On July 12, 2021, international media began to report on the protests breaking out in Cuba. The cause, it seemed, was the long-term failure of the Cuban economy, import shortages triggered by COVID-19, and the extra pressures of the Trump-era sanctions targeting both the tourist industry and foreign remittances to Cuba, among other things. Although the protests remained rather small, they did result in the government enforcing an island-wide media blackout (including an Internetshut down), and the usual wave of arrests commenced.
In short, Cuba’s government looks scared, which also explains why they hastily conceded to protestors’ demands to lower customs duties on food and medical supplies, thereby allowing Cubans coming home from abroad to help their families. But such minor concessions will not alter the fundamentals. Cuba is in trouble. Its people know it. Many are asking for elections. And to avoid such ominous liberalisation, the government will require more repression and more success with the economy. It will be a tough year.
I am a pessimist, which means I am far from convinced that a mere protest movement facing a determined regime can achieve free elections, free media, freedom of movement or freedom from arbitrary arrest. One-party rule in Cuba was not upheld by luck, nor by lack of opposition, but by a motivated security service above all. Yet, the protests prove cracks in repressive walls exist. To assess the true strength of the state structure, however, we need to assess the ground beneath it. Repression or not, those grounds have been shifting.
The first shift is ideological. Cubans have long endured poor living conditions and occasional shocks to the economy, such as in the aftermath of the USSR’s collapse, but they have always been able to believe that Cuba had a future. A socialist future. A future led by Havanna’s technocrats who could deliver better results than plausible alternatives. Whether or not that belief was rational isn’t the point.
The point is, at some level of abstraction, Cubans have believed things would improve. Better yet, when scarcities struck, the government could always blame foreign forces. Anger could be channelled outward, towards those forces trying to undermine Cuba, and the effects of this xenophobia were enhanced by the truth of the conspiracy. Precarious though it was, the hope that Cuba would transcend its problems was maintained.
But hope has a natural rate of attrition, and Cuba has been rubbing away its hope for decades. Younger people must surely know they are staring down the prospect of perpetual poverty unless something changes. And because international capitalism looks set to continue, and Cuba is unlikely to have a resources boom, substantive changes to government policies are the easiest way to recreate hope. That the government might require removal in order to change those policies is merely a complicating factor.
The second shift is international. Despite the so-called American “blockade” of Cuba, foreign money and resources have always reached the island to prop up the government. In particular, since the 2000s, Cuba’s trade with Venezuela was its lifeline, giving it a supply of oil below the market rate, which, combined with Cuba’s own oil production, provided Cuba with a surplus it could sell abroad. When combined with money sent home by Cubans (mainly from the USA) and a tourist industry that dealt in foreign currency, Cuba’s economy functioned, if only barely.
So it was that Cuba was badly hit by Venezuelan cuts to subsidies and hit again by President Trump enforcing more effective sanctions. Cuba cannot pay for imports without a drastic increase in foreign aid (which is what both cheap oil and remittances amounted to). Or, to put it another way, Cubans cannot pay for imported products. Given that the state is not self-sufficient, not even in food, the only alternative is poverty. Add COVID-19 related problems into the mix, and the already bleak future has accelerated into a terrible present, and it all happened too fast for the government to formulate any meaningful response. But what could they do?
Already the government tried to alter their complex and contrived currency and banking system, and thereby succeeded in creating additional short-term hardships with uncertain returns. Beyond this, they could attempt greater economic liberalisation, but this would admit to the failure of socialism, and the myth of socialism’s march to utopia will be hard to discard when so much hardship has been borne in its name.
Notably, the Cuban economy is dominated by government employees, and the threat of losing one’s job has always helped keep the majority of the population compliant. Likewise, there is only one labour union — the government-backed union. Any major attempt at liberalisation will create new alignments among workers, some of whom will have no love for government interference, particularly when the mere holding of elections would end the American sanctions and create new opportunities (for some).
This is the basic problem the government and the protestors are confronting on the street. The government has no plausible path to maintain both the veneer of socialism as well as substantively improve the economy. That is, unless it can find more foreign aid. Of course, there is one massive dictatorship with vast foreign exchange reserves and a desire for allies that Cuba might turn to.
Beijing already has some stake in the Cuban economy, although it has been chiefly extractive. Nickel mines and oil fields have been Chinese targets, and as much as Cuba has needed the Chinese market, this has not been charity. Cuba needs charity. Given that Beijing has no interest in Cuba (or any non-democracy) holding elections, China may very well be prepared to offer something, but as the Belt and Road projects have shown, the bargain can be tricky.
Meanwhile, odd though it may seem, there is a chance that President Biden might actually remove American embargoes on Cuba and provide the regime with an unexpected lifeline. Earlier this year, Democrats urged Biden to cease the sanctions put in place by Trump, and a desire for détente with this particular dictatorship is one of the Democratic Party’s contemporary hallmarks.
Yet Biden has stayed the course on sanctions, which now appear to have finally succeeded in damaging the Cuban regime, perhaps fatally. Now, without anyone seemingly sensing the irony, the actual fact that sanctions are hurting Cuba’s government is being used as a reason to end the embargo. One wonders why Biden continued to support the sanctions if he never intended them to cause privation. Indeed, socio-economic damage is the sole purpose of such sanctions.
But if the confusion around the power and purpose of sanctions is baffling, the week did include one even more worrying policy suggestion. Despite the fact that the USA has not yet outlived its infamy for the Bay of Bigs Invasion, Miami’s Mayor Suarez suggested that the USA should consider bombing Cuba. As the bombing for freedom policy has worked so well for the past twenty years, we can be sure the Cuban people will be eagerly awaiting the final destruction of their infrastructure, followed by an incompetent occupation.