Trapped by an anachronistic American embargo. Trapped by Castroism, even without the Castros. It is rare that Cubans allow their anger to come into the open, given that, from the beginning, they have held it in, faced with a regime that, besieged for 60 years by the United States, has not tolerated the slightest criticism. So the anti-government demonstrations (“Down with dictatorship!”) that took place by the dozens on Sunday in several cities in the country are quite significant. This has not been seen since the Maleconazo, the popular anti-Castro uprising in August 1994, which took place in the aftermath of the fall of the USSR and turned into a formidable wave of Cuban emigration by sea.
Spontaneous demonstrations, but not only that. Understand that the “Cuban-American mafia,” as Havana refers to it, is surely no stranger to this movement of exasperation. These demonstrations are only the tip of the iceberg of a collective discontent against the food shortages and the incompetence of the Cuban state.
Cuba is going through its worst economic crisis in 30 years, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has the tourist industry cash cow running on empty. The fall in the GDP is on the order of 10%. After the normalization (2014-2016) that Barack Obama had the courage to carry out, Donald Trump reestablished the embargo with an increasingly bellicose fervor, following the old, politically obtuse and stupidly “anti-communist” policy of economic asphyxiation practiced by the United States.
Stunned by the crisis and in need of currency, on Jan. 1, the government of new President Miguel Díaz-Canel put an end to the shaky “two currency” system which had endured since 1994, reintroducing the American dollar — but not without serious inflationary effects. The authorities increased the minimum wage and pensions by a factor of five. These measures fall far short of making up for increases decreed by the state in taxes on gas, water, transportation, electricity and basic commodities such as bread. Thus, anger has only grown.
Around 50 demonstrations were listed Sunday by the data journalism site Inventario. Most were streamed live on social networks, which, since 2018, with the liberalization of mobile internet access, have become a key factor of social mobilization. Díaz-Canel, who in February succeeded Raúl Castro as the head of the Communist Party of Cuba, wants to ignore the nature of the malaise by reducing it to some “wild revolutionaries.” But the regime will not be able to stick to its repressive reflexes and ideological tension forever. In a sign of Maleconazo redux, the American Coast Guard has intercepted more than 500 Cubans at sea since last October, in comparison to 49 for the entire preceding fiscal year.
There is no better antidote to the impasse in which Cuba finds itself than the lifting of the embargo, notwithstanding all the secondary effects which that would imply from social, economic and political standpoints. Under Fidel Castro, the Cuban dictatorship took good advantage of this embargo to cement anti-American solidarity. But this cement is less and less sufficient to hold up the edifice. If it goes without saying that American sanctions cause grave suffering to the Cuban people, it remains that the latter are not fooled by the responsibilities and failure of Cuba’s leaders. The failings of the Cuban model — its complexity and its corruption — are being debated at the very heart of the Cuban state.
That Joe Biden himself chooses avoidance of the Cuban question, in his exclusive foreign policy confrontation with China, is irresponsible in humanitarian terms. He chooses avoidance regarding Cubans as he does regarding Palestinians. He had, however, promised in his presidential campaign to take up Obama’s baton and open up “renormalization” of U.S.-Cuba relations. What is he waiting for in order to authorize anew, at the very least, flights to Cuba as well as remittances from the diaspora?
Nothing has yet been done. That is to say, once again, the island’s future is overly subject to domestic American political considerations — read: the electorally disproportionate weight of the militant and anti-Castro faction of the Cuban community in the key state of Florida — while a majority of Americans claim nonetheless to be supportive of normalization.
Trump won Florida last year with the support of Cuban and Venezuelan voters, which did not, however, prevent Biden from snatching the presidential election. This is what Biden now fears for the fragile Democratic majority in Congress in next year’s midterm elections. So stalwart in other areas, his government shows itself to be quite timid on the Cuban question.