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Rafael Rojas: Repression Won’t Erase Cuba’s Problems

The Cuban historian analyzes the impact of the social explosion and the Diaz-Canel government’s response

Cuban historian Rafael Rojas believes the unprecedented demonstrations in his country on July 11th are the result of accumulated economic and social dissatisfaction with conditions in the country, which will not be resolved by repression by the regime, or by US intervention, as some Cuban exiles are demanding.

Rojas, professor and researcher at El Colegio de México, said in an interview with Carlos Fernando Chamorro on Esta Noche, that the churches along with activity by citizens on social media all contributed to the social explosion that began on Sunday July 11th when thousands of Cubans took to the streets demanding food, medicine, “freedom” and “an end to the dictatorship.”

“The political often manifests itself as an expression of the uneasiness and dissatisfaction building on these longstanding economic and social grievances, especially among the country’s most vulnerable sectors,” Rojas said. 

The social uprising that occurred in Cuba, in more than 30 different cities, came without warning.  Yet there had previously been protests from some groups and there was a marked deterioration in the country’s economic and political situation.  Was there a trigger for these protests? 

Yes, I believe the spark had to do with the severe outbreak of Covid-19 in some of Cuba’s central and western provinces, mainly in Matanzas, but also in towns on the outskirts of Havana where we saw a huge spike in cases in a country that had been able to control the pandemic up to that point.  At the same time, the country had been experiencing serious shortages of medicine, food and basic products, which became more acute, specifically the shortage of medicines.  I would say that was the immediate trigger.

These shortages are happening at the same time as there is a decline in the purchasing power of most Cubans, which is affecting not only the most vulnerable sectors, but also the middle class, as a result of very abrupt changes in the country’s monetary policy which went from dollarization to a de-dollarization.  So, there is that whole constellation of factors.

How do you explain that the protests took place throughout the country and not just in Havana or a few cities? What is causing this movement?

As we have seen in other Latin American countries, an initial protest (in this case, in Matanzas and the outlying areas of Havana) turns into a generalized phenomenon, a domino effect.  For instance, in the towns near San Antonio de los Baños, people hear that there is a big demonstration in the Plaza de San Antonio and they start to turn out and then social media is used as well, especially among the younger generation, and it spreads fast. Pretty soon we saw demonstrations throughout the country, in 35 or 40 different cities across the island, including the eastern region of the country. 

There has been a lot of emphasis on the role of young people and their connection to the internet, as they are communicating through WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram, I also saw people from other generations – seniors, adults, even some of the elderly who are not usually linked in to the internet, so I am assuming there are other ways that the news is getting out.

Something that really stood out to me was the role of the Catholic Church, many were ringing their bells as people began to gather in the town plazas and some communities brought out their miniature statues of virgins – you know there are miniatures of the Virgin de Regla and the Virgin de Cobre – people have these statuettes in their homes, and they brought them out, as a kind of mini-procession, joining with the demands of the protesters.

In these protests, people were demanding food, and medicine, but there were also political slogans, demands for freedom and clear protests against the regime.  We also saw the rise of the slogan Patria y Vida (Homeland and life)!  What is more important at this moment, political or social and economic issues?

I believe that the two things are linked, that the political often manifests itself as an expression of the uneasiness and dissatisfaction building on these longstanding economic and social grievances, especially in the country’s most vulnerable sectors. 

I imagine that this wave of protests reverberates from small rural towns to the poorest neighborhoods of the large cities, including Havana, Santa Clara, Cienfuegos, Camagüey or Santiago and that is where you see a clear connection between politics and economic and social issues.  It is in those poor neighborhoods where we see an upswing in civic youth movements, including the San Isidro movement or 27N that are clearly anti-authoritarian in the political sense – in other words, they are against the restriction of freedoms and the one-party system.  In many cases, this anger has focused on President Díaz-Canel. 

The theme of Patria y Vida has become an anthem among the urban youth. It’s the title of the song by Gente de Zona and Descemer Bueno, and other musicians who are very popular among young people in Cuba.

This movement does not have leaders or organizations.  Do you think that those groups you have mentioned, and other sectors of Cuban civil society, can guide these protests? What is their goal?

It’s like many social movements that we have seen in Latin America: in Chile, in Colombia, in Puerto Rico. They are spontaneous demonstrations, very horizontal, without a centralized leadership.  This creates a situation in which an organic, practical leadership emerges in the heat of the demonstrations.

We are seeing different kinds of leaders emerge, and I would also note the existence of leadership at the level of neighborhoods, both in the rural areas as well as in the urban areas.  This leadership was born out of the need to meet very basic needs in the face of shortages and scarcity, so they are not civic or political leaders, properly speaking. I believe that churches and parishes also play a role, if somewhat under the radar. 

For now, it seems to me that the neutralization and ruthless repression that the government is carrying out is aimed at the most visible leaders of the civic, intellectual and artistic organizations that have been involved, both in the MSI and in the 27N.  The leaders of those groups joined the marches, but not as leaders, rather they were part of the demonstrations, of the many people spontaneously speaking out and taking to the streets.  However, many of these people were among those arrested in recent days.

Rafael Rojas, Cuban historian and author. Photo: Taken from Cubanencuentro

Will the repression crush this wave of protests?  The government has admitted to at least one death, while some media speak of hundreds and even thousands of detainees.

What we have seen in Cuba historically is a repressive system that is preventive, systematic, and very efficient, at the most micro level, and that has to do with the sophistication of the intelligence and counter-intelligence apparatuses that the Cuban state has developed over time.

What they are doing now is systematically identifying leaders and arresting people by the hundreds, with the goal of sketching out the networks that made these demonstrations possible.  It’s a kind of neutralization that begins by singling out these protesters, who they had previously labeled as counterrevolutionary, mercenaries and agents of imperialism – all extremely ironic given that many of the are very humble people with scant resources.  Others are clearly left-wing activists – for example, there are several leaders of libertarian and communist youth organizations who have been imprisoned. 

Global progressive networks have sent letters of solidarity, signed by Noam Chomsky among others, to free these activists.  I would say that the worst message of this repression is that they are targeting, repressing and imprisoning youth from the most vulnerable sectors of society.

The government’s official line is that a hardening of the blockade, Trump’s policies, which Biden has continued, and an ongoing destabilization plan caused the protests. What real impact does US policy have on this crisis?  How does the Cuban population react to the government’s claims?

There is a real impact, especially due to the heightened sanctions under the Trump administration, given that the limits on family remittances and the restriction of travel to Cuba did take a serious economic toll on the Cuban state’s fundamental sources of income. It should not be denied that Washington’s longstanding policy of hostility against Cuba impacts both this social uprising in Cuba, at the same time as it is a way to symbolically legitimize the Cuban state.

Something that is interesting to note is that the government wants to associate this not-so-small social base with the embargo that is taking such a toll. When Barack Obama traveled to the island, there were demonstrations of enormous support for him, which revealed Obama’s deep popularity, particularly in those poor neighborhoods of Havana that are now taking to the streets. 

I would not doubt that the vast majority of people who took to the streets in recent days are against the embargo and in favor of normalizing diplomatic relations. It is quite contradictory that the government continues its efforts to delegitimize the protesters. We also see, as is the case in many Latin American countries, that those who run afoul of the government are portrayed as criminals, vandals, indecent, etc.

What options are there in the US to help or further complicate the crisis?  There is a sector in the exile community demanding humanitarian intervention, while other analysts hold that the US should cooperate with Cuba, particularly around the pandemic and the issue of remittances.  Is the US part of the solution or part of the problem?

I sympathize more with the second option.  If the US wants to be involved in any way in this situation, if they are looking for a way out of this, the best route would be by easing sanctions, or at least reversing the sanctions that Trump had added to the existing embargo.  We thought that part of Biden’s presidential campaign was a promise to reverse the tremendous damage caused by suspending the remittances and cutting off air travel – also needed is some flexibility in credit for medicine and supplies to combat the pandemic.

I do not think that the current US position – essentially maintaining Trump’s policy toward Cuba is beneficial – and I don’t see any kind of military or humanitarian intervention leading to a solution.  Those steps would further complicate the situation and encourage the government’s repressive tendencies. 

Aside from the repression, does the Díaz-Canel government have a strategy, a way out of the economic, social and political demands from the population?  Or is this crisis going to worsen?

I think that most of us who observe this situation, not only from a critical perspective, but also from a position of having identified with the Cuban socialist project, simply do not see a way out. 

An exit, so to speak, was laid out in recent years, from the famous guidelines of the Communist Party of 2011 to the negotiations between Raúl Castro and Barack Obama from 2014 to 2016.  That was a path forward, moving towards more economic flexibility, including an expansion of small and medium-sized companies with national capital. This wasn’t following the Chinese model or those from other Latin American experiences, but there was progress and significant flexibility in foreign investment.

This came to a halt, beginning in 2016, in a kind of counter-reform promoted by the Cuban government to counteract the effects of a diplomatic softening with the US.  Since then, despite a new party Congress [April 2021], despite the new Constitution that nominally expands rights, economic policy has not only stagnated, but in some cases has gone backwards. Instead of an opening, then, we are seeing adjustment measures with higher social costs.  At this point, the government has given no sign that it intends to correct this course, and hasn’t even said that it will return to the 2011 reforms, which would be a good message.

The response has been strictly defensive – that this is an ongoing soft coup that is part of the unconventional war of the US against Cuba and it will be answered with repression.  No Cuban president since 1959 has expressed this response to the so-called counterrevolutionary violence as explicitly as Díaz-Canel has on his Twitter account.

The economic reforms have stagnated and there are no signs of political reforms.  Now people are in the streets, saying that they have lost their fear and defying the government.  Has this wave of protests ended, or will it continue?

I don’t think it will end here.  We will be living through this neutralization, which I think will be very efficient.  What I am seeing is that the population, already hard hit by scarcities, economic, social and health instability and the lack of freedom is now dealing with an added offense – the repression.  Many people will be victims of the repression and this, rather than diminishing the existing disagreements people have with the government, will spark an emergence of new leadership that in turn may indicate new routes of political action, including the development of some type of alternative to the island’s political system.

This could have been a great opportunity for some reconciliation between this new political class and the government’s reform project. Yet we have not seen a message of political reform.  There were signs that, both in the constituent process leading to the new 2019 Constitution and in the last Party Congress, possibilities of making the political system more flexible were considered. 

But what the government has done is to deny the most minimal expansion of rights in matters that have to do with justice or due process, or the judicial sector.  An interesting point is that the opposition, especially the young people who are emerging as new leaders, is using the constitutional rules established in 2019 to confront the regime’s authoritarian rule.

This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by Havana Times

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