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Protests in Cuba: Key Debates

Written by Abhishree Choudhary

Research Associate at Law & Order

Source: Time Magazine

Disclaimer: Please note that the views expressed below represent the opinions of the article's author. The following does not necessarily represent the views of Law & Order.



On the 11th of July, the first sparks of protest were lit on the outskirts of Havana, in the town of St. Antonio de Los Banos, Cuba. Gradually, the streets in all corners of the country were flooded with angry Cubans anguished by the economic situation of the country, chanting ‘Libertad’ (freedom) and ‘Patria y Vida’ (Fatherland and Life). The Cuban government’s financial mismanagement, the embargoes imposed by the US Government and growing inflation has culminated in a disastrous economic situation where the Cuban population has been unable to get access to basic needs like food and medicines (Lima, 2021). Along with this, Cuba’s economic situation was further aggravated by the coronavirus pandemic, which halted the tourism industry, previously considered “one of the engines of the Cuban economy”.

As reported by several Western media outlets, these are the “most widespread protests since Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1959” (Oppman, 2021). The recent protests in Cuba have been termed by many as the counterrevolution against the Communist regime. The anti-government protests were suppressed by the Cuban police, hundreds were detained with an estimate of 700 protesters in government custody and mass trials were conducted without the presence of defense lawyers. The Cuban Government also shut down access to the internet across many parts of the country, however, videos of violence carried out by the police spread like wildfire across the island (Londoño and Politi, 2021). The Biden administration has also expressed its discontent over the suppression of the public rallies by the Cuban regime.

This essay breaks down the protests in Cuba and presents the Liberal and Reformist narratives found in the current protests. The paper will highlight the historic role played by US foreign policy in the contemporary economic situation of Cuba and describe in detail the US-Cuba embargo impasse that has led to the “longest economic war between a superpower and a third world country” (Whitehead, 2007). Finally, the paper offers a projection of future trends for the Cuban government and economy.

Liberal Perspective

In the context of this protest, the liberal narrative is aligned with US foreign policy towards Cuba, which prioritizes democracy and human rights.

The position taken by US Presidents can be understood by applying the concept of “two level game theory”, as proposed by Robert D. Putnam. The theory proposes that in “any international bargaining situation national leaders are actually involved in two negotiations simultaneously: the international negotiation (Level 1), wherein the leader seeks to reach agreement with other international actors; and a domestic negotiation (Level 2), in which the national leader must persuade his domestic constituency to accept ("ratify") the Level 1 agreement. For leaders, the problem is that rational moves in the Level 1 game may prove impolitic at Level 2, or vice versa”. Putnam further theorizes that when “political cost of an international agreement falls disproportionately on a domestic group that is cohesive and politically mobilized and the benefits from the disagreement are diffusely distributed, the mobilized group often has the power to block ratifications” (Leogrande 1998).

Historically, the US Presidents have been highly influenced by the Cuban-American Lobby (Davison 2009). The Cuba Lobby “isn’t one organization but a loose-knit conglomerate of exiles, sympathetic members of Congress, and nongovernmental organizations” (Leogrande 2013). The premier architect of the Cuban Lobby, Jorge Mas Canosa, founder of Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) has played a significant role in the passage of Radio Broadcasting to Cuba Act and creation of Radio Marti (1985) and TV Marti, 1990 (broadcast propaganda for Cubans).

US Congressman Robert Toricelli introduced the Cuba Democracy Act 1992 in the Senate based on a draft proposal by Mas Canosa. Traditionally, almost all Presidents of the United States have accommodated the Cuban lobby and its vision of a Castro-free, Communism-free Cuba (Davison 2009).

The Cuban Democracy Act was also endorsed by President Clinton in his bid to win elections in Florida (Leogrande 1998). The rich and wealthy exiles who make up the Cuban-American lobby have generously donated to those political campaigns which strategically side with the anti-revolutionary narrative of Cuba. Mas Canosa also played a role in shaping the Helms Burton Act known as Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (LIBERTAD) Act of 1996 which imposed strong economic embargoes on Cuba that could not be changed by the President without Congressional approval.

With the crackdown on the protests by the Cuban government, the Biden Administration has seized the opportunity to take a more “muscular approach” towards the Communist regime (Sullivan et al 2021). The Biden Administration has introduced new economic sanctions for the Island, with Biden declaring Cuba a “failed state” and communism a “failed system” and praised the Cubans’ “clarion call for freedom” following “decades of repression and economic suffering to which they have been subjected by Cuba’s authoritarian regime” (Sullivan et al, 2021).

This sharp advocacy for the dissidents of the regime proves the two level game theory hypothesis as proposed by Robert D. Putnam. In this context, the Biden administration has sharply defected from the Obama policy of Normalization and Rapprochement with Cuba (Level 1) for appeasement of the Cuban lobby in Miami, Florida (Level 2), where Biden faced a sharp defeat due to his stance of restoring more open relations with Cuba. Hence, the Biden Administration has reverted to making Cuba a largely domestic and political issue and appease hardliners like Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Robert Menendez. Therefore, there is a certain percentage of the Cuban population, Cuban-American exiles in Miami and the Biden Administration that promote the liberal principles of democracy, free and fair elections and market oriented economy in Cuba.

Reformist Perspective

On the other hand, there is the reformist perspective to the Cuban protests. The protests have been widely supported by a large proportion of Cubans.

While a percentage of Cubans would like for the complete dismantling of the dictatorship and imposition of democracy and market economy, there also exists a large section of reformists who would like for economic and political reforms within the regime (Debate AL Jazeera 2021).

The Cuban government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis and the currency issue have been large drivers of the present economic situation. The Cuban Command economy has been in a crisis due to the dual currency system of Cuban Pesos CUP and Cuban Convertible Peso CUC. The government devalued the CUP and phased out the CUC in 2020 which has led to disastrous consequences for the economy. The private sector, especially workers being paid in CUC for years, have “lost a significant amount of money” (Forde 2021).

Cuban President Miguel Díaz Canel while addressing the nation entirely blamed the US embargoes and sanctions which have been a “policy of economic asphyxiation” (BBC 2021).

Canel has also denounced the protest as a “false image” and accused the United States for provoking the protests and spreading false propaganda. Al Jazeera reported that several posts labelled under Cuban protests were in fact images of large crowds from Cuba in 2018 and protests from Egypt 2011.

The Foreign Minister of Cuba accused the “powerful” for manipulating politics through social media. These accusations cannot be labelled as conjecture as the US has had a history of implementing plans to operate a covertly funded Twitter-like messaging platform called ZunZuneo in Cuba. “The idea was to establish the service with uncontroversial content and then as the platform gains acceptance to disseminate political material aimed at regime change” and manufacture consent (Chomsky, 2015).

Historically, the embargoes and sanctions imposed by the US have been “counterproductive” , allowing the Cuban government to blame the US for already present problems with the economy and rally the population around them” (Nahrstedt, 2021). Hence, notably for the first time, President Canel is acknowledging that the government's policies have also played a role in the economic situation in Cuba.

Canel stated that there are three types of protestors: counter revolutionaries, criminals, and those with legitimate frustration (Marsh and Acosta 2021). President Miguel Diaz Canel has tried to placate the protestors by relaxing customs measures and lifting limits and duties on food and medicines. Meanwhile, Economy Minister Alejandro Gil announced that the government would institute long-promised rules for business owners to set up small- and medium-sized enterprises (DW 2021). Cubans are no strangers to economic experimentation, the country has introduced reforms periodically. In order to better understand the imposition of new reforms on the island, it becomes pertinent to look into the history of the Cuban command economy.

Economic History of Cuba

The economy of the Cuban nation has been planned by the communist regime entirely. Aviva Chomsky in her book A History of the Cuban Revolution, has mapped out the various periods of the Cuban economy post 1959 revolution which will give a better insight into the constant flip flopping of the Cuban Economy.

The Experimentation and The Great Debate of the 1960s saw a significant redistribution of wealth in Cuba with labourers receiving a wage increase. Basic social services were cost free including “schooling, medicines, social security, water, burial services, sports etc”. The attack on illiteracy was coupled with slogans like revolution equals education. The wealthy Cubans were exiled and became a powerful demographic of Miami, and have since influenced American policy on Cuba.

In Chomsky’s (2015) opinion, the revolution brought about fundamental social change for the poor, although it did lead to macroeconomic failure in Cuba. This experiment was replaced by the institutionalization of the Soviet Model in the 1970s which was a “retreat to socialism”. Sectors opened up to foreign investors. Small scale experiments with the market were reintroduced and according to Jorge Dominguez there was a “gradual de-socialization of minor social services”. The “dash of capitalism” was to stimulate productivity and provide incentives but it brought in the capitalist evils of inequality and profits. Post 1991, with the fall of the Soviet bloc the Cuban government introduced some “dramatic economic reforms including opening to foreign investment, allowing some forms of private enterprise, facilitating remittances, and promoting tourism” (Chosmky 2015). The Special Period was marked with “Rapid-Fire Reforms'' between 1993-1995 and the “dash of capitalism” was becoming a torrent. Although, the reforms brought in economic growth they were accompanied by grave inequality (economic and social inequality to hunger, prostitution etc). To tackle the economic and social inequality the regime of Raul Castro in 2003 brought about Perfecciionamiento and Recentralization. Once again this was done through reforms of “drastic decentralization measures in economic decision making and reduction of the small private sector” (Carmerlo Mesa-Lago).

Economic and Political analysts believe that the reforms chosen by the Cuban Government are great. William M. LeoGrande, an expert on Cuban politics said that the “government is just trying to signal to people that it understands their desperation and that it’s going to try to alleviate some of the misery that they’re experiencing. The problem is that the government just doesn’t have much in the way of resources that it can devote to doing that” (Rodriguez 2021). As a result, it becomes very important to look into the acts, embargos and travel bans imposed by the US government which has partially caused the “economic asphyxiation” in Cuba.

US-Cuba Embargo Empasse

The Bills enacted by the US that have significantly affected the Cuban people are:

  • The Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 introduced by Robert Torricelli featured the same provisions that were present in the legislation introduced by US Senator Connie Mack which prohibited trade between Cuba and the subsidiaries of US firms operating in third countries (Dominguez 1997). The aim behind this Act was to address the “alleged violations” of International Standards of Human Rights and was aimed to achieve a peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba through the application of sanction directed at the Castro government (Nahrstedt 2021). In LeoGrande’s opinion the bill was introduced for domestic and political reasons to sway the votes of the growingly important Cuban Americans in New Jersey.

  • The Helms Burton Act or the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (LIBERTAD) Act oF 1996 was introduced as a punitive legislation against Cuba. The Act is the basis for extraterritorial application of US sanctions as it extends its application of former legislations to foreign companies trading with Cuba. These companies may then be subject to US sanctions due to their trading activities with Cuba and are therefore effectively forced to choose between the US and the Cuban market. It also reinforces the US opposition to Cuban membership in any international institution and enables the Secretary of the Treasury to withhold membership fees to international organisations that are granting loans to Cuba against the vote of the US representative (Nahrstedt 2021). In LeoGrande’s opinion the bill's more significant provision, however, incorporated existing U.S. economic sanctions against Cuba into law. Previously, the U.S. embargo had been based on presidential executive orders; it could be tightened or loosened at the President's discretion as conditions warranted. Thus it was possible for a president to launch secret talks with the Cubans. In Dominguez’s opinion the Helms Burton Act captures well the ideological tradition in US foreign policy of “Assistance to a Free and Independent Cuba”(Section 201). The Act also requires Cuba to free all political prisoners, legalize all political activity, and make a public commitment to organize free and fair elections (Section 205). It pushes for a democratic government which respects civil liberties, an independent judiciary and a market oriented economic system. The Helms Burton Act is a direct attack on the political economy of Communism in Cuba (Section 206).

  • Nahrstedt also points out the importance of the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act which is beyond the scope of the study.

Attempts at Rapprochement

An attempt towards normalization of relations with Cuba and the policy of Rapprochement had been adopted by the Obama Administration. Obama used presidential authority to lift the Bush era restrictions on Cuban Americans to travel the island and remittances in 2009. Obama also “succumbed to the pressure from other member states' ' and removed its ban from OAS on Cuban Membership. However, the economic blockade remained firmly in place due to the Congressional approval required to lift the embargo (Chomsky 2015). Obama's successor Donald Trump, a Republican President, was “bent on reinstating a hard-line policy” and hence reversed most of the policy changes made by Obama and “return the United States to a firmly hardline stance” (Rob 2021). The Trump Administration put Restrictions on Travel, Restrictions on Remittances, Restrictions on Transactions with the Cuban Military , Implemented Act III of Helms Burton Act, refused to Staff the Havana Embassy and added Cuba to the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Biden, although promised to reintroduce open relations with Cuba and follow in Obama's footsteps, has been swayed by the Cuban American vote in Florida and has maintained a similar position to Trump. Since the protests began the Biden administration has imposed new rounds of sanctions on the Cuban Government.

Effects of Sanctions on Cuba

Many scholars have tried to study the effectiveness of the economic sanctions applied by the US. In a Cost benefit analysis Rob (2021) states that the embargo has been ineffective in its goal of isolating the Government of Cuba, eliminating Castro’s Communist regime and replacing it with a capitalist democracy as outlined within Helms Burton. Dominguez outlines the neorealist perspective of Kenneth Waltz by stating that the “balance of power” against the hegemony of the US came from outside. The Helms Burton Act led to an internationalist attempt by the European Union, Latin America, Canada and other major nations with subsidiaries in Cuba which together constituted the de facto counter lobby to CANF. The counter-lobby continues to trade with Cuba as the nations refuse standby “extraterritorial application of American law” (Davidson, 2009). Thus, instead of isolating Cuba, the Helms Burton Act brought in an outpour of international support for Cuba and “helped bolster Castro’s regime” (Rob, 2021). Philip Brenner has highlighted Cuba’s favourite metaphor of “David and Goliath”, a hostile depiction in which a small warrior David kills the giant Goliath to depict the “asymmetric relations” between the two nations.

However, as Dominguez states using Thucydides Hypothesis “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”, the cost of the embargo on the Cuban population has had far-reaching consequences. The Act has led to the obstruction of proper healthcare in Cuba. The restrictions have deprived Cuba of vital access to medicines, new scientific and medical technology, food, chemical water treatment and electricity (Rob 2021). In addition to discouraging U.S. pharmaceutical companies from supplying medical equipment and drugs to Cuba, the embargo prevents foreign entities from providing supplies (Rob 2021). Cargos carrying COVID aid like masks, ventilators, gloves, diagnostic kits to various nations have declined to deliver to Cuba (Rob 2021). This has had dire penalties for the Cuban people during the pandemic. Rob (2021) has also mentioned the threats to food security created by the American foreign policies in Cuba. The Cuban Democracy Act led to many food suppliers cancelling their contracts with Cuba. The Acts have reduced Cuba’s capacity to trade with other nations, debarred Cuba from the IMF and World Bank and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (Rob 2021). The Foreign Affairs Minister Bruno Rodriguez states that the US Trade Embargo has caused the Cuban economy $144 billion losses (IANS).

Conclusions and Projections

The tightening of the embargoes by the Trump and Biden Administrations has led to direct food insecurity and collapse of the medical infrastructure in Cuba. Hence, the US embargoes have played a key role in the protests of Cuba. The liberal narrative being touted by the Biden Administration seems like another attempt to dismantle the regime, discredit communism and portray the Communist regime as the protagonist of the economic crisis.

The question that rests now is whether the protests will lead to any tangential change? Will the communist regime persist or collapse under the pressure of vocal protests and economic blockade by the US?

On the domestic level, Professor Javier Corrales, notes that in its management of the economic crisis the Cuban government has shown an uncanny ability to blend politics and economics in such a way as to ensure economic survival and purchase a new generation of political loyalties (Hoffman &Whitehead 2007).

As Hoffman and Whitehead (2007) state in their conclusion to their book “Debating Cuban Exceptionalism”- “the key to understanding the survival of the regime has been that the political system trumps the economic logic in Cuba”. Hoffman and Whitehead (2007) note that the widespread discontent in Cuba has not translated into civil society mobilization and has continued to maintain revolutionary continuity and defiance of Washington. Archibald Ritter states that the weaknesses of the command economy are: overriding people’s decisions and opinions based on their own perceived best interests, aborted gradualist learning-by-doing, and amplification of error (Chomsky 2015).

If the government carried out well planned reforms, and provided Cubans with food and medicines and job opportunities there is a chance that the protests would be quelled and the regime would persist. However, on an international level, the Cuban nation is facing a blockade from the US embargoes. In the information age if the US government does not reintroduce open relations with Cuba in order to fulfil its national interests, it could have a radical impact on Cuban politics. Scholars once questioned what would happen after Fidel. The answer was a smooth running of the Cuban regime by Raul Castro. The Cuban government is now run by President Canel and the zeal of the Fidelistas of the revolutionary era has been overshadowed by the economic frustration of Generation X which was born in the 70s and 80s (Chomsky 2015). A persistence of protests could lead to waves of democratization and market reforms.



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