In the last month, Cuba has been rocked by the largest antigovernment protests in decades in response to the country’s Covid-19 crisis, food and medicine shortages, a shrinking economy and longstanding restrictions on rights.
The protests have been largely peaceful, with Cubans spontaneously joining together on the streets, calling for freedom and demanding an end to the dictatorship. But in Cárdenas, a city in the province of Matanzas that is the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, protesters overturned a police car and looted a government-run store, signaling that for Cubans, the problems extend beyond the long-running U.S. trade embargo.
In a televised address, the Cuban president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, blamed the embargo — tightened during Donald Trump’s time in office — for causing the demonstrations and said protesters had been manipulated into blaming the Cuban government by the American media. Unfortunately, some Western politicians, progressive organizations and even a few American actors have echoed this message.
The Black Lives Matter movement issued a statement on July 14, saying that the unrest resulted from the “U.S. federal government’s inhumane treatments of Cubans.” In an advertisement that ran in The New York Times on July 23, paid for by the People’s Forum, a nonprofit organization, the signatories, some of whom are American citizens and advocacy groups, framed Cuba’s numerous troubles as reducible to the U.S. trade embargo.
But for anyone following the demonstrations closely, it’s easy to see what the protesters are really calling for. Through the intrepid efforts of independent journalists who labor under constant threat, we have been given an unfiltered glimpse of these calls for freedom — the last thing that the country’s leadership wants anyone to see — as well as the state’s predictably harsh reaction. The government promptly cut off the internet to prevent Cubans from communicating. Authorities detained several hundred Cubans, including minors, while others have been beaten by the police and civilians armed with sticks. The accused have been barred from the right to a lawyer and subjected to summary trials.
Some progressive groups argue that Cubans are protesting food and medicine shortages caused by the U.S. trade embargo. This interpretation falsely claims that the embargo makes it impossible to obtain food and medicine, even though the United States created an exception to its trade embargo of Cuba in 2000 to allow food and medicine sales and sells millions of dollars’ worth of food to the country, including grain and protein consumed by Cuban households.
But Cuban citizens are last on the list of its government’s priorities. The nation channeled a good deal of the little money it has into vaccine research. And yet a lack of basic medical supplies compels Cubans to ask relatives abroad to send them aspirin, vitamins and even prescription medication. Instead of investing in education and upgrading its battered housing stock, the government opts to build luxury hotels and tourist resorts. Fidel Castro’s grandchildren flaunt their wealth on the internet, while Cubans wait in line for food and collect dwindling food rations.
While the embargo has proved to be a failed policy, we do not agree that it is the country’s only problem, or that its unconditional elimination would guarantee the changes that Cubans are demanding. Lifting the embargo will not stop the Cuban government’s repression of its people. Its violation of fundamental human rights to assembly, free expression and due process has nothing to do with the U.S. trade embargo. They are the strategies employed by the police state, and are a crucial cause of Cubans’ dissatisfaction with their government.
Since the beginning of the revolution, Cuban intellectuals and artists who have sought to organize independently of state institutions have been thrown in labor camps, subjected to electroshock therapy, expelled from jobs and universities, censored and imprisoned for their ideas. The government accuses anyone who challenges it of being mercenaries and C.I.A. agents of a supposed counterrevolutionary plot against the regime.
The Communist Party’s reach extends beyond the island for the Cubans who have left. It vilifies exiles and extorts outrageous fees for passports and other documents needed to travel back to Cuba. Since the 1990s, it has subsidized its priorities and investments, rather than the Cuban economy, using billions of dollars expats send in remittances to their families.
Unfortunately, many foreigners not only buy into the Cuban government’s claims about Cuban dissidents — they also rely on generalizations about Cubans in the diaspora. Cubans in Florida are lumped together as Trump supporters who want the United States to invade Cuba. These generalizations are convenient for those who seek to ignore our critical role in Cuban affairs, allowing them to monopolize, along with some of the older, more radical exiled Cubans, the public discussion about Cuba.
Both the Cuban government and progressives are complicit in their disregard for Cubans’ right to their own opinions and aspirations. We Cubans are used to misguided perceptions of what life in Cuba is really like. Fidel Castro promised a more prosperous country, a nation where all Cubans could live in dignity and true equality. But his bait-and-switch revolution delivered an educated people that in 60 years have been able to elect only three presidents. A cultivated people that have no access to public debate and participation.
The Cuban people are tired of Communism and broken promises. For the first time, in more than 50 cities and towns throughout the island, they took to the streets to demand change. They have been told that it is unchangeable, but they are asking for the right to alter the conditions of their lives. They want more than an end to the embargo.
They should have the right to create a society by and for themselves. Even if their specific aspirations disappoint the utopian views of some foreign progressives.
Armando Chaguaceda is a Cuban political scientist. Coco Fusco is the author of the book “Dangerous Moves: Performance and Politics in Cuba.”
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