Cuba, Four Months Later

The July protests fueled a brutal government crackdown, but the dictatorship looks increasingly unsteady.

Watching the Berlin Wall come down from political exile in London, the Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante wrote that it was “socialism that has defeated socialism.” Even as the Soviet Union could send a man into space and produce enough rockets to incinerate the globe many times over, it was unable to provide its people with basic necessities. The Soviet Union’s socialist economic model disincentivized productive activity, which led to economic stagnation. When the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, tried to reform the system, it collapsed. 

More than 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the distortions that plague Cuba today resemble those of its former benefactor, whose economic model the island adopted in the early 1960s following Fidel Castro’s overthrow of the American-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. In recent months, socialism’s economic failures have produced an increasingly febrile atmosphere on the island, particularly among the nation’s youth. And in July of this year, angered by the government’s inability to provide essential goods including food and medicine, something unprecedented happened: Cubans took to the streets in large numbers to protest against the regime. 

Since the protests, Cuba has largely disappeared from the headlines. The Cuban government’s response to the protests was swift and brutal. On the surface, at least, an appearance of calm prevails on the streets of Cuba. Yet, the material conditions that gave rise to July’s protests are still present. Indeed, while change in Cuba is by no means imminent, the kaleidoscope has been shaken. As the revolutionary generation dies off and loses its grip on power, the dictatorship looks increasingly unsteady.

The last time any significant protest occurred in Cuba was in August 1994, at the height of the so-called Special Period of economic hardship following the collapse of the Soviet Union. After aid from the Soviet Bloc was cut off, Cuba lost about 35% of its GDP. The protests were relatively small in number, and in an era before social media, most Cubans didn’t know they happened at all.

The advent of social media made this July’s protests different. Videos of the protest beamed across the island on social networks with the hashtags #SOSCuba and #CubaLibre. As the footage spread, thousands of Cubans, from Holguin in the east to Havana in the west, took to the streets chanting “Liberty” and “Motherland and Life,” the latter a play on the government’s macabre slogan “Homeland or Death.” 

The Cuban government’s response was immediate. Cuban special forces, known as “boinas negras” (black berets), were deployed to the streets, as were plainclothes state security officials. In coordination with the police, they arrested and rounded up protestors in large numbers. Soon, reports of abuse and ill-treatment at the hands of the authorities began to leak out.

Within hours of the protests starting, Cuban president Miguel Diaz-Canel appeared on state television to issue a “combat order,” in which he encouraged government supporters to take to the streets and violently confront the protesters. The authorities temporarily shut down the internet and blocked messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Telegram and Signal. 

The Cuban government also punished journalists and critical voices by targeting them for arrest and restricting their movement. According to Reporters Without Borders, 15 journalists were “threatened, attacked, arrested or placed under house arrest by State Security during or shortly after the anti-government protests.” During a particularly dramatic moment, the Cuban activist and critic of the government Dina Stars was arrested live on air during an online interview with a Spanish news program.

Over the ensuing days, hundreds of more people that the government accused of being associated with the protests were arrested. According to Cubalex, a non-profit organization that promotes human rights in Cuba, at least 949 people were detained following the protests. According to a Human Rights Watch report released on October 19, hundreds of Cubans remain in prison or under house arrest, including some children under age 18. Opposition activists report being refused lawyers, though the Cuban government denies this. 

To understand the recent protests, it is important to look beyond the romantic socialist iconography surrounding “Fidel” and “Che” and understand how Cuba arrived at such a dire economic situation.  

Though the Cuban dictatorship and its sympathizers claim that American imperialism is to blame for most of Cuba’s economic troubles, the vast majority of the blame truly rests with the state socialist model. The distortions that stymie the Cuban economy resemble those that have historically plagued other Soviet-style systems. The poor performance of agriculture—a sector the leftist Cuban American intellectual Samuel Farber refers to as “the Achilles’ heel of Soviet-type economies”—means that Cuba imports between 60 and 70 percent of its basic foods. Sugar production, once central to the Cuban economy, has declined precipitously over the years due to a failure to adequately maintain and modernize sugar mills. The island’s economic failures are compounded by bureaucratic authoritarianism, which means that functionaries tell their superiors what they want to hear, rather than the truth, resulting in erroneous economic data and decision making.

To be sure, there are real effects of the American economic embargo on Cuba. For example, the embargo reduces Cuba’s access to dollars, hindering its trading relationships with the rest of the world. And for the greater part of 60 years, the embargo has also blocked American investment and tourism on the island. Yet, as Farber has persuasively argued in his book, Cuba since the Revolution of 1959: A Critical Assessment, those effects “have helped to hide from the Cuban people and the regime’s sympathizers abroad the systemic inefficiency and waste inherent in the bureaucratic system.” The aggressive actions of the Trump administration—many of which the Biden administration has kept in place—only strengthened the hand of such belligerent, anti-reformist elements in the Cuban government, who could now claim that all of the island's economic woes were the product of American repression. 

The economic situation in Cuba has been dire for many decades, but Covid-19 delivered a sharp blow to the Cuban economy by shuttering the island’s tourist industry, one of the country’s primary sources of hard currency. Though Cuba was praised internationally for its initial Covid-19 efforts that kept case numbers relatively low, a rush to re-open the island to tourists in 2021 brought cases of the especially contagious Delta variant. By July of this year, Cuba had the highest rate of Covid-19 cases in the Americas. The country’s vaunted healthcare system was overwhelmed with Covid patients and reportedly close to collapse in parts of the country. The combined economic and health disasters fueled a wave of discontent which finally erupted in the July protests.

Though the protests exposed a previously unseen level of disaffection with the Cuban communist regime, they were also disorganized and lacked ideological coherence. There is no official opposition in Cuba, and the government has successfully infiltrated even mildly critical opposition movements with its network of spies.

As long as members of the so-called “historic generation” of revolutionaries cling to power, any political and economic reform will face considerable government resistance. Moreover, the centralized economic model prevents ordinary citizens from accumulating capital and becoming powerful enough to challenge the status quo, while a Leninist political culture stamps out any nascent civil society before it can emerge. 

Even so, minor shifts in the currents of power are occasionally discernible: reforming voices within the Cuban government have already taken advantage of the July protests to push through reforms allowing more freedom for small and medium-sized businesses. But the screws have been tightened in other areas too. In August, the government introduced Decree-Law 35, a draconian ruling that requires telecommunications providers to interrupt, suspend, or terminate their services when a user publishes information that is “fake” or affects “public morality” and the “respect of public order.”

Change in Cuba, when it comes, will likely be driven by factions within the military because that is where true power in the country rests. Upon succeeding his brother Fidel in 2008, Cuba’s long-standing defense minister, Raul Castro, oversaw the expansion of the military into key sectors of the economy. As a result, today the military is one of the key pillars of the system holding things together. The Armed Forces Business Enterprises Group (GAESA), a subsection of the Cuban military, controls between 40 percent to 60 percent of the Caribbean island’s foreign exchange earnings. GAESA’s tourism arm, Gaviota, manages 83 of the island’s hotels (comprising over a third of all available hotel rooms). The military also controls supermarkets and other stores which sell expensive imported products in hard currency.

For now, July’s protests have been repressed, and an enforced political silence prevails on the streets of Cuba once more. However, behind closed doors, yet another generation of young Cubans will undoubtedly be dreaming of a new life elsewhere, away from their homeland. In the meantime, they must wait: wait for hours in lines for basic necessities, and wait for change in a country whose creaking communist revolution offers only the same tired slogans. 

James Bloodworth is a journalist and the author of Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain.