BY PETER BOLTON
On 11 July, Cuba saw thousands of demonstrators take to the streets in cities across the island. The protests are believed to have started in the Artemisa Province before spreading to neighboring Havana and further afield, including Cuba’s second-largest city, Santiago de Cuba. Press reports largely claim that protesters are motivated by shortages and the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Needless to say, the US government, its minions in the corporate-owned media, and, of course, the representatives of the Cuban-American exile brigade have seized on the protests to bolster their case for regime change and the continuation of coercive measures against the beleaguered Caribbean island nation. At the forefront of these calls has been Frances Suarez, mayor of Miami – the hinterland of Cuba-American exile hardliners – who has openly called for direct US military intervention into Cuba.
The move comes amidst a growing unwillingness on the part of the Biden administration to roll back some of his predecessor’s policies toward Cuba. The Trump administration had reversed several of the renormalization measures implemented by the Obama administration, in which Biden served as vice-president, in part as an effort to court the support of the Cuban-American community and their representatives, such as senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Robert Menendez of New Jersey.
There were high hopes within progressive circles that Biden would at least return Cuba policy to the Obama days or perhaps even abandon the US’s policy of regime change altogether. But, so far, he has kept Trump’s policies intact. More ominously, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said to reporters in March that “a Cuba policy shift is not currently among President Biden’s top priorities.”
In the wake of Sunday’s protests, Biden’s position appears to have shifted even further to the right. Referring to the Cuban “regime,” that favorite of Washington’s propaganda terms, he called on the Cuban government to “hear their people and serve their needs at this vital moment rather than enriching themselves.” He added: “We stand with the Cuban people and their clarion call for freedom and relief from the tragic grip of the pandemic and from the decades of repression and economic suffering to which they have been subjected by Cuba’s authoritarian regime.”
As would be expected, the corporate-owned media, parroting Washington’s position, repeat accusations of authoritarianism and mismanagement without qualification or nuance. With the Cuban-American exiles added to this mix, commentary has increasingly morphed into a self-reinforcing loop of justification for US intervention as rhetoric gets converted to “fact,” which, in turn, provides justification for US intervention. It therefore falls to independent voices to provide some modicum of balance.
First of all, it is important to put these protests into perspective. Biden talks as if the protesters are representative of the entireCuban people when there is no evidence to support this insinuation. Cuba is an island of 11 million people who hold diverse views about the revolution and all manner of other matters. There is zero evidence to suggest that the majority of the Cuban people want to reverse the major social gains of the revolution. And why would they when you look at the state of other Caribbean island nations that have obeyed the Washington Consensus and followed the dictates of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank? Perhaps the country in the Caribbean to have most closely followed Washington’s preferred neoliberal economic model has been Haiti, which remains the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
But there is an even deeper layer of hypocrisy when it comes to Washington’s criticism of Cuba, especially when it comes to economic hardship and shortages. Acting assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs Julie Chung tweeted: “Peaceful protests are growing in #Cuba as the Cuban people exercise their right to peaceful assembly to express concern about rising COVID cases/deaths & medicine shortages. We commend the numerous efforts of the Cuban people mobilizing donations to help neighbors in need.” The sheer gall of a spokesperson for the US government criticizing the Cuban government for shortages takes audacity to new heights of insolence. Because the biggest cause of such shortages, and of Cuba’s economic woes more broadly, has been the brutal, US-imposed economic blockade that has now lasted for almost 60 years.
Outside the halls of power in Washington, the pages of corporate-owned media outlets, and the fevered imaginations of hardline Cuban-American exiles, this is hardly a controversial point of view. That the embargo has been a major cause of economic hardship in Cuba has been recognized by major regional institutions such as the Inter-American Human Rights Commission and mainstream human rights organizations such as Amnesty International. Yet the corporate-owned media reports proceed as if the blockade didn’t even exist.
The Associated Press, for instance, attributed the outbreak of protests directly to “food shortages and high prices amid the coronavirus crisis”. These are exactly the kind of problems that are attributable directly to the blockade. The Center for International Policy, a Washington-based NGO, has pointed out that the blockade has “created a situation of scarcity and uncertainty that has affected all aspects of Cuban society”. According to United Nations (UN) figures, meanwhile, the blockade had caused an estimated $130 billion worth of damage to Cuba’s economy as of 2018. This figure would almost certainly need to be revised up significantly as of July 2021, not least because of tightening of sanctions against Cuba during the Trump presidency.
As a result of its transparently coercive and hypocritical nature, the majority of countries belonging to UN General Assembly have voted every year since 1992 (bar 2020 owing to the COVID pandemic) in favor of a resolution condemning the embargo. This year only two countries cast ‘no’ votes – the US and its Middle Eastern proxy state Israel – with three abstentions. The measure, however, has never been formally adopted owing to the US’s use of its veto power, which it holds by virtue of its status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
The US’s continued imposition of the blockade reveals a major contradiction in the logic of its entire stance toward Cuba. Because how can Washington plausibly claim to be motivated by a deeply held concern for the welfare of the Cuban people when it is simultaneously imposing a set of sanctions that cause great harm to those very same people? As Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel put it during a special address to the nation on Sunday:
“If they want to make a gesture toward Cuba, if they really are concerned about the people, if they want to solve Cuba’s problems: lift the blockade and let’s see how we do, why don’t they do that? Why don’t they have the courage to lift the blockade, what legal and moral basis allows a foreign government to implement such a policy against a small country, and in the midst of such adverse conditions? Isn’t this genocide?”
This latest round of protests in Cuba also exposes another major contradiction in the entire regime change narrative. Because according to supporters of the blockade, the Cuban people live under such crushing authoritarianism that they wouldn’t dare express any grievance against the government lest they fall afoul of its repressive state security forces. Of course, the reality is that Cubans frequently protest against their government over all manner of issues. And the very fact that they can and do so demolishes the argument that its government is unusually authoritarian when compared to other countries in Latin America.
Indeed, regional comparison can be enlightening in other respects too. Because protests lamenting government mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic are hardly unique to Cuba. Colombia and Brazil have experienced huge protests against their governments’ poor handling of the pandemic this year. Those countries, incidentally, have worse records on COVID response than Cuba does. As Díaz-Canel has pointed out, Cuba has already vaccinated 20% of its population using two vaccines that it developed itself, the first Latin American country to have done so. Brazil, on the other hand, has been on the verge of chaos with even some right-wing factions joining in mass protests against the far-right government of Jair Bolsonaro. In April, NPR reported that Brazil had an average daily COVID death toll of over 3,000 – the highest in the world.
In spite of all this, has anyone heard calls from Washington, the corporate-owned media, or the Cuban-American exile brigade for the overthrow of the Brazilian and Colombian governments, far less a complete overhaul of their political and economic systems? Surely not given that both have US-aligned right-wing governments. Colombia has been a key US ally for decades, even earning the nickname “the Israel of Latin America.” Brazil, meanwhile, became particularly close to the US during the Trump administration – in no small part because of the ideological affinity between the two countries’ respective faux-populist demagogic presidents.
The desperate mental contortions that the corporate-owned media have engaged in in order to make facts suit their agenda, meanwhile, has been quite a spectacle to behold. Common to these reports, for example, have been attempts to portray the protests as some kind of unprecedented event, never seen before in the history of post-revolutionary Cuba. The New York Times’ Frances Robles, for instance, said: “I have been covering Cuba since the 1994 rafter crisis. I have never ever seen anything like the protests today.” But the insinuation that these protests represent the first time since the revolution that people have taken to the streets to protest the government is patently false.
To take just one example, on May 10, 2002, Cubans representing the Varela Project gathered outside the National Assembly, the country’s legislature, to present a petition containing over 11,000 signatures calling on the government to implement electoral reforms, improve freedom of speech, and release prisoners that the organization deemed as political. This shows decisively that this latest round of protests is far from a unique event in post-revolutionary Cuban history.
Moreover, one has to ask oneself: If Cuba is such an authoritarian country, then how come such an effort is even tolerated in the first place? The other side might respond: But did the Varela Project have any substantive effect on Cuba’s political system?One could just as easily ask why, in spite of widespread opposition and having twice led to the loser of the popular vote becoming president, the US has still not repealed or even reformed its highly undemocratic electoral college for presidential elections.
In fact, Cuba’s political and economic systems have been altered since 1959. Raul Castro implemented a series of “updates” to incorporate a degree of market mechanisms into the Cuban economy during his time as president. Cuba’s constitution, meanwhile, has been revised twice since 1959 – first in 1974 and again in 2019. Each time this was done as part of a democratic process that encouraged participation by ordinary citizens and groups representing a broad cross-section of Cuban society. In 2019, the finalized version was confirmed via a national plebiscite, in which over 8.7 million Cubans participated, about 10% of whom voted against it. The US, meanwhile, has the very same constitution that was written in the late 18thCentury by the so-called “Founding Fathers,” men who in many cases owned slaves and believed suffrage should extend exclusively to property-owning white men.
Other attempts to portray Sunday’s protests as historical sui generis include the frequent false assumption that the economic woes faced by the country are somehow unique to Cuba. CNN, for example, claims that these latest protests were caused in part because of power outages throughout the island. The often unspoken assumption is that such a thing must be caused by governmental mismanagement or a lack of “free” market mechanisms. The reality, of course, is that power outages are common throughout Latin America, including in countries led by right and center-right governments. In 2019, for instance, several of South America’s southern cone countries were plunged into a protracted blackout. Of course, no one in the corporate-owned media claimed that this must be due to the inherent failures of capitalism as practiced by the right-wing government of Mauricio Macri in Argentina.
The corporate-owned media reports also seem eager to stress the youthful character of the protesters. To be sure, maintaining revolutionary fervor amongst Cuba’s young people has indeed been a challenge for the government and it’s not hard to see why. As a result of the emergence of popular culture, television, youth subcultures and other such trivialities, youth political apathy is a worldwide phenomenon.
Into this vacuum has stepped a US-orchestrated propaganda campaign utilizing social media to weaken support for the revolution and spread misinformation about the Cuban government and US imperialist aggression in Cuba. With obviously far greater financial resources than the Cuban government as well as far more sophisticated technology, these campaigns have almost inevitably had an effect in mobilizing a section of the Cuban population against the government.
Keep in mind also the potential benefits for those who obediently serve the imperial overlord. Far from just receiving financial support and the prospect of political asylum in exchange for denouncing the government, Cuban dissidents in the US attain a status within Cuban-American exile circles bordering on the seraphic, irrespective of their prior ideological orientation or relationship with the government. As political scientist Rafael Hernández puts it: “Overnight, they become independent intellectuals with the keys to credibility in their pocket.”
There is a further layer of nuance to the issue of dissidents in Cuba. The Cuban-American exile lobby, in particular, claims that there is widespread crushing of dissent on the island. However, the reality is that many of these “dissidents” are on the payroll of organizations such as the CIA, or CIA front groups such as the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). This includes the darling of the Cuban-American exile community and corporate-owned US media, Yoani Sánchez, a well-known CIA asset. According to some estimates, USAID funnels roughly $20 million per year toward so-called “democracy promotion” – Washington codeword for regime change. Keep in mind also that the CIA has been at the cutting edge of violent interference into other countries’ affairs and the propping up of dictatorships all throughout the world, and especially in Latin America.
Given these facts, one then has to ask oneself: Would someone in, say, the United States who advocates violent overthrow of the US government and Constitution, and as part of that plan takes money from a hostile foreign power, be left to go on his or her way, completely unhindered by US law enforcement and the US judicial system? Surely not, given that treason is a capital crime according to US federal law. So, in this sense at least, Cuba is actually more tolerant of political dissent than the United States is.
All of the above, however, takes second fiddle to Washington’s prime justification for its aggressive stance against Cuba – the now hackneyed accusations of human rights abuses and suppression of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. The Biden administration’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, spelled it out in a tweet, stating 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”.
There is, of course, a deep layer of hypocrisy when it comes to Washington’s use of these concepts as part of its interventionist discourse. Because throughout the duration of its aggressive stance toward Cuba, Washington has not only turned a blind eye to, but actively propped up other governments with far worse records on all of these counts. The examples are too numerous to exhaustively list here but include the murderous Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, that replaced the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende, and the brutal military junta in Argentina.
Meanwhile, such problems in Cuba are either deliberately embellished or outright fabricated as part of the process of developing bogus justifications for regime change efforts. In a further layer of irony, the US itself hardly has an exemplary record when it comes to such measures. Demonstrators protesting racial injustice in Portland in 2020, for example, were faced with exactly the kind of heavy-handed police tactics that Washington accuses Cuba of engaging in now.
In short, the US has not a shred of credibility when it comes to criticizing Cuba. And its use of these latest protests to try and shore up its interventionist narrative is just as hypocritical and self-serving as its stance toward Cuba always has been. As its efforts to use these protests as a ruse to move toward ever greater confrontation galvanize, the need to challenge Washington’s propaganda arsenal becomes ever more pressing. Because to be clear, a US military invasion of Cuba would be disastrous.
Since 1959, Cuba has maintained an anti-imperialist National Revolutionary Militia with membership numbering in the millions. In spite of the US’s unrivaled military might, if it chose to invade and occupy Cuba as part of a regime change strategy, this militia would wage a concerted and highly effective guerilla war against the occupying army. While the US might have superior technology and resources, the Cubans obviously know the terrain better. Just as with what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, US forces would likely get bogged down in a protracted quagmire that would leave Washington with just two choices: cut your losses, swallow your pride and leave or else remain tied up in an ever-worsening nightmare with no end in sight. Of course, either option would mean huge bloodshed on both sides and a destabilization of Cuba from which it would likely never recover.
Any change to Cuba’s political and economic system and constitutional set-up must come exclusively from the Cuban people themselves – not from the outside, and most certainly not from a country with a long record of intervention and imperialist domination all throughout the region, not least in Cuba itself.