Cuban demonstrators are on a collision course with pro-communist government supporters as the streets of Havana and Santiago de Cuba fill with disaffected citizens who appear to have had enough of the authoritarian regime. On Sunday afternoon, thousands of protestors gathered to challenge the leading party over its poor performance, systemic oppression, and hardships endured due to a recent coronavirus spike.
President Miguel Diaz-Canel seems determined to put an end to the protests as quickly as possible and called on communist-supporting “revolutionary” citizens to fight back on his and his party’s behalf. He said, “We are prepared to do anything,” and sparked international fears of violence by stating, “The order of combat is given, the revolutionaries take to the streets.” Reports are emerging that violent clashes are taking place in numerous locations around the country with Diaz-Canel’s “revolutionaries” and the police arresting any who take part in the protests.
During a broadcast on state-run radio, Diaz-Canel – who succeeded Raul Castro as president in 2018, then as first secretary of the Communist Party earlier this year – blamed U.S. intervention, suggesting a targeted smear campaign is destabilizing the country. But is this oft-repeated claim by authoritarian governments that the United States is behind their troubles just a political fig leaf for a nation tired of its governmental system?
An Authoritarian Response?
As well as ordering sympathetic “revolutionaries” to fight back against the protesters and sending in the militarized police, Florida Congresswoman Maria Elvira Salazar suggests that the country’s president has also limited internet capabilities to prevent a fanning of the flames.
Salazar, who is the daughter of Cuban exiles, does not believe that the much-vaunted Communist Party leadership change was as historic or as real as portrayed in the media. Back in April, she wrote, “This is a phony, pathetic transfer of power to the very same murderous and corrupt monsters who have destroyed the island for the past 62 years. Titles may change but the oppression remains and increases every day as more and more Cubans on the island speak out and risk their lives for freedom, democracy, and Human Rights.”
Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) has been watching the events closely and tweeting out videos of the protests. He commented, “Spontaneous street protests breaking out in several cities in #Cuba right now with chants of #NoTenemosMiedo (We Are Not Afraid). Frustration with the dictatorships incompetence, greed & repression is mounting rapidly.” Rubio wrote that, “The dark of night is when the regime in #Cuba carries out the abduction of leaders of the opposition to the evil socialist dictatorship. But this is a leaderless, grassroots & nationwide movement. The anger has been building up for months & it’s just getting started.”
While the Florida senator makes it clear he does not believe these protests are a response to COVID or food shortages, many in the U.S. media appear to be trying to paint a picture of just the opposite. What little coverage there has been has focused heavily on the idea that the protestors are reacting to recent events, rather than a culmination over decades. Voice of America News reported that, “Thousands of Cubans protested Sunday in the largest anti-government demonstrations in decades as people expressed frustrations with an economic crisis and the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.” Again, suggesting that the protests are linked to recent issues arising from the coronavirus.
The New York Times even went so far as to try and equate what is happening in Cuba with right-leaning protest movements in the U.S. by tweeting:
“Shouting ‘Freedom’ and other anti-government slogans, hundreds of Cubans took to the streets in cities around the country on Sunday to protest food and medicine shortages, in a remarkable eruption of discontent not seen in nearly 30 years.”
When the word “freedom” is negated as simply an “anti-government slogan,” it may cause some to wonder what a pro-government slogan might be.
An American Problem
The U.S. government is facing its own internal crisis in response to the Havana protests. White House national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, wrote that the “U.S. supports freedom of expression and assembly across Cuba, and would strongly condemn any violence or targeting of peaceful protesters who are exercising their universal rights.” A united response on the left appears unlikely, with notable supporters of the Cuban regime so far remaining tight-lipped.
Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who was asked during a Democratic Party primary debate in 2020 why Cuban citizens didn’t just rise up and overthrow the regime, the former presidential hopeful responded that Fidel Castro had “educated their kids, gave their kids health care, totally transformed the society.” He continued:
“We’re very very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba but you know, it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad. You know? When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?”
If the Biden administration is hoping to present a united position, the president may have to take a strong stance against those within his party who have openly supported communist and socialist regimes.
The situation in Cuba is one that has been predicted for a very long time. Many politicians and political commentators who have spoken out against communist and socialist governments and their repressive tactics have suggested just this kind of low-level revolt was on the cards. That it comes at a time when the coronavirus infection rate is on the rise suggests not that the virus is the cause, but rather a final straw.
Tensions in Cuba were averted earlier this year when Diaz-Canel took over from Raul Castro as the first secretary of the Communist Party, but for many Cubans in America, this was seen as little more than a publicity exercise. That a number of protestors have been filmed and photographed carrying the Stars and Stripes flag suggests that this incident – the largest in more than three decades – is not about the recent COVID rise, nor about food shortages that have plagued the island for more than half a century, but rather that it is about a system of government that appears to have failed in its primary duty.
Read more from Mark Angelides.