Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Evolving Personal Thoughts About Cuba’s Crisis

The Trials of July 11-12 Protestors   (1/17/22)

It is common in protest related trials in the US that defendants charge the police and prosecution with making up evidence and insist they are completely innocent.  Sometimes that is true, sometimes it is not.


About 14,000 people were arrested during racial justice demonstrations in the US during the spring and summer of 2020.  A data base has been compiled of 1429 cases (including 367 federal) facing felony charges.


In Cuba someone looted stores, threw rocks and destroyed vehicles on July 11-12 because we have seen the videos, but maybe it was not these defendants.


The problem is we don't know and won't know. 


In any case, objectively the punishments appear disproportionate to the charges.


Partisans of the protestors and from the governments of Cuba and the US can spin numbers and stories in dueling press statements and tweets for years while those convicted sit in deplorable prison conditions.  They are useful symbols for all sides.


After the trials are finished, the two governments should negotiate a path to release that undoes contributing factors from the Trump/Biden sanctions against remittances, travel, consular authority, etc.  Ideally negotiators will go to the underlying problem and finally end the unilateral US embargo that has received virtually universal legal and political condemnation, including by Archipielago leader Yunior Garcia.


There is precedent for resolving criminal charges politically:  1113 Bay of Pigs POWs freed in 1961 for medical supplies valued today at $463 million; intervention by the Catholic Church and Spain leading to release of 75 victims of the Black Spring in 2011, followed by the end of European sanctions;  the exchange of USAID contractor Alan Gross for three Cuban spies in 2014  opening the door to normalization of diplomatic relations.


The question is whether there are leaders in either government who can rise above real and immediate conflicts and their own sense of justice to find a humanitarian solution that opens the door to long term reconciliation domestically and bilaterally.


Personal reflections on being in Cuba for November 15th

       -- by John McAuliff   11/30/21   revised 12/5/21   <> 

A Cuban friend said this was some kind of security unit waiting on 
November 14th on the Malecon for deployment that never came 

I am going to start out with my conclusion and then explain how I got there.

Almost nothing came of the much anticipated and internet hyped protests in Cuba on November 15th.

While it is controversial about why and how that happened, I think it was a good thing because it leaves the two governments much freer to explore a rational and humane relationship.  If the organizers from the Facebook group Archipielago had been able to achieve their goal of mass mobilizations in a dozen cities, the inevitable result would have been highly reported violent confrontations—with fault on both sides.

It would not have been a color counter-revolution presaging US preferred regime change.  However, it would have frozen in place hostile attitudes and actions in both countries and assured relations could not return to the positive opening created by Barack Obama and Raul Castro.  (My more cynical side sees prevention of further mutually beneficial peaceful change as the real goal of the created drama.)

We are left with a Cuban Party and State that demonstrated it still has the ability to marshal public mobilization and harsh methods to maintain social and political control, even in the face of extreme internal and external pressure.  Similarly the US government has shown it is also still dominated by a decades old playbook shaped by ideology and illusion.  In an atmosphere of hyper conflict, neither country had the ability to chart a course that advanced its own long or even medium term interests.

Someone in Havana characterized November 15th as Biden’s Bay of Pigs.  It is a useful analogy.  Like John Kennedy, Joe Biden seems to have been misled deliberately or by the wishful thinking of his advisers.  He, the Secretary of State and the National Security Advisor were caught up in rhetorical self-justification that displaced realistic assessment, optimistically misinterpreting an essentially spontaneous social eruption on 11 July as a political movement.

As with the Bay of Pigs, official US misjudgment and group think left victims in its wake.  The debacle of 1961 produced 1,113 prisoners.  Six decades later years of democracy funding, internet agitation, Radio Marti propaganda, diplomats’ direct intrusion and overtly pro-opposition US government rhetoric, not to mention economic deprivation by embargo and remittance denial, fostered anti-government attitudes that resulted in estimates by US funded dissident sources of 1,283 detainees with at least 540 still in prison.    

The Kennedy Administration took responsibility for achieving the freedom of the CIA sponsored prisoners, negotiating provision of $53 million in food and medicine ($463 million in today’s value), sourced from private donations and from companies expecting tax concessions.   The Biden Administration should feel at least moral responsibility for the current prisoners and initiate serious negotiations with Cuba to determine what can lead to their release, presumably with an option of migration with families to the US.  Perhaps restoration of the status quo ante under Obama would be enough.  Perhaps the Cubans will ask for legislation to definitively end all travel and agricultural restrictions if we include the release of those who destroyed property and looted stores in the style of Black Lives Matter. 

Ironically if Cuba’s ask were escalated to ending the embargo in return for release of all political and protest prisoners, Cuban leaders would be on the same page as their recent nemesis Yunior Garcia.*  Everyone could claim victory except the hardest liners on both sides of the Florida straits.

Whatever negotiations produce will contribute to rebuilding mutual trust.  Ideally it will allow the Cuban leadership to recognize the reality of serious discontent that is so far not inherently disloyal to the nation’s history, especially among younger people, and to find the economic and structural means to address and incorporate it.  Ideally it will permit US leadership to find ways of approaching its disagreements with Cuban governance in a non-hostile fashion, as takes place with Vietnam. 

Cuba is changing.  It will change faster and deeper if given space to do so on its own terms.  Ironically we would foster diversity more effectively if we followed the advice of all our allies and of the entire world annually at the United Nations and gave up on our talismanic and self-righteous embargo.  Using $20 million of annual democracy funding for transparent bilaterally administered educational and professional exchanges would go a lot further than barely disguised regime change programs that largely benefit US contractors.   

A more open and pluralistic path to choose future governments can evolve from decentralization and direct election demands within Cuba’s own system, as was voiced in grass roots meetings to consider the new constitution.  Like every power structure in every country, Cuba’s leaders are convinced they are indispensable for the country’s well being but Raul Castro’s daughter Mariela told CNN when she was in the US several years ago that allowing only a single party is linked to the embargo.

Post-normalization relations between the US and Cuba will not be easy.  Open and full engagement poses new more subtle problems for Cuba of protection of cultural integrity, economic independence and political sovereignty.  The real US Trojan Horse is the centuries old attraction and history between the two populations, amplified in the substantial segment that has become truly binational. 

 A sheet in Centro, signaling protest--or laundry?

Going back to how I came to this radically optimistic way forward…

Since July 11th, I have spent countless hours in trying to understand what was taking place in Cuba and what it portends for the future.  Based on my own US cultural and political values and interpretation of democracy, and projecting my personal experience of substantial economic and structural changes within equally one party Vietnam, Laos and in effect Cambodia, it was hard not to wonder whether the Cuban revolution was entering a new stage.

The range of debate taking place publicly and privately has become far more substantial than the counter revolutionary polemics from earlier generations of US linked and subsidized dissidents.   If opinions were no longer limited to the traditional permitted framework of “within the revolution”, many did not seem inherently “against the revolution”.  Was a new factor emerging that enabled the long frustrated desire for Vietnamese style market reform that unleashes domestic energy and creativity?  How have prospects for positive change been affected by the hopelessly reactionary and deeply disappointing prolongation by the Biden/Harris Administration of Trump/Bolton/Claver-Carone regime change assaults on the Obama/Castro opening?

I felt the only way I would be confident I knew what had happened and what it meant was to be in Cuba myself.  Interpretations of July 11th were shaped by the goals and politics of the beholder.  Official Cuban sources and solidarity activists in the US minimized numbers and overreaction by security forces.  The US media, Congress, the Administration and right wing Cuban American activists greatly magnified the number of participants and their political motivation and ignored or rationalized looting and violence. 

Getting to Cuba was neither easy nor inexpensive.  I had to fly to Montreal, stay overnight, then fly to Varadero, arriving on November 13th.  I took advantage of my itinerary to reconnect with old friends at the Christian Center for Reflection and Dialogue in Cardenas.  The city had witnessed one of the largest and most destructive demonstrations on July 11th.  From conversations I concluded that this was produced by the traditionally independent character of residents who had been cut off from income generated by work with tourists in Varadero and were strongly affected by the Covid explosion carried by Russians.  The primary motivation of the protests was economic, including the limited availability and high costs of goods and rampant inflation.  Dissatisfaction with local leaders seems to have also been a factor that explains the contrast with the nearby more peaceful larger city of Matanzas.

The way to get from Cardenas to Havana on the 14th was by private taxi ($120 USD), affording an extended insightful conversation with the driver.  The small number of tourists on the road was illustrated by the virtual emptiness of the café and viewpoint overlooking the bridge across the valley.

                           Cola:  Waiting to get into a store in front of the Melia Cohiba Hotel to buy chicken from the US

Conversations with Cuban friends on the evening of the 14th indicated that independent minded people were not very enthusiastic about what the protests had become.  The government was obviously in control of the organizers’ freedom to act and they had compromised their original focus, aligning with more old-school dissidents.  Not much was expected to happen the next day.

I was staying in a casa in the Melia Cohiba / Galarias de Paseo neighborhood.  None of my usual places were available.  Rather than pay taxes without revenue and to avoid a risk of bring Covid into their homes, the many apartments that rent rooms in the 16 floor building where I normally stay had returned their licenses.   Apparently renewing them requires a lot of procedure and no one is rushing to do it until the flow of visitors resumes.  There were two long lines nearby, one for goods purchased with the national currency (CUP) and one for the cards purchased with international currency, most commonly Euros, either in cash or via transfers from friends and family abroad.  People had to wait hours but seemed sociable and patient.  ID numbers were taken in the morning and access was in order of arrival.    My usual source of water, coffee and other beverages, the store by the gas station, had only a couple of odd items for sale and a few people on line.

Both the Melia Cohiba and the Hotel Riviera are closed for reconstruction.  The Cohiba plans to open in January.  The Riviera is supposed to open soon, but I could not get a definite date.  Lacking a lobby to work in, I sat on the shaded Riviera steps on the morning of the 15th to use the public wifi connection with my lap top.  I received a call on my local cell phone number from the Immigration Department and was told I needed to come to their office to be interviewed.  I usually am interviewed at the airport before passing through immigration but this time in Varadero it had been a limited contact so I suspected they were just checking off the boxes.  (I was told by Havana immigration when I last entered in March of 2020 that I had visited Cuba 60 times in the past 25 years so merit an automatic personal interview about the purpose of my trip.)

They sent a car to my casa with two officers and brought me to the headquarters devoted to foreign visitors.  I was interviewed by a captain in a Protocol room with stuffed chairs and a sofa.  The questions were the normal ones: the reason for my trip, with whom in the government I was meeting, how long I was staying, etc.  I was not criticized or accused of anything.  The captain took lots of notes, left me alone for a while and then had me go to the original semi outdoor waiting area.  After a while, he told me there were no problems and the car took me back to my casa where I arrived at about 4 p.m.   

I suppose the timing may not have been coincidental and the intention could have been to take me off the street at the time the protests were scheduled to occur, but it was my first weekday in Havana so the timing more likely was happenstance.  After the interview I rented a taxi for an hour, visited areas by the university, the Capitolio and the Prado where friends had told me there might be protestors.  However, there was no sign of anything out of the ordinary.  The driver took me around poorer areas of Habana Vieja and Centro.  I saw two places where white sheets could have been pro-protest symbols or just part of the day’s laundry.  Reuters posted several local and international reporters around the city but saw nothing.  Neither they nor I heard any beating of pans, as urged by the protest organizers.  The only confrontation they witnessed was the much reported deployed crowd surrounding Yunior’s home that prevented him from going out on the 14th or 15th   (but not his pre-arranged departure to Spain).

Known activists and leaders of the organizing group have said they were harassed, detained or prevented from leaving their homes.  However a day or two before the scheduled time of the demonstration, organizers in Havana and other cities gave up on the marches they had announced would take place even if denied a permit.  Instead they urged followers to wear white, walk to a nearby park and leave a flower at the statue of a national hero or hang a white sheet or bang pots and pans.  Did the government simply overwhelm them with anticipatory harassment and threats to arrest anyone who protested?  Or did the organizers completely misjudge the moment and confuse spontaneous anger at harsh conditions of life in July with public support for their political agenda?  Did they believe their press clips in Miami and Washington and lose track of their own reality and inability to challenge power of the government? 

At the end of the day, Archipielago was only a Facebook group, and many of its 30,000 members may not even live in Cuba.   (Cuban authorities charge that Facebook allowed people to lie about their country of residence.)   The shallowness of their effort is suggested by statistics from the US funded opposition group Cubalex:  "About 87 people were arrested and 11 are still detained."    If that is all it took for the government to shut down November 15, there was not much of a committed mass movement behind their rhetoric, standing in dramatic contrast with protests in Colombia, Chile and Myanmar.

However Archipielego's politically sophisticated protest call touched on sensitive nerves, both among a younger generation who find parameters of approved economic, cultural and political life stultifying, and of officials in the government and Party who found any form of organized opposition too threatening to allow.   The more official were the people I spoke with, the less tolerant they were of organizers and even sympathizers of the protests.  A good friend who has spoken frankly of his mistreatment by the government and his contempt for the bureaucracy, insisted angrily that the organizers of Archipielago had no credibility because they had never done anything for the country.

Ideally protest organizers and the government would have treated each other with the respect neither thinks the other deserves and agreed on the date and parameters of a disciplined nonviolent protest, with security forces available if needed to contain provocateurs.  However as long as the US is committed to regime change and engaged in economic warfare through a discredited unilateral embargo and prolonged Trumpist sanctions, it is unrealistic to expect more liberal policies.  In US history, whenever we felt an existential threat from a foreign aggressor**, we put aside the Constitution and our civil liberties values.  I don’t expect Cuba to do better faced with a far larger and more immediate threat.


*  "Garcia Aguilera has also rejected the US embargo, which he believes acts as an ally of the regime by providing it excuses, and has vindicated the use of dialogue with all political forces if the time comes."

** Civil War, Reconstruction: martial law, Black Codes; World War I: the Palmer Raids; World War II: Japanese American internment; The Cold War: McCarthyism, employment denial to Communists; 9/11: torture, no habeas corpus, Guantanamo

The Aston, a new luxury hotel on the Malecon,
reputedly an Indonesian corporate investment


November 8, 2021

Unsolicited Advice

The Cuban government should announce it will grant a permit for the protests planned for November 15th if they are delayed for about a month, until after the new law and regulations for public demonstrations are in effect and local authorities and Archipielago agree on how to keep them peaceful.

That gives the government the moral high ground with the media and diminishes Archipielago if it refuses a postponement to organize a peaceful legal protest.   The Catholic Church and the Lawyers Association could be asked to mediate and guarantee the discussions and monitor the peaceful discipline of the protests.

Otherwise, I fear Cuban government leaders are walking into a trap that is well designed, with at least sophisticated moral and political support from the US. 

If the protest is small they will be blamed correctly for widespread repression, even though political misjudgment by the organizers may be at least as responsible for low turnout.  There will be a public relations cost in the US, Europe and Canada but not overwhelming.

If it is big, despite preventive detention of leaders, either officials will have to tolerate it (losing face) or use harsh crowd control.

The optics of harshness, instantly distributed and amplified world wide, could be like the Brothers to the Rescue shoot down and the Black Spring arrests in terms of the US media and Washington politics.

If it is really violent, volume of tourists from the US, Canada and Europe will be affected as happened after Tienanmin Square.

In either case, small or big crowds, the government's control methods will do long term damage with younger people who have not yet gone over to the opposition.  Ask folks in their twenties and thirties what their friends are saying and feeling.

I am hearing people who are not political blaming both sides, not a good dynamic for the government.

Governments never like radical oppositions and abhor providing them any moral standing by dialog or recognition.   That was true for both the civil rights and anti-war movements in the US.  The trick is for the government to find ways to coopt or neutralize them without adding to their stature with growing sectors of the population.  The only way a post confrontation leadership can regain ground is to make rapid, substantial and dramatic reforms, regardless that the protest organizers will take credit for the changes.

I could be wrong, but the dynamics of this don't feel the same as control of the old style self-marginalizing dissidents.

Anyway, that's what my lifelong involvement with organizing and participating in demonstrations has taught me.


November 6, 2021 


Frankly this reads like a corporation's promotional brochure.  As journalism it would be more useful to include greater complexity.  

For example, do the leaders have any relationship with the historical dissident organizations?  What connections do they have to political training programs funded by outside interests?  Yunior's workshop in Spain is part of the official attack on him but is not included.  Sally's link with the Young Leaders Program is mentioned in passing.  What about the others?

It is very clear and compromising that hostile forces in the US government are explicit supporters of Archipielago.  While often expressed as approval of the right to protest, it is the regime change agenda and potential of the protest that motivates the applause of Congressional resolutions and the anti-engagement faction in the White House.  (They are silent about protests in Colombia that resulted in 29 deaths.)

Personally I believe 15N protests should have received permits if they  demonstrated they had the discipline to be peaceful.  Politically I think they would be more beneficial if they used their credibility in the US to also demand the Biden Administration immediately restore remittances and all travel, commit to seek the end of the embargo and return the Guantanamo base territory.

Those demands would have a real positive impact on the lives of Cubans, make government repression more difficult, and prove that the organizers are independent of Washington and Miami.


August 18, 2021 (revised 8/20/21, 8/31/21)

Five weeks after protests erupted in Cuba, several points seem clear to me based on extended reading and conversations:

1)  The protests were authentic and justified.  The conditions of daily life are extremely difficult.  Food supplies, medicines and other essentials are in short supply and often available only in stores requiring hard currency.  Public demonstrations were a completely legitimate response.  The US and Cuban governments each bear part of the responsibility.  Both were surprised and overreacted. 



2)  Contributing factors included:


a)  The unilateral US embargo is an underlying material and psychological cause of the weakness of the Cuban economy. This is an act of economic warfare that is internationally denounced with near unanimity because of the legally and morally unjustifiable human cost and the odor of political hegemonism.  Presumptuous American intervention in international finances and shipping and restrictions on products with US origin content undermine normal economic life and impede investment for Cuba's development and, most urgently, hamper production of locally developed Covid vaccines.


b)  The policies of Donald Trump and Marco Rubio, as implemented by John Bolton and Mauricio Claver-Carone, contributed significantly to economic and psychological stress by reversing embargo exceptions introduced by President Obama and undermining the growing private sector.  Political attacks on Cuba's international medical contracts reduced national income and financial benefits for doctors, nurses and their families at home.  Cuba cites 243 additional sanctions by Trump.


c)  The Covid pandemic destroyed the tourism economy, the largest sector of foreign funded employment.  Initial disease control was frustrated by the economically driven decision to allow Russian tourists to visit Varadero, infecting resort workers and their families in Matanzas and Cardenas and then the rest of the country with the delta variant.  Covid also wreaked havoc in a health system lacking essential imported resources for treatment and for maintenance of the only bottled oxygen factory (updated data here)


d)  By failing to fulfill campaign promises to promptly restore Obama's policies, the Biden-Harris Administration contributed to suffering and frustration.  It unnecessarily prolonged for six months blockage of $2 billion in remittances that provide family assistance to 56% of Cubans, delayed immigration and family reunion visas because of absence of a consulate, and destroyed hope for return of private sector income from US travelers, cruises, business ventures, as well as educational, sports and cultural exchanges.


e)  Cuba's government and Communist Party leadership failed their responsibility. Economic reforms that have been long demanded and promised were delayed by bureaucratic self-interest and ideological rigidity.  Failure to free key sectors like agriculture and tourism from state control and delayed implementation of enabling regulations for private small and medium enterprise created grass roots frustration.  Deafness to widespread desire for more substantial changes in nationwide discussions of economic reforms and the new Constitution, including direct election of officials, as well as to calls for greater freedom for culture, journalism and political debate fostered dissatisfaction with the existing system.


f)  With the exception of a brief period during the Obama Administration, US policy for sixty years has been Monroe Doctrine based regional hegemonism, seeking regime change in Cuba.  Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on propaganda to encourage dissatisfaction and dissent and to provide financial support for opponents, justified by interventionist rhetoric of democracy applied uniquely to Cuba.  As Cuba opened internet connectivity, high tech means were used to identify, motivate and enable critics and to shape US and international opinion.  Software was developed and applied that included training, organizing methodologies, disinformation and provocation bots.


3)  Just as with protests any place in the world, including racial justice demonstrations in the US, political agendas and spin affect how July 11 is interpreted.  The protests were more than Cuba’s leaders publicly acknowledge and less than critics in the US proclaim.  Their quick spread throughout the country, size and diversity are evidence of significant popular dissatisfaction.  While the primary motivation seems to have been conditions of daily life, the emergence in many locations of political slogans against the government suggests that organized opposition was present to take advantage of, if not lead, events. 

While probably unplanned and larger than expected by anyone, the protests were not entirely spontaneous.   An enthusiastic narrative by a sympathetic journalist of the initial demonstration in San Antonio de Los Banos chronicles a series of preparatory actions encouraged through a US based Facebook page and an adventurist plan that included breaking into stores and seizing the local radio station.

Still unknown is how much of a direct role US based groups played and whether any were government funded.  The Facebook link for the initial protest appears to be an independent venture.  Rosa Maria Paya boasted to her list, "Cuba Decide members and leaders directly took part in these historic protests and those outside of the island have been providing ... critical resource support to the network on the ground" for what she called   "a major turning point for Cuba."

Time can be spent productively dipping into the interactive map and linked videos of protests around the country.

Attention should be paid to the age and racial makeup of the protestors as well as their number and demeanor on the street.   Total numbers are conjectural.  One hundred thousand in a national population of 11.2 million is the estimate of the most experienced US journalist resident in Havana.  Given the personal and occupational risk of participation and lack of precedent, an impressive number, but it is impossible to know how much they represent the mainstream will of the people as the US government assumes and asserts or are still only a marginal but larger opposition.  

A particularly insightful analysis emerged from a group of students convened by the Spanish newspaper El Pais 

In his opinion, there are two criteria to define the political position in Cuba today: the first is whether you consider yourself "outside" or "inside" the process. “That is, if you think that the Revolution can be reformed from within and give rise to a true and democratic socialism, or those who feel outside and think that this is impossible. There are even those who believe that it is undesirable ”. The other criterion "is the willingness to listen to those who think differently and try to ensure that all or almost all can be part of the future project of the nation." This, he says, separates the political field between "extremists and tolerant (or centrists)."

So, there are four groups: “Inside-extremists (mainly the Government); inside-centrists (for example, Silvio Rodríguez , Julio César Guanche, Ailynn Torres and other critical intellectuals, but committed to some extent); outside-centrists (the members of 27-N, and intellectuals who want a representative democracy but their forms lead them to dialogue with other actors and to be against the blockade and other external interference); and finally outside-extremists (the extreme right in Miami, groups that support the blockade and intervention) ”. The analysis of this 19-year-old boy has an impact on his maturity: "The ideal would be an alliance between the centrists, but power is at the extremes."

It was fair for President Diaz-Canel to ask the government’s supporters to take to the same streets to compete with the protesters, but wrong that among them were disciplined units of men with long heavy stakes that were used against them. 

It is as misleading to describe the protests as entirely peaceful as it is to give undue attention to photos and videos that show looting, overturned cars, and throwing of rocks and Molotov cocktails.  These particularly dramatic videos come from Covid afflicted Cardenas and from Holguin.


Were those deliberate provocations by opposition activists wanting to bring in the police or opportunistic thievery?   

Echoing justifications of violence at Black Lives Matter demonstrations, the famed dissident artist and recent Harvard appointee Tania Bruguera wrote,

 “Of course, there were some people who broke into food stores and also turned some police cars.  Still, the message from the people was very clear: [Vandalizing] the food stores means they are hungry and there is no way they have access to food. And turning over the police cars is saying they have enough of the police abuse. The people have spoken very clearly”

 The government’s response was also painfully similar to what we saw during racial justice demonstrations in the US last summer.  Police swept up innocent by-standers and self-declared journalists.  Incidents of uncalled for brutality are available on video.  We don't know what this man did before the video starts, but his treatment once in captivity does not meet Cuban or US standards.

Credible accounts have also been published of mistreatment in police stations.

The renowned singer Silvio Rodriguez and the progressive on line publication La Joven Cuba have called for the release of all protestors who did not commit violent acts.   Human rights organization have accused the government of detaining at least 800 people, subjecting them to summary trials without legal defense and holding people secretly.  The government denies that, citing its own standards of due process and definitions of criminality, and says many people have been released.  It would clarify matters if the government posted its own authoritative data base of all detentions and the disposition of cases.

The US media has been extremely one-sided in its treatment of events in Cuba.  Even the generally progressive MSNBC and CNN gave most of their time to protest-exalting Cuban-American perspectives of their own staff and invited guests.  Only one show that I saw sought the opinion of regular contributor Ben Rhodes, the primary negotiator of the Obama opening.  Senators Menendez and Rubio were frequently interviewed but Senator Leahy and Representative McGovern were not.  Andrea Mitchell was the only host to offer an opportunity for the Cuban government to be heard substantively.   

It was striking to see the intense coverage by the US media in the Cuba protests, but their virtually total disregard of larger and more violently repressed demonstrations in Colombia, as reported with at least as compelling video by Al Jazeera.  

Although widely published as a picture of protest, including by the
New York Times, this actually shows pro government demonstrators

4)  What does the future offer?  Exile groups have exalted the protests, claiming that July 11 is the beginning of the end of the Cuban revolution.  However, efforts to engender subsequent demonstrations have failed completely.  

The government acknowledges material reasons for the protests but primarily blames the embargo and US funded and directed agitation and manipulation of the internet.  It has taken two responsive steps:  allowing tax free import of medicine and food in accompanying luggage and announcement of legal status for small and medium enterprise.   However it remained hostile to wealth accumulation, barred investment by Cubans overseas, restricted participation to only one business and precluded architecture and travel ventures.   The government appears to be relying on mass mobilizations, police control and punishment of internet agitation to avoid repetition. 

Cubans and long time friends who are known for their independence of Party line have published strong criticisms of the government’s role in creating the crisis and appeals for a substantially different approach, some of which can be seen on this blog, listed in the right margin.

While Senator Leahy, Representative McGovern and other advocates of engagement have criticized repression of protests, they called for renewal of the Obama approach.   Senator Menendez crafted an anti-Cuba resolution adopted unanimously and thus without much substance.  Senators Rubio and Scott submitted a separate resolution, also adopted without objection, to provide funds for forcing internet access, intended as a provocative challenge to Cuban sovereignty.

The ultra right in the Cuban American community feels empowered, overstating the explicitly political dimension of the protests.  As always they are against ameliorative humanitarian steps like remittances and travel that enable engagement between Cubans and family members here.

Cuban American hard liners demonstrate at the White House

President Biden’s rhetoric was opportunistic and over the top when he asserted on July 19th that "Cuba is a — unfortunately, a failed state and repressing their citizens."  He showed no awareness of the rich tapestry of Cuban society and culture or recognition that the explicit goal of the embargo was to make it a failed state.  President Diaz-Canel responded in kind, "A failed state is one that, in order to please a reactionary and blackmailing minority, is capable of multiplying the damage to 11 million human beings, ignoring the will of the majority of Cubans, Americans and the international community."

In reality Biden's actual follow-up has been only symbolic sanctions of Cuban security and military leaders.  Substantively his announced goals were potentially positive, although couched politically in negative terms, restoring remittances and restaffing the embassy with consular capabilities.  The President announced a remittance working group with a one month deadline (August 30) and aspirations to somehow force independent internet access.  

Nothing has been said so far about restoring travel, a somewhat theoretical objective as long as Cuba is wracked with Covid.  (An announcement is necessary soon so commercial and exchange initiatives can be prepared for the winter when Cuba intends to have completed national vaccination.)

Diplomatic efforts to rally US allies fell embarrassingly flat.  A joint letter attracted only twenty second or third string countries.  Even the OAS rejected the US effort to involve it against Cuba.

5)  My two cents worth.  Despite the protests, the fundamentals have not changed.  The Biden and Diaz-Canel administrations are faced with exactly the same choice as before July 11th.   Embrace the domestic political risks of reopening the doors to trust-building and engagement or remain in the unproductive decades long hostility that Presidents Obama and Castro upended.  

In the short term, Biden ought to reverse all of the Trump policies, starting with remittances and travel.  Diaz-Canel ought to implement the economic reforms that have been already approved and release all July 11 detainees who did not commit violence or property destruction.   It would be helpful if both leaders engaged publicly with groups advocating reengagement and sponsored symbolic cultural exchanges.  (Opera de la Calle could be hosted at the White House and the Kennedy Center.  "Hamilton" could go to Havana.)

Both need to take trust building steps that lead to more fundamental changes: the end of the US embargo and return of Guantanamo; Cuba's movement to a less defensive system of economic and political control over its people, perhaps a Vietnamese style market economy and legal space for organized peaceful opposition.  These are not quid pro quos but my personal estimate of natural self-determined evolution with the embargo as the linchpin.  



 July 14, 2021

My bottom line is that, as within the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, there were activists in Cuba linked to larger political agendas who helped create and took advantage of the situation.  The pictures of looting and overturned cars and reports of thrown rocks and pavement stones are reminiscent of opportunists taking advantage of spontaneous authentic protests here. 

Contributing factors are undeniably US democracy funds and the failure of the Biden Administration to follow through on its promises materially (remittances) and psychologically (travel, consulate).

Never-the-less, allowing for exaggeration in media reports, a change appears to have happened in Cuba's political dynamic.  Watching the videos, one sees familiar faces (in general not specific) that go beyond Miami/Washington linked dissidents.  

As with Black Lives Matter, the question is how government authorities strike the balance between police control and social stability vs. recognizing the legitimacy of the protest, not only in terms of material needs but also for political access.  Can the system open economically more quickly and provide real space for public opposition without unacceptable risk?

It is politically very important that Cuba is able to convince the international press and the diplomatic community that all protesters who are still detained engaged in violence or property destruction.

If this video is authentic, it is painfully similar to police brutality against protesters during Black Lives Matter protests and ought to receive an official reprimand.   We don't know what the man did before the video starts, but his treatment once held does not meet Cuban or US standards.

How will the US government react?  Predictably the hard liners see reason to be more hard line.  No doubt a sector of US intelligence and the security establishment sees an opportunity to get more serious about covert action for destabilization and color revolution style regime change.  However, I don't believe the opportunists in Miami that want to launch boats stocked with food, medicine and guns will be allowed to proceed.  The former mayor of Miami who wants to bomb Cuba is also a complete outlier.

Despite the US political environment, will the alternative evolutionist strategy of becoming more engaged have greater traction because of the larger opportunity for impact in a more fluid political situation? 

If protests do not escalate and the Cuban government maintains a proportionate response, do positive humanitarian actions become possible?  What is the reputational and soft power benefit in Cuba of restoring family remittances and providing USG encouraged if not funded assistance through mutually acceptable NGO channels?  How worried will US policy makers be about instability creating a migration crisis when the same could be taking place with Haiti?


  1. excellent article, incisive, thoughtful and covers it all. It even offers workable solutions. Thank you John!

  2. Excellent article, incisive and covers it all. Even offers workable solutions.
    Thank you, John

    Best, soledad

  3. Very interesting and informative. Thank you!