This week, protesters took to the streets in dozens of cities across Cuba, inspired by indignities at once existential and quotidian. From an authoritarian and unresponsive government to the everyday difficulties of securing food, the grievances are almost more notable for what they do not cite — the culpability of the U.S. government, offered by the Cuban government as its own explanation for the unrest — than for what they do. The demonstrators have thus challenged both the increasingly hollow legacy of a revolution whose historical leader, Fidel Castro, once promised to deliver “freedom with bread and bread without terror,” and the exculpatory framework of U.S. imperialism that he and his successors have long relied on.
Throughout Cuba’s modern history, nationalist protest has fed on anti-imperialism and vice versa. In the pre-revolutionary era, in pursuit of economic “progress,” Cuban leaders abided by a strategic calculus that bound the island to foreign economic exploitation, most infamously illustrated by the longstanding, near-total dependence on a single export crop, sugar. The need to preserve order for sugar motivated multiple governments to commit political violence — in the cane fields, at the university and beyond. This gave anti-imperialism a powerful logic in Cuban domestic politics, as demonstrated by successive revolutions against U.S.-backed dictators in the 1930s and 1950s.
But what happens when anti-imperialism becomes official ideology? Since the early 1960s, the Cuban government, often with justification, has relied on a critique of U.S. intervention, embargo and hostility to explain its persistent economic difficulties. For many Cubans, however, that formula long ago lost its power. Instead, today’s protestors have targeted the revolutionary imagination itself and its failure to deliver either bread or freedom — whether freedom from domestic or foreign powers.
What can be dreamed in the thick of the struggle, however, translates less easily into effective statecraft. In the afterglow of revolution, Cuban protesters-turned-politicians have struggled to find quick fixes for the island’s structural challenges. These continue to loom large for any future generation of island leaders, whether it emerges from the current protests or not. The historical and contemporary obstacles confronting this week’s protests are undeniably significant. But they have publicly raised a question that won’t soon be silenced: Can Cubans move toward a more inclusive political system, buttressed by an economic foundation in which the island is not a victim of outside exploitation but the independent and flourishing nation young Cubans have imagined for generations?
Throughout Cuba’s modern history, national politics and international economics have evolved hand in hand. Authoritarianism and external incursions, whether by Spain or the United States, have inspired generations of young islanders to set their hopes on a radical, all-encompassing overturning of the existing sociopolitical order. Positing a common external enemy has abetted their fight against their domestic adversaries, notably the unholy attachments of dictators Gerardo Machado and Fulgencio Batista to the United States government in the first half of the 20th century.
This conjoining of international and domestic targets has also allowed dissenters to challenge sociopolitical structures in Cuba and the long reach of U.S. imperialism simultaneously. And so historic opposition leaders, such as University of Havana student and Cuban Communist Party co-founder Julio Antonio Mella, framed the battle against domestic tyrants (in his case, Machado) as one necessarily linked to the broader struggle for workers’ rights and national sovereignty.
In the first half of the 20th century, the need to shore up the island’s economy meant the relationship with the United States was rarely decided in favor of Cuban autonomy. By the 1950s, the symbols of U.S. economic hegemony in Cuba — from the notorious United Fruit Company in the east to a sprawling, often illicit, tourism economy in Havana — had become galling to many. This, along with the U.S. government’s willingness to prop up an increasingly unpopular dictator (Batista) inspired many to join the movement to overturn his government.
After the revolution against Batista brought Fidel Castro to power in 1959, tensions between Cuba and the United States escalated quickly amid Cold War-era U.S. interventions throughout the hemisphere. This geopolitical context inspired and accelerated the radicalization of Cuban domestic politics and gave anti-imperialism an increasingly central place in the government’s rhetoric.
The abrupt severing of economic and political ties between the two nations did not solve Cuba’s problems. Both the U.S. embargo, imposed in 1960 and strengthened in 1962, and a series of economic missteps by Cuban revolutionary leaders led to tough years of spartan conditions. By 1970, those challenges would propel Castro into another unilateral economic relationship with the Soviet Union, which offered some stability for the next two decades. But it also left Cuba vulnerable, once again, to shifting economic and political tides on the world stage. After the fall of the Soviet Union, everything came crashing down.
Many observers of current events have looked to the “Maleconazo,” a 1994 mass protest in which Cubans took to Havana’s famous seafront, the Malecón, and were greeted by swift repression. Then, as now, economic factors were at play, specifically the devastating conditions following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. But then, as now, hunger and material shortages were inextricably tied to political factors — including the revolutionary government’s poor handling of the crisis — and demands, as evidenced by the protesters’ cries of “freedom.”
In the aftermath of the Maleconazo, Cuban leaders claimed a pyrrhic sort of victory. The revolutionary government had not been toppled, true, but it faced few options to rescue the island’s sunken economy. The government moved to revitalize tourism, which had been condemned in the 1960s as a legacy of U.S. imperialism but quickly became Cuba’s most important source of revenue. As a result, the gap between official rhetoric and everyday reality began to widen, as unofficial markets emerged and resulting social inequalities made themselves felt. Still, the gradual, often halting, liberalization of the Cuban economy, accelerated by Raúl Castro, nonetheless provided new business opportunities and sources of revenue on which Cubans have come to depend.
The pandemic, of course, has been calamitous in this respect, as in so many others. The actions taken by Miguel Díaz-Canel’s administration, including a recent move to prevent deposits in U.S. currency a year after lifting the 10% tax on American dollars and opening new hard currency stores, have only made matters worse.
Now, another generation of Cuban citizens born under revolution faces, like their predecessors, the same constellation of impossible choices. They know they have little agency to influence the economic and political forces, local and global, that play such an outsize role in shaping their futures. Yet they are also well aware that they cannot evade the consequences of those forces.
But, in contrast to previous generations of young Cubans, many of today’s protesters lack the reservoirs of loyalty that sometimes still bind their parents and grandparents to the revolutionary project. They, too, confront persistent legacies of political authoritarianism, economic stagnation and international isolation, but increasingly have no one but the revolutionary government to blame. This has left many young people “dreaming of airplanes,” as the Cuban saying goes, even as Obama-era changes to U.S. migration policy have made the prospect of escape by air or sea increasingly unviable.
The long history of popular protest and revolution in Cuba suggests that young people have also been the most imaginative in seeking solutions, however quixotic, to the unpropitious circumstances they confront. José Martí, hero of the island’s independence wars, was only 16 when he was imprisoned for his opposition to Spanish colonialism. His story exemplifies the revolutionary spirit of Cuban youth. As Martí once said, “Youth is happy because it is blind: that blindness is the source of its greatness: that inexperience fuels its sublime faith.”
In light of the challenges Cubans routinely face, faith in the future can itself be a revolutionary stance. Unfortunately, that faith has all too often inspired extreme and tragic sacrifice, as in Martí’s own martyrdom on the field of battle at the young age of 42.
Since 1960, Cubans have been raised on Castro’s revolutionary proclamation of “patria o muerte” (fatherland or death), demanding perpetual militancy in the face of international and domestic threats to the revolution’s survival. It is highly significant, then, that the rallying cry of the current protests is “patria y vida” (fatherland and life), defying the impossible choice underlying Castro’s original formulation. This is not only because many find ever less to fight for in the Revolution they are still being enlisted to defend. It is also because getting by, surviving — in the parlance of revolutionary Cuban, “resolviendo” — has itself become a way of life for many born since the so-called “Special Period,” as Castro called the difficult years of the 1990s.
Equally suggestive, the protesters’ soundtrack, along with some of the intellectual labor behind the current mobilization, has been provided by reggaetoneros, practitioners of a musical genre long dismissed by elites and politicians as “vulgar” and apolitical. They, like many who have taken to the streets, are insisting that “patria” must ensure, not imperil, “vida”: that their quest for food security and even material stability is an inherently political act.
For now, the movement has come together over a shared if necessarily nebulous vision for a different life: perhaps a government no longer led by Díaz-Canel, perhaps an economy, be it socialist or capitalist, in which they are able to exercise more autonomy and agency. Many participants favor warmer relations with the United States, some passionately (critics would say, naively) so.
Moving forward, the questions confronting protesters begin with whether they can generate enough momentum to force significant changes in the midst of an escalating government crackdown. Should the mobilizations persist or even expand, supporters will not find it easier than those who came before them to solve the island’s economic and political challenges, extending from Covid-19 to a two-centuries-plus history of economic precarity and political authoritarianism.
It is too early to search for solutions, or even platforms and manifestos. But, to start, Cuba’s new generation of opposition will have to determine whether “fatherland and life” can provide an inclusive enough banner for the island’s diverse political constituencies to unite behind — and, in the longer term, whether it can be translated into a more concrete path to bread and freedom.
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