Stefano Palestini speaks with Cuban sociologist Elaine Acosta* about the meaning and causes of the popular uprising against the Cuban government and the ruling Communist Party of Cuba which began on 11 July 2021. Triggered by a shortage of food and medicine and the government’s response to the resurgent COVID-19 pandemic in Cuba, the protests have been described as the largest anti-government demonstrations since 1994.
What caused the events of July 11? Many analyses have come out in recent days. Carmelo Mesa-Lago, for instance, distinguishes between structural and conjunctural causes. Some of these have to do with the crisis of the socio-economic model, the weakness of the regime after the departure of Raúl Castro and the impact of the pandemic. What’s your take?
Cuba faces crises in all areas, that go beyond the issue of the pandemic, although the mismanagement of the health crisis by the government, especially in recent months, is also part of the story.
These protests were surprising due to their massive, spontaneous, and national character. They demolished a whole series of myths that existed about the Cuban society, for example, that there was a monolithic consensus around the project, of “the revolution”, and that dissent was associated with certain “grupúsculos” [small factions], as the government has called them for many years, or that certain groups financed by the “empire”, imperialists or foreign forces.
And what was the impact of the pandemic on all this?
Although the government was able to control the pandemic in the initial stages, later it chose to make its own vaccines without considering that it was going to take significant time. Furthermore, the pandemic, as well as in other places, but with an obviously worse emphasis in Cuba, has served as a pretext to increase the mechanisms of repression of the multiple dissidents that had been manifesting in Cuban society for some time. All this came amid a crisis of an increase in cases in the last month, especially in the province of Matanzas, a province in which the government decided to open up for Russian and Canadian tourism while confining the population. These are political measures that are very contradictory to others, such as, for example, not allowing Cuban emigrants in the United States, who had a double dose of vaccination, to visit their relatives and in some way, mitigate the crisis of food and lack of medicine that exists today in Cuban society.
All this is obviously aggravated by the intensification of the measures around the embargo taken by Trump. But, I insist, there are a whole number of internal factors that aggravate the impact of these measures and make the government’s political responsibilities very clear. The economic-social strategy to face COVID-19, which the government adopted in mid-2020, and the famous ordering task, implemented on January 1, 2021, is the straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of economic and social crises. It is a measure of monetary adjustment, at the worst moment of the crisis and the economic and social effects of the pandemic. It is a measure that, furthermore, points directly in the opposite direction of what is supposed to be a couter-cyclical social and economic policy in a context such as the pandemic.
Did the Cuban civil society play any role?
Certainly yes. We must give credit to the work they have done to make a set of problems visible. The range of groups and organizations has expanded, diversified, and a series of groups have been formed around very diverse demands, whether in defense of animals, against gender violence, or the LGBT movement. In other words, this panorama has become more complex, grown, and diversified and each of these groups with specific and sectoral goals has been making proposals, demands, and small demonstrations with the help of social networks. Cuban society did not have massive access to these social networks until very recently… it is still costly, but access has increased and this has also allowed these civil society groups to be able to make their work visible and to be able to report.
The artistic movement has also played a fundamental role, the San Isidro movement, the 27N movement. There have been precedents of an incipient civil society, which has suffered permanent harassment by state institutions, continuous surveillance, and imprisonment, but even so, they have kept making this set of problems visible and articulating demands. So, of course, what the snapshot of July 11 does is to amplify all this and break the myth that dissent is only sectoral and linked to an enlightened elite.
The explanation from the regime itself is that the crisis is an attempt to destabilize the country organized from abroad and that it takes advantage of the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the United States’ sanctions. This official interpretation has been promoted by organizations such as the Latin American Council of Social Sciences (CLACSO). Is this a plausible explanation?
It seems to be a way of continuing to infantilize, just as the Cuban government has done for a long time, the agency of the Cuban people. That is why July 11 was beautiful and, if you notice, the demands were also diverse.They were clear in saying that there is a system that is oppressive, and have placed at the center the poor, the humble, those at disadvantage and facing increasing inequalities. The Cuban people see every day that the benefits are being grabbed increasingly by a few: you see a government, a political party, all the leaders, from their clothing, their skin color, their hair, all are so different and distanced from the common people of Cuba.
Frustration is natural when the same leadership 62 years after the revolution is still asking you to make huge sacrifices. Fewer and fewer Cubans have hope that prosperity will eventually come.
After 62 years, you can legitimately ask yourself the question “I can’t keep waiting because my life has been lost on this”, or “my life is gone, but I don’t want my children’s life to go away.” It must be said that the Cuban people have waited patiently, they have actively participated in each of the projects and dreams that the “Revolution”, created, and at the end of the day they see themselves in even worse conditions than those they started with.
The responsibility of the embargo in the crisis in Cuba is clear to every single Cuban, but it is clearly an insufficient explanation because the Cuban government, and in that sense, the model as a whole, has had every opportunity to make changes and reforms, even within the limits of the model itself, and it has not.
How has the Cuban society changed in the last years?
We do not have general public opinion polls, nor do we have studies aimed at seeing and being able to “understand” these changes. Some colleagues argue that these changes suggest that Cuban society may be more similar to other Latin American societies, in its desires, in its needs, in its practices, than what one would imagine in a “socialist society.” It must also be said that in recent years a transnational Cuban society has also been formed. The flow of knowledge, learning, ideas, tastes, has been unstoppable because in recent years migration has increased significantly since the Obama era until the end of the “dry feet, wet feet” policy.
It is also a society that has diversified a lot. The government tried to co-opt new movements to the traditional, mass organizations that have traditionally been carrying out this work. The Federation of Cuban Women wanted to co-opt the feminist movement, the feminist movement said “no, we are not represented there. We have a set of demands that, furthermore, you have not understood, nor defended, nor have you supported us with a law on gender violence because the FCM must defend the standard narrative that the revolution has done the best and the most for women and that all our problems are solved.” What does the government do? It criminalizes the feminist movement, it stigmatizes it, “they are paid by foreign governments”, they say. The same has happened with the animal movement, these people were able to stand in front of Zoonosis, which is the institution that collects animals, etc., and protest against the bad practices of state institutions regarding the treatment of animals, and they sat in front of the Ministry of Agriculture, which is the one in charge of these issues, and protested there. The new social situation had thus been developing for a while and did not arrive at July 11 out of nowhere.
What do we know about human rights violations since July 11? How reliable is the information we have?
There are enormous difficulties in knowing the exact figures because we do not have public information from governmental sources or other independent sources inside Cuba (let’s remember that Cuba also lacks independent judiciary).
There are various efforts of prisoners’ families, friends and independent media outlets of different nature that have been reporting all the names of the disappeared persons, among others, on Facebook. Many organizations have been created, such as Cubalex, which is a legal advice organization that worked within Cuba but had to leave the country due to repression, and is now from abroad. The most up-to-date record, one week after the protests, includes people in various situations: arrested, disappeared, in detention, some have been released, and a large number remain to be confirmed. The broad list encompasses around 600 people.
The verification work is very difficult due to the absolute control that the state has over the whole situation. On July 14, the United Nations, specifically the Committee on Enforced Disappearances, reported the situation of 187 people. The Committee recognizes this information and makes a statement and demands the Cuban government make a statement on the matter and take action in this regard.
I would like to ask you, as a “Cuban intelligentsia in exile”, about the role international actors should play (if any) in handling this crisis. I am thinking of obvious actors such as the United States, but also of international organizations that would welcome a transition to democracy in Cuba, such as the Organization of American States, the European Union, as well as non-governmental organizations of various types.
I believe that international actors have an important role, in making visible and supporting, above all, the direct victims and demanding the liberation of these victims as a way of exerting pressure on the Cuban government.
It is also important not to ignore the merit of Cuban society. We must respect and not detract from the actions and agency capacity of Cuban society without, at the same time, abandoning them. In this sense, I believe in all international organizations, especially those in key humanitarian issues, should collaborate with the Cuban transnational civil society in the search for joint solutions.
The Biden administration will have to listen, not only to Cuban-American politicians, but also to the most diverse community that lives here in the United States (not only in Florida), and also to listen in some way to those inside Cuba. Many of us have made it clear that a military intervention is not a reasonable option, nor it is possible, or desirable, in any sense, because no matter how tight the control the Cuban government has, Cuban society has also demonstrated agency. The goal should be to figure out what mechanisms are the most efficient so that we can continue to support that struggle: if so many other peoples have asked for support, I do not understand why Cubans cannot have it.
Would you agree to demand the lifting of the embargo as a measure to alleviate the situation of the Cuban people?
There is a certain consensus that the embargo is an unacceptable measure in many ways, but, on the other hand, lifting would be a signal that could be interpreted as favorable to the Cuban government, which has blamed the embargo as the sole cause of the crisis.
I think we should use this moment to say “well, how can we help or facilitate a humanitarian corridor” that has been imposed as a necessity in recent months, but that the Cuban government seeks to block. That would also make it necessary to demand the Cuban government opens up the possibilities for Cuban emigrants to send aid without the restrictions that they have been imposing on us up to now. We have to activate an instance of dialogue so that we can pressure the government to accept this humanitarian aid.
The government has announced that it will allow the entry of medicines and food by Cuban emigrants without restrictions. A measure that was so simple to take so many months ago! But, on the other hand, if you do not increase the flights, which at this minute you have blocked, how are you going to get that help?
On the other hand, these are insufficient measures for the scale of the crisis. This makes the actions of international actors very complex because these measures are perceived as “concessions” from the government, which, however, does not want to give any concessions and is not even able to recognize that there was an excess of violence or that there was bad management, or that certain rights were violated.
Do you see something more profound in these events: the beginning of a transition to democracy, a Cuban spring? Or maybe the government will manage to retain its position by a controlled transformation?
We can say that this is the beginning of a new stage, the maturation of civil society that now will also have to recover from this backlash. The transition to democracy is not given, it does not come by hand. There are other disastrous possible exits, if the government and other actors are not able to advance towards democratization.
The Cuban government has no will to promote, or to get on that boat of changes, which could allow them in some way to remain in power: gradually liberalizing, freeing the productive forces, and making a set of changes that lead to improvements of a different nature, not necessarily in the liberal democratic framework.
If the government does not open the possibility of freedom to associate, to form parties, so that civil society can organize, or that independent media can exercise freely, obviously we will have a truncated transition in the style of what has happened in some places of the former Soviet Union, or even more violent exits, of different natures.
*Elaine Acosta – sociologist, expert in welfare regimes and international migration. She is associate researcher at the Cuban Research Institute at the Florida International University and the Executive Director of Cuido60, an observatory of aging, welfare, and rights. She holds a PhD in International and Intercultural Studies from the Universidad de Deusto, Spain.
In collaboration with Pedro Perfeito da Silva, Catherine Wright and Michal Matlak
This transcript was edited for length and clarity.