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Is Cuba’s Communist Party Finally Losing Its Hold on the Country?

On Sunday, July 11th, the world took note of a historic event in Cuba, as thousands of citizens took to the streets to protest against the government. Many shouted “Patria y Vida!”—Fatherland and Life—the title of a banned but extremely popular rap song that riffs on a slogan coined by the late Fidel Castro: “Fatherland or Death.” Many also shouted “Libertad!”—Freedom—and similar phrases that are not only heretical but, when shouted in protest, illegal in Cuba, where the Communist Party is the sole legal arbiter of political life.

The uprising began in San Antonio de los Baños, a sleepy town near Havana that had been hit by a recent string of long power cuts. But Cubans across the island have become frustrated by their government’s inability to provide them with even such basic amenities as food and medicine, amid a slow vaccine rollout and spiking COVID infection rates. The protests metastasized quickly, as the news and images of what was happening shot across Facebook, Twitter, and other messaging platforms, such as WhatsApp. Within hours, there were protests in as many as sixty towns and cities, from Havana to Santiago, at the southeastern end of the island, five hundred miles away. During the past decade, despite long-standing official restrictions on the media and most other sources of independent information, Cuba’s government has gradually allowed its citizens access to cell phones and the Internet, both of which are now in widespread use. Just as skeptical Party apparatchiks had feared, this technology is proving to be a threat to their order. As Abraham Jimenez Enoa, a young Cuban friend who reported on the protests, told me this week, “The only certainty right now is that the people of this country want a change, and the Internet is helping us fight for it.”

No sooner had the protests spread than an official crackdown also got under way. As black-uniformed special-forces units, police, and stick-wielding plainclothes agents were deployed, new images emerged showing policemen beating protesters and dragging them away. There was also some violence and vandalism carried out by demonstrators: shops were looted and a couple of police cars were overturned.

Just hours later, in a bid to show that the government had regained control, President Miguel Díaz-Canel was shown on television walking down a street in San Antonio de los Baños with a security entourage, and no demonstrators in sight. He later appeared on camera to denounce the protests as a counterrevolutionary measure organized and financed by the United States, and he called on “Cuba’s revolutionaries” to “combat” the miscreants. By nightfall on Sunday, a shocked silence had fallen over the island. Access to the Internet was restricted indefinitely. Even so, news trickled out over the next few days of deepening repression by security forces and of widespread detentions, reportedly including the jailing of several prominent dissidents and government critics.

As leaders around the world condemned the crackdown—President Biden called Cuba “a failed state”—Díaz-Canel seemed to reconsider his more bellicose rhetoric, and, on Wednesday, July 14th, he appeared on state-controlled television to express his hope that “hatred does not take possession of the Cuban soul, which is one of goodness, solidarity, dedication, affection and love.” Directing his comments to “the Cuban people,” he said he wanted to see them enjoying “social peace and tranquillity, showing respect and solidarity toward one another and other needy people of the world, and to save Cuba in order to continue growing, dreaming, and achieving the greatest possible prosperity.” He spoke at length, largely blaming the unrest on “an enormous media campaign against Cuba” and a “deliberate campaign of unconventional warfare” waged by the United States. As for the “adversities” that Cuba’s enemies had exploited to provoke the protests, he said, these were the fault of the long-standing U.S. trade embargo, “the blockade.” Nevertheless, for the first time in the sixty-two-year history of the revolution, the notion that the Communist Party enjoys the immutable support of the citizens had been shattered, and, more than any other time since the end of the Cold War, its ability to remain in control was thrown into doubt.

Joe Garcia, a Cuban American and a former Democratic congressman from Miami who was recently in Cuba and often serves as an informal intermediary between the U.S. and Cuban governments, said that Díaz-Canel, a protégé of Raul Castro, had stumbled in his first big test since becoming President, in 2018. (Earlier this year, he also became the head of the Communist Party.) “For the first time in six decades, the Cubans have seen a leader blink,” Garcia said. “This problem isn’t going away. They’ve got a health crisis and an economic crisis that their government has been unable to deal with, and telling the Cubans that it’s all the fault of the embargo is not something that’s going to fill their stomachs. Blaming the protests on the Americans, like he did, begs credibility. For the sake of argument, let’s say that the C.I.A. did it. That either means a massive intelligence failure on the part of Cuba’s intelligence services, which are supposed to be among the best in the world, or else the C.I.A. just got a lot better at what it does. Protests in sixty towns and cities across Cuba? Come on.”

The last time major protests broke out in Cuba was in August of 1994, and they occurred only in Havana. In that pre-Internet and pre-smartphone age, demonstrations were easier to contain—and Fidel Castro was alive and still very much in command of the nation he had ruled since seizing power, in 1959. It was the fourth year of the so-called Special Period, which Castro proclaimed after the Soviet Union’s collapse triggered a precipitous end to three decades of the generous subsidies that had kept his regime, and the economy, afloat. The U.S.S.R.’s demise was also a crisis for the global communist ideal, but, while most of the socialist regimes of the era also collapsed, or else quickly adapted to the new circumstances, Castro doubled down. Vowing to never give up on socialism, he said the Cubans would go it alone, if necessary, and survive.

They did survive, but by the summer of 1994, conditions had become harsh. Fuel, food, and medicine were scarce, electrical blackouts frequent, and feelings of despair widespread. Finally, in August, riots exploded along Havana’s Malecón, the seaside promenade that runs past the cramped and dilapidated neighborhoods of Centro and Old Havana, where ill feeling had been festering after several attempts by residents to flee the island by sea had been thwarted by authorities, and resulted in a number of violent deaths. When Castro was alerted to the commotion, he rushed to the Malecón, where a large mob of men and youths had assembled. They shouted anti-government slogans and picked up rocks and masonry from building sites, apparently preparing to go on a rampage. Upon sight of Castro, however, the rioters first fell silent and then began to cheer him, and soon order was restored. It was a remarkable moment, which has since found a prime place in fidelista mythology.

But it wasn’t only Castro’s presence that stunned the 1994 rioters into submission. Hundreds of rough-and-ready loyalists drawn from élite Communist Party worker’s battalions, wielding clubs and lengths of rebar, were trucked into nearby backstreets for the purpose of intimidating any protesters who did not stand down. I was living in Havana at the time, and that day I tried to approach the Malecón. As I did, plainclothes agents in the crowd around me stopped a car with an anti-Castro sign, dragged the driver out, and beat him before taking him away. People around me watched in silence and then moved away. Just then, the trucks full of workers came roaring past.



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