Are there peaceful solutions to the Cuban crisis?
05 January 2023
The depth of the current crisis
It can be debated whether the current crisis in Cuba is more or less serious than the crisis of the "Special Period" of the nineties, following the fall of the Soviet Union.
In economic terms, based on a thorough statistical comparison, Carmelo Mesa Lago concludes that the current situation "resembles that of those terrible years" (Mesa Lago, 2022). The fall in GDP of 10.9% in 2020 – after a virtual stagnation during the previous five years – is the largest after the contraction of 14.9% in 1993, the worst year of the crisis of the nineties. The projection is that 2019 GDP – already very low – would not recover until 2024-2025. The index of industrial production in 2021 was 45.2% below the 1989 level, and food processing only reached half. The value of exports in 2021 was 67% lower than in 1989 and 63% lower than in 2013. Foreign exchange income, counting the three main sources, fell dramatically between 2018 and 2021: export of services (mainly health and education) with 67%; family remittances with 71%; and tourism with 85%.
Without up-to-date data on the depth of the current social crisis compared to the Special Period, it is very likely that it will not be minor, and that the income disparity is likely to be much greater.
In political terms, it can be argued that the crisis is worse. First, the lack of a charismatic leader like Fidel Castro, who managed, almost mysteriously, to save the Cuban regime when most of the socialist republics collapsed, is very clearly felt. Secondly, much of today's population has no memory of the situation prior to 1959 or of "the achievements of the Revolution", which probably injected a great deal of patience into the population during the Special Period. On the contrary, today's young people have had a generally positive experience with the relative openness of the economy and relations with the rest of the world (including the United States), which was largely lost. The result of this is clearly seen in the new mass exodus (mostly of well-prepared young people) and in two hitherto unknown phenomena: open protests, and electoral behavior despite the lack of real freedom of vote, where abstention and voting against the official position increases.
The sum of the economic unsustainability and political illegitimacy of the current Cuban regime is such that Raúl Castro's metaphor of "falling off the cliff" seems closer than ever. So the question is: what solutions can be imagined to the crisis? In this article I limit myself to discussing solutions to the political crisis, but the relationship and interdependence between the political and the economic is evident.
The New Civil Society: Politics from Below
During the years of Raúl Castro's presidency, coinciding with the economic reforms and the thaw in relations between the United States and Cuba (approximately 2008-2016), a new civil society emerged on the island, which had already begun to emerge more timidly through the churches in the nineties. Perhaps the decisive element was the gradual opening to the internet and access to smartphones, which actually led to a weakening of the regime's monopoly of information.
There was a rapid expansion of social media and the emergence of independent journalism. A myriad of alternative information agents began to appear, promoters of peaceful political transformations. Academics and intellectuals achieved, albeit barely, a much more autonomous space for critical debate of alternative development options, and also found channels to convey these thoughts to members of the system. Hoffmann (2016) states that Cuban politics in that period underwent a great change despite the rhetoric of continuity, which allowed the emergence of a new civil society.
Along with the weakening of the computer monopoly, the liberalization of travel and migration, with its transformative effect on State-citizen relations, and the strengthening of a non-state sector, especially with the massification of self-employed workers (self-employed), had a great impact.
In reality, total control over citizens by the state and the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) was drastically reduced. What can be called "politics from below" emerged, with actors distinct from the more traditional right-wing dissident groups that had supported a US policy of regime change.
From 2016 and especially with the new confrontation by President Trump when he took office in 2017, the space of this new civil society narrowed again, also for those voices that argued for a national dialogue instead of an open confrontation. Although the government seemed quite powerless in its efforts to curb "virtual civil society", i.e. alternative information and debate involving an increasing number of people, particularly the youngest, the counter-reform that was actually consolidated with the PCC's Seventh Congress in April 2016 seriously complicated any opportunity to initiate a dialogue on a negotiated transformation. The PCC flatly rejected the emergence of a counterpart with which to dialogue.
With this counter-reform, many of the new and young actors lost all illusion of peaceful transformations. Many of them emigrated, entrenching themselves above all in "the second Cuba" of Florida, where they largely joined the traditional and radical opposition.
However, despite the new constraints, it was not possible to stop all the pro-reform actors that had emerged in the previous era. During the discussion of a new Cuban constitution, the churches began a harsh open campaign against the proposal to legalize same-sex marriage, also giving rise to a counter-campaign by the LGBTI community. When the Government realized how controversial the provision was, the National Assembly removed it from the final version of the new Constitution (and later reintroduced it in a new Family Code). Strong voices of private entrepreneurs managed to limit new restrictions against their operating space; Havana taxi drivers went on strike successfully pressuring the authorities not to prevent their access to lower fuel prices (through the black market); and animal rights advocates obtained a commitment from the Government to enact an animal protection law (Decree-Law no. 31/22 "On animal welfare").
These and other examples have much in common: the government tried to placate protesters rather than repress them, although protest leaders have reported subsequent harassment by police. The state's relative tolerance of these special interest groups contrasts sharply with the harsh preemptive repression it generally deploys against traditional dissidents, presumably because the new groups do not challenge the regime's basic principles and political foundations.
That flexibility changed with artists' protests, sparked by the so-called Decree no. 349, a new law that requires artists, musicians and performers to register with the state, request authorization to organize events, and pay a 24% commission on their earnings at private events. Artists feared a return to the heavy state censorship of the seventies. The artistic community began to mobilize through social networks.
At first, the government was conciliatory, suspending the implementation of the Decree and promising to modify it. But the protest movement continued to grow and expand into new groups.
In this situation, the San Isidro Movement (MSI) stands out, which takes its name from the popular neighborhood of Old Havana where that group had its residence. It is a group of dissident hip-hop artists who provoked the government with a series of creative protests, combining their political activism with artistic interventions. In November 2020, rapper Denis Solís, one of the members of the group, made public through a Facebook broadcast the moment in which he confronted a police officer, telling him that he had no right to enter his home or harass him. Days later, Solís was arrested by security officials, subjected to a judicial process under the charge of contempt, which culminated in the sentence to eight months in prison and his subsequent transfer to a maximum security penitentiary center. All this provoked a series of protests both inside and outside the island. Other members of the MSI began a hunger strike, which was joined by other opposition public figures of art and culture, including journalist Carlos Manuel Álvarez. This led by the artist and political activist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara.
Coinciding with these events, a group of well-known Cuban musicians released the song Patria y Vida – in allusion to the revolutionary slogan Patria o Muerte – with lyrics that pay homage to the MSI. Patria y Vida became the great slogan of young opponents, both in Cuba and among Cubans abroad.
On November 27, 2020, the arrest of fourteen MSI strikers and the interruption of access to social networks throughout the island triggered a spontaneous demonstration at the Ministry of Culture of some three hundred artists of various ideologies, including some highly recognized by the government. That group, later named the 27N Movement, even managed to get a deputy minister to sit down for talks, promising concessions that were quickly withdrawn.
In April 2021, residents of Havana's San Isidro neighborhood prevented the arrest of another MSI rapper activist, Maykel Osorbo, amid anti-government slogans and chanting the song Patria y Vida, in which Osormo himself participates.
The culmination of that generation of protests occurred with the spontaneous and massive mobilization throughout the country on July 11, 2021 (11J). President Miguel Díaz-Canel, totally shocked and apparently in great fear of losing control of the situation, called on loyalists to take to the streets and defend the Revolution, which provoked violent clashes with demonstrators. After two days of protests, the police arrested about 1300 people and denied many more to the streets. The Internet was constantly interrupted. An atmosphere of terror was created in the population, especially among urban youth.
In an attempt to capitalize on the 11J mobilization, a group of artists created a Facebook group called Archipiélago, asking for permission to make new demonstrations on November 15 (15N) of 2021. The government rejected the petitions on the grounds that the protests were aimed at regime change, which represented a violation of the constitutional premise that Cuba's socialist system is "irrevocable." The government showed its strength by stopping the announced marches, branding the organizers as foreign agents, and arresting them. When the day came, no one else showed up at the appointed time to leave.
The big question, of utmost strategic importance, is what caused that 15N fiasco. Was it the threats of the Government or the lack of support or interest among the population? While it was a combination of those two factors, the question about the motivation of the popular reaction cannot be avoided, between political protest and anger over food shortages, lack of electricity, the spread of Covid-19 and the apparent inability of the state to solve these problems. LeoGrande (2022) considers that there is a difference of perceptions, which "reflects the different life experiences and priorities of Cuba's emerging young and educated middle class, on the one hand, and the working class struggling to survive on state sector wages on the other."
In any case, the lack of response on 15N shows that mobilization through social networks, without clear leadership, for now is not enough to cause a popular uprising in Cuba. Such mobilization may provoke a protest, but it is difficult to provide a response on its own to the crisis. That is why it is necessary to build the conditions for dialogue.
The repression that followed 11J and 15N was massive. This was documented by the HRW Report published on the anniversary of 11J in 2022, which bears witness to a wide range of human rights violations committed in the context of the protests, including arbitrary detentions, and prosecutions plagued by abuse and torture. The government's crackdown and apparent unwillingness to address the underlying issues that brought Cubans onto the streets, including limited access to food and medicine, have led to a human rights crisis. The number of political prisoners reaches almost 1000 people, some with sentences of up to 25 years.
The number of people leaving the country increased dramatically. It is estimated that during the year 2022, the number of Cuban immigrants to the United States exceeded 200 thousand, the highest annual number of Cuban immigrants entering the northern neighbor (Mesa Lago, 2022).
Most of the MSI activists and others who played a prominent role on 11J are already among the political prisoners, while others managed to travel abroad. With the mass incarceration of activists, and the historically large exodus of young people with academic training and organizational skills, the government seemed to have pacified the country. The control of the streets is not total, but the spontaneous protests against the blackouts at the end of September 2022 were quickly controlled with a widespread internet shutdown and the deployment and patrolling of police and military vehicles.
Once again, as so often in the history of the Revolution, the opposition has gone into exile. The exit won the voice, in terms of Hirschman (1970). Therefore, it is from exile that they organize again, with three main demands: release of political prisoners, response to the humanitarian crisis and a dialogue to democratize the country.
To the reactions of protest and exodus must be added a third response of the population to the current crisis of legitimacy: electoral behavior. Historically, and as a clear reflection of the authoritarian system, the vast majority have voted in favor of the will of the single party and the government. In the 2008 parliamentary elections, only 3% of voters abstained. In 2018, that percentage rose to almost 15%, and in the November 2022 municipal elections to 31%, plus 11% of white and voided votes. In the referendum on the Constitution in 1976, almost 98% voted in favour. When the new Constitution was put to a referendum in 2019, the comparative figure was 22% (adding 10% abstention, 8% NO, and 4% white and annulled votes). In September 2022, there was a historic event in the electoral behavior of the Cuban Revolution: although the new Family Code was approved by 67% of positive votes in another referendum, adding 33% of votes against with the abstention of 26% plus null or annulled votes, the law was approved by only 46.70% of the Cuban population with the right to vote.
The need for two parallel dialogues
The Cuban crisis cries out for two parallel dialogues: between the Cuban government and its own population, and between the governments of Havana and Washington. The first is vital to restore a minimum of trust and legitimacy between rulers and governed, and to put on the table the indisputably legitimate claims of the population, both economic and political. The latter represents the only way out of the Cuban economic crisis. But the question is whether there is anyone who wants to dialogue, what would be the agenda, and above all what could be the process to reach the two dialogue tables. The resistance of all three sides so far has hampered that whole process.
The role of the Cuban government
Despite facing what is possibly the deepest crisis in the history of the Revolution, at the moment there does not seem to be the slightest political will to recognize and sit down with representatives of the population who are not from their own political apparatus. The question is how far the situation will have to worsen for the government to be willing to talk.
There are two factors that may have an impact on ending this intransigence. The first is the fact that the Latin American left is moving decisively towards democratic positions and against authoritarianism. With elections in Chile, Colombia and Brazil during 2022, Cuba finds itself increasingly politically distant from the new leftist wave in the region, in authoritarian company only from Venezuela and Nicaragua. If an agreement is also reached between the government and the opposition in Venezuela, it will be even more difficult for Cuba to maintain the rejection of an opening. Nor would it have much to expect from the current situation that countries such as Russia and China are going through. In this circumstance, an initiative of the governments, parties and leftist leaders of Latin America, old allies of Cuba, should be able to have some impact in favor of a relaxation of positions in Havana. Trade unionists should join in this initiative, inviting the Central de Trabajadores de Cuba (CTC) to collaborate with the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas (TUCA).
The probably most attractive incentive for Havana to be more flexible would be a process toward normalization in relations with the United States. The official Cuban position states that any issue can be negotiated, as long as there is no foreign interference in Cuban internal affairs. In reality, everyone knows that the hard American position, which until recently did not change much between the Trump and Biden administrations, would only begin to soften if there are reforms in Cuba. The problem is how to draw a parallel between changes in Havana and changes in U.S. policy.
The role of the United States
What at the end of the day would allow a change in the policy towards Cuba is that significant changes can be seen on the island economically, but above all politically. It is a mirror situation to the one we find in Havana: changes in Cuba depend on changes in U.S. policy. The question is who moves first, or better: how to achieve a parallel dynamic?
There is a new factor now: U.S. policy toward Cuba has always been characterized as an aspect of domestic politics, specifically it has been part of the electoral battle for Florida as a swing state, where Cuban-Americans have a tremendously strong lobby. For the Democrats, it has always been considered essential to win Florida, and adjust "Cuban politics" to what gives more votes. With the last midterm election in November 2022, Florida can already be considered lost by Democrats in the immediate future. According to William LeoGrande (2022): for the first time in many decades, the Democrats can stop formulating their policy towards Cuba as a domestic policy issue, that is, win Florida.
A second factor is the relevance of the new leftist wave in Latin America. It can already be considered as important for the Biden administration, as it was for Obama, to change the hostile policy towards Cuba to look good with Latin American governments that demand the end of the embargo. The messages from the region's leaders are equally clear now. The recent appointment of former Senator Christopher Dodd — a historical critic of the aggressive U.S. confrontation with the left in Latin America — as special adviser to the president for the Americas may be a first step in that direction.
It is perhaps for this reason that we have recently noticed very careful signs of rapprochement between Cuba and the United States: the two-million-dollar humanitarian aid that the United States granted to Cuba in the wake of Hurricane Ian; the recent negotiation for an arrangement to normalize migration relations and remittances; and the near-finalized U.S.-Venezuela agreement that may depend on active Cuban support to deliver results.
If those factors can be considered positive for a return to the Cuban politics that characterized the Obama administration, there is an elephant in the room: Bob Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, a committee that also includes Cuban-Americans Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. Menendez shares radical positions against the Cuban government with these and other Republicans and, at the same time, is a politician who has very close relations with Biden, who cannot risk a confrontation with Menendez. That is why it will be important for him to be part of any arrangement with Cuba.
The emergence of a new civil society calling for dialogue
So far it has not been only the two governments that have opposed dialogue. The position of the great part of the Cuban opposition, both internally and abroad, has been one of rejection of any negotiation with a regime considered dictatorial and illegitimate. Actors who for several years have argued for dialogue have found little support.
Going up and down a roller coaster for the last ten years and ending up as victims of unprecedented repression in Cuba, a new civil society willing to dialogue focused on solutions, mainly organized through the diaspora, is already repositioned. Almost under the radar, they resurrect a series of initiatives, and perhaps a minimum common platform, in the process of taking shape as an expression with political legitimacy.
In September 2022, the formation of the D Frente platform was announced, "a democratic front of concertation of plural Cuban civil and political actors, whose central objective is to achieve the refoundation of the Republic, guided by Marti's idea of building a country with all and for the good of all."
Since its foundation, there are a number of member organizations, representing three different dimensions of Cuban society:
As an expression of the new actors of open protest, there is the San Isidro Movement, with members of the group who managed to go abroad, representing their imprisoned comrades. Within the same group can be included the Association of mothers and relatives of political prisoners for Amnesty, which represents around 1000 political prisoners in the wake of 11J and the following repressive acts. We also find among the founders the Archipelago group, the network of cultural actors that was born with the massive action in the Ministry of Culture on November 27, 2020.
There is a presence of the most traditional dissidents, through the Council for the Democratic Transition in Cuba (CTDC), a space founded in 2021 by opponents and activists of different political tendencies. The coordinator is José Daniel Ferrer, the imprisoned leader of the Patriotic Union, according to the US State Department "the largest group of the Cuban opposition" (which also considers Ferrer "the visible head of the dissident movement").
Behind these groups, constantly working to promote peaceful dialogue, is the group Cuba Próxima, led by Roberto Veiga, a lawyer with vast experience working in favor of peaceful reforms and a dialogue between government and civil society. Cuba Proxima is the latest expression of initiatives to find new spaces while closing existing ones. That work began with the magazine Espacio Laical, promoted by the Archbishopric of Havana, and then continued with the organization Cuba Posible (see Bye 2019, pp. 139-141).
What is new with the D Frente group is exactly the coincidence between these three traditions of the Cuban opposition. That has aroused quite a few expectations in the unofficial press in Cuba.
It is still necessary to give more weight to this group in Cuban society with the integration of personalities of cultural life, who have traditionally been considered favorable to the regime or at least not against, but who lately have expressed themselves more critically, such as the artists Silvio Rodríguez and Leonardo Padura.
How to trigger a series of events that can bring the three parties closer together in the two parallel dialogues we have talked about?
I share some ideas to promote that dynamic of dialogues that can unblock the apparent total impasse existing in Cuba.
There are two immediate challenges for Cuban society that require an immediate response, which in turn can trigger a constructive dynamic: to alleviate the crisis of popular survival, a major humanitarian corridor must be established. At the same time, the political crisis will not be resolved without starting with the release of political prisoners. The three parties (civil society + U.S. and Cuban governments) would have to find a mutually acceptable methodology to attack those two immediate crises.
The humanitarian corridor, in order to have legitimacy both in the population and in the international community, cannot be an exclusive responsibility of the Cuban government. It should take as a starting point the already existing small-scale efforts of civil society (the Spain-Cuba, Miami-Cuba corridors, etc.), which are already being established with the networks of relatives in Cuba. Consideration should be given to expanding that through an international humanitarian mechanism, and a wider network of family members with relatives abroad. Perhaps mechanisms can be explored to socialize remittances, to generate support beyond each beneficiary family and benefit the community where it resides. Obviously there has to be an understanding between the international actor and the government, but maintaining some distance with government structures and rather channeling aid through local communities and family networks. If such a mechanism can be opened, funding must be sought from governments, including the United States.
With such a humanitarian mechanism in place, another channel must emerge to negotiate the release of political prisoners, starting with those who have not been involved in acts of violence. With Cardinal Beniamino Stella's prompt visit to Cuba, perhaps the Catholic Church and the pope himself are envisioning a role in that regard again. Humanitarian aid must be expanded as prisoners are released.
The humanitarian corridor must be linked to an internal instrument: technical assistance to non-state producers (including usufructuaries, CCS cooperatives) and openness to market food through non-state networks (returning to the policy of reducing the weight of Collection Centers and opening non-state wholesale markets). An idea to consider could be the use of paladares also as popular dining rooms. All this should lead the agricultural sector to introduce a series of measures towards the much-needed agrarian reform, partly following proposals already indicated in the "Guidelines" introduced at the time by Raúl Castro, although never carried out.
By involving networks of relatives of prisoners, relatives with relatives abroad, non-state producers and non-state cooperatives, paladares, etc., Cuban civil society could be expanded and legitimized, to position itself as an actor of dialogue with the Cuban government (once the political prisoners are released).
These proposals should seek proactive support and accompaniment among the democratic left-wing governments of Latin America and their parties and grassroots movements, mainly Brazil, Colombia, Chile and perhaps Mexico. Together with other actors with a relationship of historical sympathy with Cuba (also from the United States, Canada, the European Union and other European countries), they must support a dialogue with the Cuban Government with the message: "the era of authoritarianism is over, the socialism of today and the future is democratic." These actors must present a more comprehensive agenda of economic and political reforms (prepared by a technical team of Cuban professionals), in parallel with a normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations (prepared by diplomats from the two countries). The first step in that regard should be to remove Cuba from the list of terrorist countries.
You have to realize that time is short: the window of opportunity may close in November 2024, with the US presidential election and the possible return of a far-right Republican president. If the European Union is to be involved, the window may be open only until the possible summit between the EU and CELAC (Route, 2023), supposedly under the Spanish presidency of the EU, which begins in July 2023, and before the general elections in Spain, scheduled for October next year.
If one adds up the economic and political factors, the Cuban nation is going through what can easily be considered the worst crisis after the 1959 Revolution. The need to seek the two parallel dialogues, between the Cuban government and its own population, and between the governments of Cuba and the United States, seems more obvious than ever. Without one, there will be no other. All three sides need to demonstrate flexibility and pragmatism, which surely requires external facilitation, especially from other Latin American governments and leaders. Similarly, there is an interdependence between economic and political issues to be addressed in the two dialogues. In this article the political part has been discussed. On the economic side, Mesa Lago's conclusion in the cited article is equally clear: "I urge an open, respectful and democratic national dialogue so that the population discusses the change to the model of market socialism."
There should be a window of opportunity to initiate a dialogue process. It is very likely that this window will not stay open for long. Someone has to facilitate the first steps, without further delay.
Bye, Vegard: Cuba, from Fidel to Raúl and Beyond. Palgrave MacMillan, London, 2019.
Hirschman, Alberto O.: Exit, Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations and States. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970.
Hoffmann, Bert: «Bureaucratic Socialism in Reform Mode: The Changing Politics of Cubas Post-Fidel Era», in: International Political Science Review 30 (3, June), 2016, pp. 229-248.
LeoGrande, William (2022): «Why Democrats Should Forget About Winning Florida», in: Foreign Policy, 21.11.2022: https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/11/21/democrats-florida-republicans-cuban-american-cuba-trump-biden-obama/?tpcc=recirc_latest062921
Mesa Lago, Carmelo: «Cuba's economy in times of crisis: 2020-2022 and perspectives for 2023», in: La Joven Cuba (to appear), 2022.
Human Rights Watch, July 11, 2022: https://www.hrw.org/report/2022/07/11/prison-or-exile/cubas-systematic-repression-july-2021-demonstrators
According to non-governmental sources, a total of 1771 arrests for political reasons have been recorded; 758 remain in prison; 706 have been tried; 963 people imprisoned and sentenced or awaiting trial: https://www.justicia11j.org the website of the group Justicia 11J, which works on documentation on prisoners with the NGO Cubalex.
National Electoral Council. www.eleccionesencuba.cu. Retrieved September 27, 2022.
The boycott by a number of presidents of the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles in June 2022, and the message to Secretary of State Blinken when he visited the region in October of the same year: https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2022-10-12/us-has-tough-sell-in-latin-america-blinken