write. From the amount of money it takes to open a savings account (50 CUC, over half the monthly salary of a minimum wage employee), to which professions are for the public sector only (no book publishing, metallurgy, audiovisual production, or making fireworks), to the government controlling nearly all import and export industries, there is always a counter-productive regulation. The state industries have been horribly managed (Cuba imports 80% of its food). The government has acknowledged for a decade that drastic change is needed. They repeat this often and loudly, a cycle of over-promising and under-delivering. This point is obvious and uncontroversial; they have done an awful job managing the economy and left themselves open to two extremely common risks for countries in the global south, world-economic downturns and unfriendly American Presidents. Without their wavering and bungling, this crisis does not have teeth.

3. DENIAL OF BASIC RIGHTS

Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, the ideological neighborhood watch

If you are Marxist reading this, you might sympathize with the Cuban government’s policies. But material conditions are not the only reason why people are marching. Another necessary condition is the Cuban government’s insistence that basic rights are too dangerous to have. It’s easy to forget there is more to life than material conditions when certain privileges have been guaranteed. Speech, assembly, artistic expression, civic discourse, multi-party voting, freedom from denunciation and loyalty tests- these are things that in combination with a good standard of living amount to what we call dignity. They do not exist in Cuba. Everyone there understands that you need to watch what you say carefully.

It’s a surreal experience to spend one night with people criticizing the government in the harshest terms, then the next day attend some committee meeting or work function and watch the same people nod their heads and promise to protect the revolution with their life. That dissonance, that understanding of lines you cannot cross in public and private life, hammers away at the conscience. Cuba was so reluctant to implement the internet for this reason (importation of routers allowed in 2019). Free private communication is dangerous to monopolizing rule, and it’s no coincidence that the government throttles the internet or particular websites whenever they feel under siege, as they did yesterday during the protests.

These were not the only insults from the regime to its citizens. Cuba, while loudly proclaiming nationalism and sovereignty, did not allow Cubans to stay at “tourist” hotels until 2008. They could work there, they couldn’t stay there. Cubans didn’t have freedom of movement, to travel outside their country and see the world, until 2013. Even with the change, a ticket for leaving remains prohibitively expensive. For all the talk about the peasant, establishing residence in the capital is restricted to this day.

Cubans now know that both their standard of living and their basic rights are lacking. This has been part of an erosion process decades in the making, the loss of legitimacy and respect for the government. COVID-19 supercharged this.

4. THE EMBARGO

Source: Boston Globe

The final necessary condition for these protests has been the embargo, and the sanctions put on by the Trump administration. There is no minimizing the suffering the embargo has caused, but pointing this out is redundant. That is the point of sanctions, to punish governments for some action by making life difficult for the citizens they are beholden to. The end result pictured in the mind’s eye of every hopeful U.S. senator who votes in favor of sanctions is one of a strident foreign populace, mad about the same things that upset the U.S., overthrowing an offending government. Baked into that is that the population must suffer, and the coefficient of their suffering must be greater than the risk they face when putting pressure on their government. I do not like sanctions, in Russia, in Iran, or in Cuba. I find them barbaric and ineffective, but that is a matter of opinion.

What is a matter of fact is that the Cuban embargo has failed. The Helms-Burton sanctions from the 90s have failed. It is an objective fact that it has not fulfilled its goal, and it has only exacerbated misery and provided the Cuban government an excuse. The only reason the embargo is still on the books is because of a series of coincidences within the American electoral process. It happens we have an electoral college, it happens Florida became a swing state after the Cold War, and it happens that recent national elections have been decided by narrow margins. If Cubans had decided to settle in California, like the South Vietnamese did after their loss, this would be a dead issue. Same if they had settled in a deeply red state. But they came to Florida, and they have plenty of reasons to hate the island.

Cubans in Florida are mainly economic migrants. But it’s harder to find a government that treats it’s foreign population (you cannot renounce Cuban citizenship) with more disrespect than Cuba- where they are called “gusanos” (worms) and traitors. The Cuban government functions with the knowledge that emigres send money back to their friends and family. From their so-called treasonous population, the regime extracts everything it can. Remittances in 2012 brought in more money than the export of sugar, nickel, medications and the tourism sector combined. The regime’s hypocrisy is why you see Cuban-Americans support the embargo despite it being a complete failure. It’s also why right now, as Cuba is on the brink of a humanitarian crisis, Cubans abroad want to keep the American boot firmly on the island’s throat. Because it’s personal to them, political second, and it’s always a potent cocktail when you can find a political home for a justified hatred.

This is why there is no reasoning with the Cuban-American community, because it is a politics of grievance, insult, and revenge. It’s an enclave full of inconsistencies of belief. The belief that the Cuban government should fall by violent protest vs. not wanting their younger relatives to participate in said demonstrations and stay safe. The belief that Trump was entirely correct to squeeze the island (which provides some free goods to citizens) vs. their constant worrying about a worsening economy, finding ways to send money through Zelle or other banking apps to family members. They do not view this as dissonance, and act defensively when questioned.

While they can be blamed for their lack of any self-exploration, it’s understandable. How many days, years, graduations, first words, birthdays, weddings, and many other of life’s joyous moments have been missed due to family separation. The Cuban government shares a lot of the blame in this, the emigre community just happens to believe they deserve all. It makes for a great human tragedy. The people in the U.S. who are affected the most want maximum punitive measures and revolution, even if it goes nowhere and costs them plenty.

Meanwhile, people who are not affected (and to be fair, a minority of Cubans abroad)- want talks and a managed transition that keeps in mind stability and peril. So does the small Cuban entrepreneurial class, who have easy access to visas in case things get too bad. They stand in opposition to the Cuban-American-Republican apparatus, preferring economic and diplomatic integration as a trojan horse to liberalization. Having studied the transitions of Communist countries away from state run economies, they are aware of the disaster that the pandora’s box of disorganized liberalization brings. I’ve heard them bring up several times the awful dip in quality of life after the Soviet Union fell, and how it ultimately ended up with a different type of strongman. Since their method is pragmatic and economic, they hate the embargo, and love Obama, whose easing of relations created the biggest boon for Cuban entrepreneurs, an increase in tourism, and a relaxation of economic controls by the administration. They have a point. Theirs is the only way that has yielded results in almost a century, and fast.

With the outbreak of these protests they have been expressing cautious support, hoping the Cuban government comes to the table and makes changes. But I can’t help but feel as if they lack something. Chutzpah, cojones, fire, there is something wrong with their insistence that transition is the only way. This may just be youth showing, but the right to revolt against unjust government is fundamental to all peoples and histories. Perhaps these colorless bureaucrats have forgotten that violence is a justified path against a government that denies dignity, freedom, and prosperity. A few months ago, they were cheering for the ouster of the Belarusian strongman, Lukashenko, when he was facing protests. I can’t help wondering whether it’s attachment to an Obama era consensus that drives some of these people to claim their way is the only way- although the facts on the ground might be changing. It’s simply the wrong time to tell the Cuban people to slow down.

It’s here you have an unbreachable divide. One side thinks Cuba can’t get any worse, the other thinks it could. One side would support American intervention, violence, perhaps even assassination, while the other finds the prospect dangerous and garish. Caught in the middle are the Cuban people still on the island, whose aspirations have to be laundered through the biggest circus, American partisan politics.

Cubans do not operate from a partisan political lens, our uniquely American ideological fights do not matter to them. Arguments about what is or isn’t socialist or Marxist, which preoccupy the lives and Facebook feeds of many Cuban-Americans, have no relevance to the life of an average Cuban. They aren’t doctrinaire Marxist-Leninist, Castro never cared much for the specifics of theory. Nor would Cubans find much solace in calls for sensibility and and managed transitions when someone they know is on a hospital bed with no oxygen.

Without a doubt they want to see big changes in their government, but would also be happy to watch American economic belligerence fade.

5. FIN

As for what I believe. Anyone calling for American intervention is operating from a deeply ahistorical perspective, and is misguided in what the final result would be. Cuba has a long and well documented history of nationalism and disgraceful U.S. occupations, nothing would aid the government more in recruiting and repressing than the United States landing a single marine. But speaking as an American citizen, the optics would be awful. A belligerent U.S. intervening in a historically unfriendly nation, under the pretext of worsening humanitarian conditions, when it helped create those conditions through sanctions. It’s hypocrisy straight from the Dulles playbook.

Cuba is not committing genocide, ethnic cleansing, or anything of the sort. If shortages, protests, and police crackdowns were a sufficient casus belli, the U.S. could invade half the world tomorrow, including many of its allies. We let Saudi Arabia get away with murdering a journalist in an embassy, a man who was a resident with 3 citizen children. Let’s not pretend this is about principles. The other people who are entirely unserious are the Marxists, who believe the CIA is behind this. This does not need addressing, the writing above has done so.

In a way I am dealing with split loyalties. As someone who left Cuba, I’d like to see its government go. As an American, I do not believe we should be in the business of ensuring that, especially when we have an ongoing embargo and were just condemned in the UN over it by a vote of 184 to 2. I support the protests, dislike the government, and hope that without too much sacrifice the Cubans can bring about a change in their circumstances. I fully understand that to bring about change, it might have to come to violence. But this is a Cuban affair, and I’d caution Cuban-Americans to not be savage and sanguine. If they want to form expeditionary forces or figure out how to run guns without getting caught, then by all means do it, Cuba is their homeland.

But I beg, stop using the levers of American economic power to continuously fail in hurting the government, but succeed in hurting the people. After all, Cubans are unarmed and disorganized, and their protests are mainly about economic conditions. Nothing might come out of the Cuban people’s basic call for dignity, it might all be crushed in a week. If everything continues as it has been, everyone’s primo, prima, hermano, hermana, abuelo, and abuela will have hell to pay.

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