Cubans have taken to the streets one year after the unprecedented protests of July 11th and 12th of 2021. Overwhelmed by the lack of electricity —and subsequently of water and gas— caused by hurricane Ian, thousands of Cubans protested against their government in dozens of spots around Havana and, on a smaller scale, in other provinces. Their chants exhibited a mixture of complaints against a number of issues ranging from the government’s management of blackouts, to scarcity, to chants of “freedom” (which have become more frequent). Despite the repression (which has consisted of sending paramilitary troops to repress the protests late in the night amid internet blackouts), Cubans have nonetheless continued to take the streets for five days in a row to say “enough.” The testimonies have managed to make it to the outside world (despite the censorship) and have been published in a number of outlets: Diario de Cuba, El Toque, 14 y medio, and the map of citizen protest demonstrations in Cuba from July 2022 onwards.
These protests are against the status quo, meaning a politically-authoritarian, ideologically-conservative, economically-exploitative and socially-exclusionary regime. Said regime is increasingly incapable of improving material conditions (unlike China under Xi Jinping) and maintaining a political consensus (which Vladimir Putin still holds); consequently, it relies on coercion at the hands of state security, meaning it can be labeled as reactionary and, according to the latest characterization put forth by Hungarian political scientists Bálint Magyar and Bálint Madlovics, as a ‘mafia state.’ This last term does not respond to any emotional or sensationalist impulses; rather, it shows a new and novel way of understanding the structures and motives of postcommunist regimes.
In The Anatomy of Postcommunist Regimes (Central European University Press, 2020), Magyar and Madlovics study the transformation of former real socialist regimes following the fall of the Berlin Wall. The authors provide a comprehensive framework for the study of the mafia state that combines political (“neopatrimonial state”), economic (the “predatory state” and its poligarchs), sociological (the patronage and its clans) and legal (the criminal practices of the elites) dimensions. The transition to the mafia state can emerge at the bureaucracy level which, without abolishing the one-party state, opens itself up to capitalism (China). It can also be the result of a failed democratization attempt (Russia), whereby the oligarchies erode the emerging pluralism. The combination between abusive power and ruthless capital —with no challenges from the citizenry or from the (inexistent) rule of law— defines the mafia-type quality of the new order. It is precisely this —an elite and a mafia structure cemented into political institutions and the socioeconomic control of the nation— what best defines the existing regime in Cuba, as well as its close allies, Nicaragua and Venezuela (each with their own historical peculiarities).
This predatory elite has, over the last two years, revealed that its priorities lie in the accumulation of capital through the use of the state’s financial resources —priorities that have had unpopular social effects—. According to their own data (published on the National Office of Statistics and Information’s website), the government has prioritized investment in luxury hotels over food production, healthcare, education and social security. In 2020, at the height of the pandemic, investment in real estate services was 45 times higher than investment in healthcare (0.9%); therefore, the fragility of services and, consequently, the social vulnerability of the Cuban population are not the result of embargoes or hurricanes, but of the kind of political decisions made by an authoritarian and voracious elite.
From inhabitants to citizens
This situation —and its consequences— explain the nature of the current protests in Cuba. These protests are not just asking for “things” from the government; they are demanding rights from a ruthless state. That desire, the right to have rights, manifests itself when people scream “leave,” “we don’t believe you” or “freedom” in the streets. The purpose of these screams is not just to ask officials to do better; rather, they question the very existence of a regime with no institutional checks, citizen rights or political alternatives. It is a regime that wastes the human capital of its best cadres, intellectuals and citizens, one that is solipsist and arrogant and, even if it did not mean to, it appears to be structurally conditioned to reproduce administrative mediocrity and bureaucratic abulia.
This evolution in the recent history of Cuba slowly modifies a reality we described some time ago as the confrontation between two political minorities: the government (which fully controls power resources and whose legitimacy is vanishing) and the opposition (which is incapable of rallying the majority of the population behind its democratization efforts, and is overwhelmed by the daily struggle of living in Cuba). We warned about the emergence of an increasingly critical population: one that would demand that those who govern the country are held responsible for their actions; one that would become aware of the fact that everybody has the agency and the obligation to shape their own destiny; and one that, amid increasing state repression and neglect, would become a true community of citizens.
This citizenry is not yet prepared to fully confront the state, but it is real enough that it has begun to verbally recognize its “right to protest,” which in no way means the regime is showing any signs of democratization, for it continues to combine the carrot and the stick: it is capable of presenting itself as willing to enter a dialogue by sending officials to deal with protestors while mobilizing military troops dressed in plainclothes to confront those gatherings they consider the most dangerous. This strategy is accompanied by (rather unprecedented) full internet blackouts, which prevent mass protests from spreading across the country.
Yet, just as the repressive strategy changes, so do the scale and the composition of the protests. The lack of internet is a temporal limitation —turning the service off ad infinitum would have a negative impact on the already-frail economy and administration— that will not stop protests and other forms of communal gatherings (based on trust and person-to-person interactions) from happening. Blocking/sitting on streets, banging pots, etc. all seemed habitual in Latin America, except in Cuba. All of this is back along with the re-appropriation of chants one would hear at government rallies, which now take on their true meaning, such as “el pueblo, unido, jamás será vencido” [“the people, united, will never be defeated”].
In a country like Cuba, social protests (even on the smallest scale) are of great significance because they represent a change in the personal and collective subjectivities of the population against a regime that is rapidly losing its legitimacy and its control over the narrative. This situation proves an idea I shared on social media a few days before the most recent protests began. I pointed out how insensitive —analytically and civically— it is to label the Cuban people —and really any peoples oppressed by authoritarianism— as homogenous, corrupt and responsible for their own misfortune. Taking on this position is not just inhumane; it feeds into the overall lack of hope.
This kind of thinking —which is common in the exile community, among members who were never radical while they lived on the island— are disproven by the social awakening behind the actual protests. Said protests, by the way, also disprove the idealization (complicit or ingenuous) of a great number of Latin American academics and activists. When Cuba is finally liberated, Cubans will have, not only emancipated themselves from a mafia state, they will have also mourned the death of the ideological and moral totems of many others who watch Cuba from afar.
A humanitarian affair
There is one last consideration that cannot be ignored. The repression unleashed against the recent protests coincides with the Cuban government’s attempts (which were leaked to the press) to ask for material help from its “historical enemy,” the United States. It is speculated that Havana is negotiating the lifting of all sanctions and a return to Obama-era policies by threatening Washington with a mass exodus, one that is even bigger than the one we have witnessed over the past year. Faced with this situation, some exile groups and, to a lesser extent, the opposition on the island, insist on not “giving oxygen to the dictatorship.” This position, which reproduces a binary, polarized logic, perpetrates the hostage role the Cuban government has traditionally assigned to its own population.
The natural disaster, combined with the crisis caused by the failure of the Castro model, offers an opportunity to follow a different route: one that does not sandwich Cubans on the island between the governing elite’s wish to lift all sanctions, and the exiles’ demands to further tighten them. The massive, immediate and auditable (per standards of international cooperation) concession of material aid to a needing population is imperative. The embargo should be the subject of a different conversation.
The U.S.’—and other neighboring countries’— logistic and financial capacity is in order. Prestigious entities with a track record of impartiality and relevant experience, such as the Red Cross and Cáritas, could support the delivery of aid to those affected. Activist networks which, in the middle of the pandemic, self-organized to deliver medicine to the island, could be part of this effort, helping with the distribution and control of the aid. This would, additionally, strengthen the emerging social tissue.
None of these proposals would further reinforce or legitimize the Cuban state. They would, however, help hundreds of thousands of people in a very concrete and humane way. North Korea, the U.S.’ foe, received humanitarian aid for the famine of the 1990s. Iraq exchanged “Oil-for-Food” after the Gulf War. Millions of lives were saved in both cases without lifting the sanctions that had been imposed on both tyrannies. In 2004, months after the repressive episode known as the Black Spring, the Republican government of George W. Bush authorized the sale of food and medicine to Cuba, which had been affected by another hurricane. In short, there are many examples of such a practice.
Right now, humanitarianism is the priority —without ignoring the responsibility of the Cuban elite in the current national crisis and without abandoning Cubans’ calls for democratization—. It is completely possible and desirable to center, from a Human Rights perspective, those who have been affected by the hurricane, and those who have been arrested for protesting. It is important to get as many international actors behind this effort as possible, especially the European Union and Latin America, which have been too passive with regard to the situation on the island. Cuban citizens, who have finally begun to take control over their lives, cannot be abandoned.