The outbreak of protests in Cuba this week represents a shocking departure from the status quo, while also fitting into familiar narratives that have been playing out for a while now.
We’ve become used to seeing periodic, small-scale protests in Cuba—most recently involving an artists’ collective known as the San Isidro Movement—that, while not tolerated by the Cuban government, follow a familiar script. The leaders, who are usually known to the authorities for their long involvement in activism, are often detained for short periods of time, allowing the authorities to stifle burgeoning dissent without the heavy-handed crackdowns that in the past led to international condemnation and prisons packed with political prisoners.
The protests that broke out across the island nation last weekend and continued in the early part of the week defied both of those patterns. They were not organized or led by established activist networks, but rather appear to have sprung up spontaneously in a neighborhood outside of Havana. Only when livestreamed video of those initial protests were disseminated via the internet did sympathetic protests spring up elsewhere, including in Havana.
The response by Cuban authorities similarly broke with the recent script. Security forces used violence to suppress the protests, which they blamed on provocateurs controlled by Washington, and arrested dozens. Access to the internet was also shut down, which seems to have broken the momentum of the protests. But at the same time, in a televised speech Wednesday, Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel took some responsibility for the economic shortages driving the protests, acknowledging that the government bore some of the blame.
The unrest comes at a time when several factors have converged to put the Cuban economy under enormous pressure. The ongoing unraveling of Venezuela, Cuba’s economic patron and staunch diplomatic ally, had already created fuel shortages and other hardships. The Trump administration’s tightening of embargo measures that had been loosened during the Obama administration’s diplomatic normalization of U.S-Cuba ties exacerbated matters. Then the coronavirus pandemic shut down the tourism industry that was the country’s last real source of revenue.
As a result, Cuba finds itself in its worst economic straits since the so-called Special Period that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country’s Cold War-era patron. All this comes at a time when a new, post-Castro generation of leaders has taken the helm, tasked with pursuing the reforms needed to reinvigorate a flagging, state-controlled economic model, while maintaining the Communist Party’s control over Cuban society.
Sources: World politics review