On Sunday, July 11, 2021, demonstrations occurred in various parts of Cuba. Many of the demonstrators went onto the streets to protest the frequent prolonged power outages in various locations, shortages of food and medicine, and the general precariousness of daily life. Tensions were further heightened by the new spike in COVID-19 cases in the province of Matanzas, a little over sixteen months since the fight against the pandemic began in the country.
A variety of different perspectives are putting their own spin on these events, which were unprecedented in their massive scope, as well as in the number of locations involved. The initial demonstrations took place in the municipality of San Antonio de Los Baños, in Artemisa province. Then, little by little, reports appeared on social media about protests throughout the island, including the capital.
Prior to these events, campaigns were being developed on social media platforms to request and receive support—not always based on solidarity—to combat the pandemic, in a context of a health care system lacking inputs and medicines, aggravated by the intensification of the U.S. blockade and the spread of the Delta variant of the new coronavirus. These petitions for support used the hashtags #SOSMatanzas and #SOSCuba. Later, these requests were accompanied by questions about the government’s management of the COVID-19 health crisis and complaints about the difficulties posed when sending donations to Cuba, as well as some voices calling for the launching of a “humanitarian” intervention in the country.
On learning of the demonstrations, the president of Cuba, Miguel Díaz-Canel, left for Artemisa. He later appeared on national television to report the facts. Considering the country’s health crisis and the discontent expressed by citizens regarding shortages of basic goods, the journal Alma Mater spoke with five young Cubans to analyze the situation in Cuba today, based on their perspectives and experiences, and what—in their opinion—are the principal causes of the events of July 11.
According to Mauro Díaz Vázquez, a fourth-year journalism student at Havana University and July 11 demonstrator, “the event had various root causes, including social, economic, political and health related factors. First, this is a problem which goes back years to the intense economic crisis of the 1990s, which was later aggravated by the sanctions imposed by the Trump administration and, obviously, by the present pandemic period. An additional factor was the increase in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, which brought on the collapse of the public health system.”
Carolina García Salas, a journalist and social scientist who is studying in Spain, observes that Cuba was and is undergoing a multifaceted crisis. To understand the current situation, it is necessary to consider diverse causal factors that cut across every sphere of social life. First, García Salas mentions the internal causes, including notably “the limitations in the processes of change that have been initiated in the context of Modernizing the Economic and Social Model [Modernizar el modelo económico y social, a set of government guidelines published in 2018].” García Salas says:
According to the information published by the government, to date only 30 percent of the guidelines have been implemented. I believe there’s been sloth and little creativity and flexibility. As a result, some of the most favorable policies, such as those related to self-employment, have been subject to unnecessary zigzags and openings and closings. Other sectors remain hostages to bureaucracy and over-centralization. The economic measures initiated in the country were not flawless in terms of their design and scope, as many economists acknowledge. Nevertheless, if these processes had been implemented more rapidly, I believe we would have been able to confront the health crisis under different and more favorable conditions.
Iramís Rosique Cárdenas, a young Cuban intellectual, also emphasizes the multiple factors and conditions that triggered the events of July 11. The primary factor, in his view, is the blockade. He notes:
The permanence of the war economy, which is due to the U.S. blockade, gravely affects the quality of life of the entire Cuban population. However, its impact is most starkly felt among the most vulnerable groups, such as the elderly, racialized people, people with different abilities, persons with low education levels, outlying or rural communities, women, adolescents, and children. It’s no accident that these groups were amply represented in the protests.
For Rosique Cárdenas, the health crisis, the resulting drastic changes in people’s lives, and the exacerbation of the war economy conditions all feed popular discontent, especially among the most vulnerable sectors.
In the view of García Salas, inequalities have widened and deepened, while “social policy has lagged, both in terms of recognizing issues and in designing strategies. In the process of ‘eliminating free goods and services,’ gaps have widened and many sectors of society have ended up further behind and more vulnerable.” García Salas points out that Cuban social scientists have observed on multiple occasions that these changes must be accompanied by targeted policies that address specific groups and their distinct needs and conditions, as well as the different forms of social exclusion affecting them. Here, too, policy responses have been very limited. As she explains:
The establishment of the freely convertible currency stores exacerbated inequalities and discontent, as well as depreciated the national currency and, thereby, a loss of purchasing power. As for the Tarea Ordenamiento [the economic reforms process with its monetary and exchange rate unification] it has had and will have a profound impact on these processes, by making them more obvious and direct. The timing and conditions of its implementation are influencing the notable increase in prices and deterioration in real wages. All of this has resulted in severe and real impacts on people’s lives. We are talking about the impossibility of access to food and cleaning products, and about the sharpening of existing territorial differences as well as the appearance of new ones. What we are saying is that it’s impossible to live a life with dignity.
Denis Alejandro Matienzo Alonso, a geography student at Havana University, emphasizes the dissemination of a diversity of information, leading to new visions of what is happening in the country:
Before, the state media were the only media consumed in Cuba and it was this media system which decoded information. Today, there exist a few television programs, which, in addition to providing information, discredit those who oppose established thought as determined by government officials. At the same time, access to the Internet and non-state alternative media have resulted in Cubans having greater access to national and international realities. Consequently, it’s been possible to tell many different stories in Cuba.
For Ernesto Teuma Taureaux, another young intellectual, “adverse economic conditions” and “institutional inadequacies” may be considered the catalysts of the demonstrations. He adds, without going further, that one only need leaf through the main speeches of the Eighth Party Congress or have a conversation about the management of any given institution to hear innumerable anecdotes. He elaborates:
In quieter times, the incompetence of certain officials, mediocrity, red tape, waste, bungling, poor planning, corruption, indolence, and sectarian, top-down, arbitrary, opaque, and undemocratic practices are all damaging, harmful and unpardonable. However, in the present context, with such limited room for maneuver due to the current economic conditions, such vices can be politically fatal. This is because these institutional shortcomings also have a direct impact on people’s lives, on their day-to-day affairs, as well as on the decisions taken regarding their welfare or the mitigation of shortcomings. In this regard, we need to think about local and intermediate structures, civil servants, and enterprises, planning and the needs of the common people, because results have not been forthcoming, allocated resources are wasted and administration is poor.
And yet, even this set of factors wouldn’t be fatal without a third key factor: leadership or rather the absence thereof. In effect, poor management inevitably generates annoyance, complaints, and criticisms, which demand changes, improvements, and transformations. So, who listened to the people in the demonstrators’ neighborhoods? Which political authority “metabolized” this dissent, rebuilt consensus, sought solutions, made officials accountable, or at the very least explained situations face to face? So, what happens in certain territories, where the people live, is a degrading of the community’s social fabric, a dispersal and loss of effectiveness of political and mass organizations, an absence of mobilization and apathy.
As has been recognized on countless occasions, one cannot understand the country’s crisis without considering the effects of U.S. government policy toward Cuba: the economic, commercial, and financial blockade, the interference in the island’s internal affairs, and the millions of dollars for subversion. García Salas adds that the “reversal of the so-called ‘normalization’ process and the hostility unleashed by the Trump administration had and continue to have serious impacts on the nation which, moreover, has had to manage the pandemic under much more unfavorable conditions than the majority of the world’s countries.”
Rosique Cárdenas draws conclusions from these reflections:
Given this reality, a certain fraction of society is receptive to being mobilized by a political discourse that is not in line with the Communist Party’s current policies and approaches. And this is largely because it is practically impossible to use a progressive agenda to channel and mobilize the unrest that the current conditions engender among many groups and individuals. This unrest takes instead the form of anti-government unrest. In effect, because the state, government, Party and Revolution are presented as unitary in the nation’s political culture, it’s very difficult to structure or position a discourse or political action which, while critical of the state’s deficiencies, is nonetheless rooted in and committed to the project. As we belong to a tradition of state-centric socialism, which sees the state as the protagonist in the socialist transition, defense of this project often takes the form of an uncompromising defense of the state (including its ills) while criticism of the State is seen as counter-revolutionary.
Legitimacy of the Demonstrations
García Salas was not in Cuba when the demonstrations erupted nationwide. Rarely in her life had she experienced such a profound mix of emotions. “I didn’t sleep that night and, ever since, have not slept the same as before. Neither I nor my spouse, nor any of the Cubans in my circle, could grant ourselves the luxury of sleep as long as the events continued in our country. We called each other, we shared information, photos, and videos. We consoled each other.” Cubans abroad had a hard time communicating with their families and friends. Messages were sporadic during the digital blackout. That was on Sunday. By Monday, everything seemed calm.
As a young Cuban, Matienzo Alonso believes that citizens have the right to protest against what they consider wrong, as an expression of citizens’ collective thoughts, if it does not translate into vandalism and violence. It is not wrong to complain, debate, and talk about politics. “The citizens of a nation can question the labors of those who govern them. They can demand certain freedoms and defend themselves in the face of decisions made by the state.”
Díaz Vázquez said that governments see dissent and protests as the enemy. “When citizens speak out, it’s because there is real and palpable discontent. It’s not so easy to dismiss as illegitimate the opinions of so many. It’s always worthwhile to listen to the people’s opinions.” He points out that the right to peaceful demonstrations is enshrined in the Cuban Constitution. “The demonstration that I attended—that I experienced—was entirely peaceful. When a boy threw a rock, everyone forcefully told him to stop. We raised our arms when the police drew near. Nevertheless, blows were struck. The police detained many, including some peaceful demonstrators. This is unconstitutional.”
Likewise, García Salas refuses to contribute to the absolutist judgments, stigmatization, and criminalization of the protests:
For me, that’s a fundamental ethical, political, and human premise. Several days have passed, false news has been denounced, and it’s been established that it’s impossible to construct a single narrative about what happened on July 11. So, my own narrative is based on what I saw, read, verified, and experienced through some of my friends in Cuba, as their stories and suffering are mine as well. The protests I saw began peacefully, although many turned violent. That said, about the chaos that took place, I neither can nor wish to stand here and just dismiss the violence, or the plurality of violences, if you will. I say that because not only were there different protagonists but there were different forms of violence too. I believe it’s essential to put that in context and make an effort to understand these different protagonists and forms of violence, which is not the same as legitimizing them.
“Sunday, July 11, was the consummation of a pre-planned communications and intelligence operation,” says Rosique Cárdenas. “Nothing was left to chance in either the media campaign, before or after, or in the simultaneous timing of the protests in various places across the country. Under these conditions, the agents of reaction succeeded in politically activating a considerable mass of citizens in different locations. And naturally they did so to further their own reactionary and annexationist agenda.” He continues:
Many of the persons who demonstrated against the government served as cannon fodder for a cause in which they are neither the intellectual authors nor, often, the beneficiaries. I asked many of the protest’s supporters about “the day after.” The most important thing with an action is what happens next. What would have happened the day after their “victory”? What was their plan? The pure negativity seen in Havana, which was evident in the poverty of the slogans and the excessive aggression and violence, makes one doubt the likelihood of a day after which would have, in some fashion, benefited the majority of the demonstrators.
“It’s urgent to break with the conservative discourses that assume that the demonstrators who went into the streets are all ‘criminals’ or ‘mercenaries’ in the service of the U.S. government,” says García Salas. She notes:
It was the inhabitants of the country’s most vulnerable territories and communities who went into the streets. We are talking about social groups with the worst living conditions, who personally suffer from the growing inequalities and, in not a few cases, abandonment. Moreover, historically, it is they who have suffered the most violence, at the hands of other people, institutions, and, indeed, public policies. As a result, I can’t help but see in many of their actions a legitimate gesture of rebellion, desperation, and defiance—a violent response to the forms of violence they suffer.
On July 11, at 4 p.m., President Díaz-Canel, appeared on television to address the people. For García Salas, a political and human error was committed that Sunday:
The president used phrases like “the battle order has been given” and “revolutionaries into the streets.” Those phrases left no space for nuance and even if they did, the body language, tone, and context sufficed. The president spoke to a society he knows is deeply polarized, with a sadly recent history of mob intimidation, of confrontations between civilians because some think differently, of eggs and stones thrown, of screams, of violence. The calls made now for unity and against being swept away by hatred, the calls in favor of reconciliation and love, should have begun on July 11, at 4 p.m. If they had served to avoid a single act of violence between Cubans on opposite sides of the street, that alone would have been worth it.
For his part, Rosique Cárdenas believes that President Díaz-Canel has been much criticized for calling on Cuban revolutionaries to confront the demonstrations and attempts at destabilization:
He’s been accused of calling for violence. I believe that the call to go into the streets was the best thing that could have been done that day, for two reasons. First, we revolutionaries went into the streets not only to defend the revolutionary project against aggression, but also to protect the revolutionary government against itself. Under no circumstances could the disorder be allowed to grow ad infinitum, engulfing everything. Had revolutionaries not gone into the streets, the state would have had to restore order to the streets via the exclusive and brutal use of sovereign force. And that would have required a deployment of force and violence that would have left an indelible and irreparable stain. I’m not sure there could have been a future for the revolution after that.
The other reason I defend the president’s call is because my personal experience in Havana tells me that, in the places where revolutionaries were present en masse, there were fewer episodes of excessive use of force by security. The police did use excessive force in some cases, that’s clear, but that was mainly in places where they were isolated. There were indeed peaceful demonstrators that day. Nevertheless, a part of the darkest type of hatred, felt by the excluded and intolerant, emerged as well. We saw both types of hatred: the hatred and bitterness between people with different social conditions; and the hysterical hatred specific to anti-communism, which calls for the killing of communists, the killing of the president, a hatred that incites the destruction of everything and everyone. I am sure that the first type of hatred can be remedied, and we should all be ashamed that this barrier has been raised between us. I am not sure we can remedy the second type.
For Teuma Taureaux, the state, confronted with a violent and reactionary challenge to order, initially adopted a policing response to reestablish order:
I doubt that the police and other security forces could have anticipated the magnitude of what was happening and their surprise and even fear led to a few cases of excessive violence, far beyond what was necessary to accomplish. Nevertheless, a policing response is not sufficient, because the mere restoration of peace and calm only represents a postponement, like a battle in which the absence of defeat does not equal a victory. The police response is insufficient because what is necessary is a political response. When Díaz-Canel, as president of the republic and first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party, called on revolutionaries to take the streets, he went beyond policing, beyond managing the conflict. He traced a path to the political arena by mobilizing a sector of the people who, beyond the state and its shortcomings, defend the work of past generations and dreams of a distinct and better society under socialism. It was not a confrontation between the state and the people, but rather a confrontation between two different projects for the future.
With a significant rise in infections in the last month, Cuba is experiencing the worst phase of the pandemic since the first case of COVID-19 was reported in the country in March 2020. The highest number of infections to date is occurring during an economic reconfiguration process.
When requests for aid for Cuba began circulating via private and social networks, it all seemed humane and fraternal. And it largely was, until requests for the establishment of a humanitarian corridor, along with a petition demanding foreign intervention, began to appear.
Díaz Vázquez wonders: “How many of those who signed the petition calling for an intervention live in Cuba? How many would suffer the consequences? How many even understand what an intervention is? In a war, everyone dies; bombs and bullets don’t first ask about your political affinities or for your resume.”
García Salas reflects:
I’m still processing and trying to understand how it’s possible for Cubans, in Cuba and abroad, to endorse a foreign intervention or favor maintaining the blockade, with no awareness of the implications. What’s really striking about these extremist positions are the faces of those defending them. It was an unpleasant surprise to discover that so many young people had those faces. It was a given that the younger generations of émigrés had made a radical break with their predecessors’ politics. I also believed that it was impossible that any Cuban could, in the year 2021, accept foreign intervention as a legitimate path for achieving change. Many of the connections and relationships, which had taken so much work to rebuild, have broken down due to the polarization and hate speech in all contexts.
It’s our responsibility as Cubans to return to what unites us. Moreover, I believe that everything that happened in terms of the activation of mechanisms of international solidarity was marked by great manipulation and disinformation. I know many people who, in different countries, were and still are focused on coordination efforts and raising awareness to gather donations. These persons acknowledge that they fell victim to numerous terminological pitfalls, which, obviously, was no accident. Nevertheless, the only thing that seems urgent to me, at this point, is to continue eliminating all obstacles and relaxing mechanisms and bureaucracies to ensure that solidarity is effective, be it the solidarity of Cubans here and abroad or solidarity originating in other countries. Today, what’s most important is to avoid destroying all these networks, which, fifteen days ago, were set up to save lives.
“There’s a lot of confusion about what terms such as humanitarian channel and humanitarian corridor really mean,” remarks Teuma Taureaux. In times of trouble, the notion of international aid perhaps offers people encouragement. He continues:
The establishing of a humanitarian corridor signifies the ceding, without guarantees, of sovereignty over a part of a state’s territory and the free circulation of multiple actors in that area, supposedly in order to provide humanitarian aid. In reality, it’s a fig leaf for a military intervention, where more bombs will be dropped than medical supplies. The doctrine of the humanitarian intervention has served as a cover for all kinds of imperialist maneuvers.
Transforming Cuban Society
For Matienzo Alonso, the problems in Cuba must be resolved by Cubans, whether they live on the island or abroad, regardless of their ideology, creed, or race. Cuba must be constructed as a model country in terms of human rights. “For a real change to occur in Cuba,” Matienzo Alonso says,
the system must change. It’s no longer valid for the Cuban government to keep invoking the argument of health and public education. It’s necessary to include all voices in the construction of a new Cuba. Cubans have a great capacity for invention and adaptation. The intellect and creativity of Cubans is well known in the world, as significant numbers of Cubans abroad have demonstrated. So, why can’t we do the same in our country? I can think of only one answer: the brakes applied by Cuban leaders subject to an ideology from another century, which drives emigration and the talent drain, because in our country what’s missing is development and the freedom to grow.
For García Salas, the country will not be the same after July 11. She stresses that it is essential to come out of the crisis with structural changes. “The priority now has to be to avoid more deaths and infections. So, everyone must think in terms of consensus and focus on the work at hand. Many ‘cures’ to our ills can be found in solidarity and humanism as well. I recognize that the situation is extremely complex and critical, and that there’s no time, because people are dying.”
Díaz Vázquez agrees that the government should accept donations from individuals to help alleviate the health crisis, as the prime minister announced. He states:
Beyond the health system’s collapse and the shortage of medicine, I have great confidence in the government’s health care administration. That an impoverished country of eleven million inhabitants had for a year been a world leader in terms of the lowest case rates is evidence of good health care management. While one speaks of fourth or fifth waves of the pandemic in developed countries, in Cuba we’ve only had one serious wave: this one. We can only hope that there’s an effective vaccination plan and that the population is immunized as soon as possible. The measures to control COVID-19 must also be ramped up, for both Cuban citizens and foreign visitors. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the most highly affected provinces are the ones with tourist hubs in operation.
According to Teuma Taureaux, “we need, within our means and capabilities and based on the lessons learned over these sixty-three years, to grapple with the blockade. Grappling with the blockade doesn’t mean letting up on international commitment and efforts to end it. Rather, it’s about designing solutions in which we are the decisive actors, such as undertaking a review of investments and economic policies and of the pace of the ongoing changes under way.”
Rosique Cárdenas sees the reconstitution of consensus as a fundamental task. “Dialogue that goes nowhere will only affect the credibility of our institutions and the project in general. I believe it’s necessary to develop mechanisms that enable people to participate in direct control of the administration of Popular Power.”
For García Salas, the protests are indicative of citizens tired of resisting and being unable to cry out, exhausted by the blockade and the continuous mistakes in domestic policy.
I am not the same person after July 11. Cuba is not the same. It’s essential to forever eradicate hate speech from political language, by which I mean hate speech in its explicit forms, but also in its veiled and “dog whistle” forms. To start anew, I believe it’s necessary to acknowledge mistakes. The protesters’ demands must not become nothing but bitter memories. Everything that can be changed domestically, but was postponed, should be taken up with urgency, beginning with the economic reforms and the legislative agenda. Public policies must be updated to focus on vulnerable social groups. Decentralization and flexibility. Dialogue and the participation of each and every Cuban, without ideological discrimination, without segregation. Recognition of the country’s political pluralism, of all persons’ rights. Democratic transformation. In 2016, together with a friend, I interviewed Juan Valdés Paz, a Cuban intellectual whom I greatly admire and respect. He told us then that “socialism can’t postpone its promise of democracy.” I believe that it’s been postponed for too long.