The largest social protests in sixty years of post-revolutionary regime broke out in Cuba. As it happens in these cases, the signs accumulated but the spark ignited when (and where) nobody expected it. This is what always happens with great social events, which produce the Arendtian miracle. In spite of their uncertain course. Despite the immobility, cynicism and pessimism of so many people who refuse to acknowledge it.
Let us understand the context. A severe crisis derived from the exhaustion of the statist model, aggravated by the paralysis of economic reforms. The economic impact of the pandemic—which affected tourism, a source of foreign currency— and the effect of US sanctions. The dollarization of the economy, which increased poverty, inequality and scarcity, while the government favored real estate investment over social spending. The absence of effective policies to support entrepreneurship and workers, which coincided with a strict punitive control of citizen behavior. Finally, a health policy that bet everything on the development of its own vaccines against COVID 19, without paying attention to the rest of the conditions—infrastructure, supplies and personnel—that sustain, everywhere, the public health system.
Let’s go to the facts. Protests broke out in a town on the outskirts of Havana, which quickly went viral—thanks to Internet access—in more than 30 towns all over the country.[i] Thousands of people, the vast majority of them peacefully, marched shouting social and political slogans. As the afternoon progressed, there were clashes with police forces, mobilized to control the demonstrations. Also some looting—similar to those occurring during similar protests all over the world—of foreign currency stores, depositories of basic necessities and the focus of popular anger.
The general tone of the events (at the time of writing this column) was the diversity, massiveness and politicization of the demonstrations. They were not mobs asking for handouts, but citizens demanding rights. The idea of a people genetically incapable of complaining to their rulers is crumbling. Also the myth of an eternal Revolution, which dissolves the responsibilities of the authoritarian State in the supposed identification People/Government/Single Party.
Reactions were not long in coming. Press media and users of social networks, all over the world, broadcast the events. The images and audios of thousands of people claiming their rights in the public space will remain for those who want to see them. The silences and the solidarity with the Cuban regime or with its citizens will become, from now on, more visible. We are in one of those moments in history in which everyone chooses which side to support. And each of us will have to assume the responsibility that comes from it.
For decades, the Cuban government has built a well-oiled machinery of social control, which sustains a vocation for total power. That—the rejection of plurality—is what was reflected in the televised speech of President Miguel Díaz-Canel, calling his supporters to take to the streets and threatening to “be ready for anything.” As the Iranian, Nicaraguan or Belarusian governments have done in the face of popular protests in their respective countries. Because if, as Brecht said, the people oppose their government, the latter arrogates to itself the right to dissolve the former.
As in many countries today, people in Cuba are tired of bearing the combined burden of pandemics, exploitation and government neglect. They are tired of being plundered by those at the top, who (to add insult to injury) claim to speak in their name. The supposed “Cuban exceptionality” languishes. It remains only in the nature of a regime that refuses to recognize the right of its people, real and diverse, to have (and exercise) rights.
Any call for violence, pro- or anti-government, on the island is irresponsible. The only happy ending to these events would be the acceptance, by the authorities, of the citizenry’s demand. And the isolation by the demonstrators of any provocation—induced or spontaneous—that favors state repression. Cuba does not need more bloody and redemptive epics, but a national dialogue that recovers the republican normality and makes the socialist promise of the Common Good a reality. The possible sum of freedom and justice, contained in that phrase that millions of throats are chanting right now: “Homeland and Life.”