Communists of the Caribbean
Cuba continues quelling opposition
Shirtless youths run through Havana’s streets chanting against the Communist government. Some climb out from cars that resemble relics from American Graffiti more than a modern economy. Bicyclers pedal down the street before officers hop out of military trucks and begin arresting protesters. In some corners, government agents track down protesters and beat them with clubs.
That describes the protests that shook Cuba on July 11 of this year, and the ones on Aug. 5, 1994, on Havana’s Malecón, the sea wall/boardwalk that faces the Caribbean and the United States. The 1994 protests, which became known as the Maleconazo, came after food and medicine shortages, as did those in 2021.
The 1994 protests came in a particularly challenging time for Cuba’s Communist government. When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, about one-third of Cuba’s economy disappeared with it. Cuba faltered without the behemoth to prop it up. In 2021, protests came after a yearlong pandemic that stretched even well-functioning economies.
Fidel Castro reacted quickly to the pressure in 1994. After venturing to the Malecón himself, Castro went on television and announced that anyone who wanted to leave Cuba for the United States could. In the weeks that followed, some 35,000 Cubans did. In 2021, though, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel so far has not pushed for a U.S. safety valve.
Instead, he called for Cuba’s “revolutionary” citizens to confront protesters in the streets. He shut off ordinary citizens’ access to the internet and the social media platforms that fueled the protests. He blamed the United States and a “Cuban-American mafia” for the unrest. He forced Cuban citizens to attend staged pro-government rallies.
Other Communist governments have faced similar pressures. In the late 1980s, as the Soviet Union began its collapse, Mikhail Gorbachev showed military restraint when protests broke out. He led his country through a series of political reforms that eventually unraveled the Iron Curtain.
China, on the other hand, faced student demonstrations in 1989 and cracked down in what became known as the Tiananmen Square massacre, with the iconic image of a single protester staring down a tank. Hundreds, maybe thousands died: We may never know the actual death toll. Since then, the Chinese Communist Party has continued enforcing brutal measures such as its family planning policy, and implemented others, including its modern-day concentration camps for Uyghurs.
In Cuba, Díaz-Canel’s actions in the coming weeks may signal how brutal—and how desperate—the Cuban Communist Party is now. Cuba after 1994 bounced back, aided by Latin American allies such as Venezuela and a burgeoning tourism industry that peaked during the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama. Hoping exposure to the West would foment political reform, Obama ended embargoes with Cuba and lifted economic sanctions without asking for systemic political reform on behalf of Cuba’s citizens.
Current U.S. President Joe Biden—Obama’s vice president—indicated on the campaign trail a return to the Obama era’s warmer relations with Cuba following Donald Trump’s reimplementation of embargoes and sanctions. Then July 11 happened. Biden initially had tough words for Díaz-Canel and levied new sanctions on some officials. Then his administration discouraged Cubans from sailing for the United States, citing dangerous conditions. Obama in 2017 overturned a Clinton-era “wet foot, dry foot” policy that allowed Cubans reaching U.S. shores illegally to pursue permanent residency. The change put Cubans in line with U.S. treatment of other unauthorized immigrants—something the Castro regime welcomed at the time, and neither Trump nor Biden modified Obama’s policy.
Florida Republicans such as Sen. Marco Rubio and Gov. Ron DeSantis have called for tougher action from Biden on Cuba, including using U.S. satellites to restore internet service to Cuban citizens. But so far Díaz-Canel continues locking up July 11 protesters. The Madrid-based Cuban Observatory for Human Rights estimated Cuban officials have arrested more than 700 Cubans since the July 11 protests.
Voice of America reported that Cuba has arrested at least 600 protesters and prosecuted about 60. We’ll probably never know the real number, since socialist systems are rarely transparent. Whatever the ultimate reaction from Biden and Díaz-Canel, the conditions on the ground leading up to July 11 are one more example of socialist failure.
—WORLD has corrected this story to reflect that China’s one-child policy was implemented prior to the Tiananmen Square massacre.
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