Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Evolving Personal Thoughts About Cuba’s Crisis


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?

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