Unrest and Suppression in Cuba

There are many countries on earth today with single-party authoritarian regimes, where political opposition is not permitted, censorship of information is extensive and independent journalism is repressed. One of the worst lies a mere 103 miles off the coast of Florida.

The communist-ruled island nation of Cuba, with which the U.S. has had a strained relationship for more than 60 years, since Fidel Castro overthrew an American-supported government, is currently in a state of tension.

The most widespread protests on the streets of Cuba since the Castro revolution in 1959 spontaneously broke out last month, and have yielded an unprecedented government crackdown on dissidents. Mass trials are underway of those who dared to take to the streets calling for change. If past repressive measures are any indication, and they likely are, swift convictions and imprisonments will result.

In Cuba, the government has control over many aspects of life, including industries, wages, imports and prices of goods. The recent protests, involving thousands of Cubans, were spurred by the yield of communism: shortages of food and medicine, intensified by a high number of COVID-19 cases, inflation-driven rising prices and long power outages. There were chants of “libertad!” (freedom) and signs reading “Down with the dictatorship!”

Cuba’s buildings are crumbling and some have collapsed; over 60 percent of the food is imported. This year, the island produced the lowest amount of one of its main products, sugar.

Cubans well know the dangers of publicly criticizing the dictatorship, currently headed by Miguel Diaz-Canel, the hand-picked successor to Fidel’s brother Raúl Castro, who retired in 2008. But, as journalist Yoani Sánchez tweeted, “We were so hungry, we ate our fear.”

Cuba’s government has repeatedly blamed the U.S.’s decades-old economic embargo on the country as the main reason for the island’s poor economic conditions and shortages, but many Cubans have come to realize that it is communism and dictatorship that in fact are the sources of their deprivations.

The protests have clearly rattled the government. It brought 90-year-old Raúl Castro, whose surname is legendary in Cuba, out of retirement to attend a mass government rally. For his part, President Díaz-Canel tried to present a conciliatory face but only after calling on government supporters to go out and fight during the protests. The import of that call was not lost on Cuban citizens, who were reminded of the government’s readiness to react harshly to opposition.

Cuban officials have refused to say how many protesters have been arrested, but a Cuban exile group, Cubalex, says it has tracked arrests and, as of last week, some 700 citizens have been detained. 157, the group says, were subsequently released.

Cuban officials claim that arrests were made only when property was destroyed or police attacked. But families of some of those arrested say that their relatives were taken by police simply for being on the street as protests were held.

During his tenure as U.S. president, Barack Obama, hoping to advance social and political reforms in Cuba, took steps to normalize relations between the country and our own, including restoring diplomatic ties and expanding travel and trade. The Trump administration reversed many of the reforms.

Before the recent protests erupted, President Biden raised hopes of resuming a thaw, but the unrest and subsequent crackdown by Havana have made that prospect unlikely.

In fact, during a news conference shortly after the Cuban protests broke out, President Biden said that the U.S. is not considering reestablishing U.S. to Cuba remittances — the practice of Americans transferring money to their Cuban relatives — because of the fear that such funds would just be confiscated by the regime.

“Cuba,” he said, “is unfortunately a failed state and repressing their citizens. There are a number of things that we would consider doing to help the people of Cuba, but it would require a different circumstance or a guarantee that they would not be taken advantage of by the government.”

At the same presser, when asked about his views on communism, Mr. Biden added: “Communism is a failed system — a universally failed system. And I don’t see socialism as a very useful substitute. But that’s another story.”

The president’s observation about communism is, of course, entirely borne out by history. Communism’s only “successes” are achieved on the backs of oppressed and subjugated people. Some citizens of Cuba — and likely many, many more than the thousands who were brave enough to publicly state their feelings — may have come to recognize that fact.

While no one is predicting a political sea change in the communist island-nation, it can be cautiously hoped that the recent demonstrations against the dictatorship signal an eventual turning of the page, the spread of democracy and freedom across the 103 miles from the coast of Florida.