In the midst of multiple crises, Cuba saw the most dramatic protests in 27 years.
July 11 was a day of mobilizations, confrontations, and repression in Cuba, which ended in a few hundred people arrested, among them leaders and activists of the Cuban Left. The catalyst was the effect of Covid-19 against a backdrop of economic and social crisis; however, the root causes are linked to both economic and structural phenomena. To find a similar precedent, one has to go back 27 years, to the 1994 Maleconazo Uprising.
The Cuban state’s retaliation most likely discouraged new popular actions. The Cuban Communist Party (PCC) returned to center stage with an official mobilization attended by Raúl Castro, who formally retired from leading the country and the party during the 8th Party Congress in April. He is using his presence as a representative of the “old guard” to legitimize discredited president Miguel Díaz-Canel and to confront the most important challenges to the state of the past few decades. But there can hardly be a return to the status quo ante without consequences. Against the common sense created by imperialism and the right wing — but also by the ruling bureaucracy itself — that the only response to the crisis is to continue to implement pro-capitalist measures, our bet is that the workers and the popular sectors take the destiny of the first triumphant revolution in Latin America into their own hands and reestablish a workers’ and socialist perspective.
Before turning to an analysis of the causes, consequences, and political perspectives of the events of July 11, it’s important to try to establish what actually happened. The facts have been obscured by an overproduction of self-interested stories and a flood of fake news, amplified ad nauseam by the U.S. and regional right-wing media. Capital’s propagandists see the opportunity to wave anti-communist flags by cloaking their profoundly reactionary character in the abstract notion of “freedom.” The hypocrisy could not be any greater. These false champions of “freedom” and (bourgeois) “democracy” are the same ones who planned the coup in Bolivia with U.S. support, who repress and kill demonstrators, like Iván Duque in Colombia, and who promote fascist ideologies, like Bolsonaro in Brazil, to give just a few examples.
Put simply, two narratives dominate the scene. For the United States, the most recalcitrant sectors of Cuban exiles in Miami and their allies on the island, and the continental right-wing in general that serves the Republicans, the events of July 11 were a “rebellion against the communist dictatorship.” These groups manipulate this version of events in favor of capitalist restoration on the island, pure and simple, and to reinforce anti-communist propaganda in general. This was the intent behind President Biden’s remarks last week. For Biden, Cuba’s future is an issue of electoral politics, since he doesn’t want to again lose the votes of Miami’s Little Havana gusanos (right-wing Cubans who fled to the United States after the revolution). He lost this sector’s votes in the 2020 elections, which led him to lose Florida to the Republicans.
For the Cuban government, the protesters were part of “counterrevolutionary elements,” encouraged and financed by U.S. imperialism to destabilize the Communist Party regime. Even President Díaz-Canel went so far as to speak of a “soft coup.”
Nonetheless, the very mention in the official narrative that the majority of protesters were showing their discontent but had been “confused” and manipulated was the ruling bureaucracy’s way of recognizing that this time, they were not confronting groups of conspirators — or rather, not only such groups — but rather popular sectors with legitimate grievances and complaints. This was also made evident by the regime’s measures to lift restrictions on food, medicine, and other goods that private travelers bring into the country.
Evidently, the reality is more complex and contradictory.
Undoubtedly, the pro-U.S. right-wing, linked to the Miami gusanos, participated in the demonstrations with their traditional slogans, including “Abajo el comunismo” (Down with communism), “Cuba libre” (Free Cuba), and, most recently, “Patria y Vida” (Homeland and Life). But as the editors of the Comunistas blog collective note in their description of the day’s events,
The vast majority of the demonstrators were not tied to counter-revolutionary organizations, nor did these organizations run the protests. The main cause of the demonstrations was the discontent generated in the face of terrible scarcity, provoked by the economic crisis, the sanctions imposed by the United States, and the questionably and inefficiently run state bureaucracy.
The editors also add an interesting fact: in contrast to previous protests that were led by intellectuals and artists — such as the San Isidro Movement of November 2020, which openly took a turn to the right — this time, demonstrations originated in the working-class neighborhoods that suffer the most acute shortages and are struggling to survive.
In sum, the mobilizations on July 11 were contradictory. There’s no doubt that they were used by U.S.-funded media and social networks. According to a recent article in The Guardian, the United States spends $20 million a year on “democracy promotion” in Cuba — that is, promoting the overthrow of the Communist Party regime and its replacement with capitalist parties. Among the media that bombard Cubans’ social networks are CubaNet, ADN Cuba, and Diario de Cuba, funded by the U.S. Department of State.
These media, as well as bots, influencers, and celebrities co-opted by imperialism, have been around for years. But the explosions of popular discontent like we saw on July 11 have their material basis in the unvirtuous combination of the effects of the pandemic, the strengthening of the U.S. embargo, and the pro-capitalist measures being implemented by the Communist Party. This bureaucracy preserves its privileges while maintaining ironclad police control over everyone and everything on the island.
It’s impossible to understand the “mini explosion” of July 11 without referencing the critical situation that Cuba is going through. The mere comparison with the miseries of the “Special Period” of the 1990s, which is traumatic on the collective memory of the island’s population, speaks for itself in the severity of the crisis.
The combination of Covid-19, the imperialist blockade, and unpopular measures taken by the government have done their job. All these factors seem to have conspired to produce a perfect storm. Among the various conjunctural elements, there are at least three that, from our point of view, precipitated the recent events.
The pandemic has accelerated long-standing trends and crises. Even though the government launched its own research and vaccine production against Covid-19, the healthcare situation got out of control.
As of April, over a year into the pandemic, Cuba had 87,385 cases of Covid-19 and 467 deaths. But in the last three months, this trend has accelerated and climbed to 224,914 cases and 1,579 deaths by mid-July. Added to this is the lack of basic medications and medicine for other diseases, as well as the shortage of hospital supplies, thanks to the U.S. embargo and restrictions imposed by the pandemic.
As a consequence of the pandemic, Cuba’s GDP contracted 11 percent in 2020, compared to the region’s average of 6.8 percent. This is the country’s biggest decrease since 1993, the worst year of the crisis of the Special Period. when GDP shrank by 14.9 percent. Moreover, in the first half of 2021, the economy contracted an additional 2 percent. The rebound, if any, is unlikely to be enough to reach the 6 percent growth target set by the PCC bureaucracy.
This persistent crisis cannot be explained only by the ups and downs of the pandemic and the dynamics of vaccination, which affect the whole world but especially backward and dependent countries. Rather, it’s because international tourism, the number one victim of the coronavirus, is decisively important to Cuba as one of the main activities that generate foreign currency — third behind exporting professional services and remittances. Foreign tourism is also important to job creation and all kinds of informal work, from lodging in private homes to improvised taxis to tips. These mean income for the state and contribute significantly to the survival strategies of wide swaths of the population.
Since Hugo Chávez took power, Venezuela has become the Cuban regime’s main strategic ally, replacing in a certain sense the Soviet Union, which played that role until its dissolution in 1991. But the deep and prolonged economic and social crisis caused the Venezuelan regime, headed by Nicolás Maduro, to significantly reduce its purchases of professional services (e.g., medical services), its direct investments, and, above all, its provision of subsidized fuel, which Cubans depend on for power generation. As a result, the four-to-12-hour daily blackouts, one of the symbols of the Special Period, have returned.
The government’s pro-market measures have accelerated in recent years, encouraging capitalist restoration. This defined the PCC bureaucracy in its last congress, in which it adopted measures to achieve “monetary unification,” a macroeconomic reorganization in favor of capitalist investment known as the “Ordering Task.”
In the middle of the 1990s, partly as a consequence of the Maleconazo Uprising, the Cuban government established dual-currency circulation: the island had the Cuban peso (CUP) and the Cuban convertible peso (CUC), which was a kind of internal substitute for the U.S. dollar and other foreign currencies. The CUC’s exchange rate for the Cuban population was 24 pesos to a dollar, while for state companies it was pegged 1:1 with the dollar. Though it had been postponing the currency unification, the government decided to end the dual-currency system in the worst possible economic moment, greatly exacerbating poverty and economic hardship.
As a result of the CUC’s phase-out, the Cuban peso was devalued by 2,400 percent. According to Pavel Vidal, an economist at the Cuban Central Bank since 2006, the inflation forecast of 500 percent could reach 900 percent by the end of the year. Although the government increased salaries and pensions — the former went from $30 to $87 — this modest increase was eaten by inflation. In an article published in March, when these inflation rates had not yet been reached, Vidal estimated that wages would lose about 15 percent of their purchasing power.
The main problem is that the currency unification eliminated the dual circulation but not the duality of the economy, which is still heavily dollarized. Many basic goods, like food and personal hygiene products, are sold in stores that operate only with foreign currencies through a system of bank cards. This deepens the inequality between the sectors that have access to the dollar, including those in high PCC positions and those who only receive Cuban pesos.
In addition to the shortage of basic consumer goods, the straw that broke the camel’s back was the government’s decision to temporarily suspend dollar deposits in banks, which are indispensable for buying goods in freely convertible currency shops. The financial cost of accessing other foreign currencies, such as euros or Swiss francs, was thus passed on to private citizens. According to the government, this measure is a response to the sanctions imposed by ex-president Trump, which make it very difficult to use the U.S. dollar as a mode of payment. But Vidal points out that there may be a secondary benefit for the government since it would absorb dollars to finance imports while the population shoulders the cost.
These conjunctural phenomena react with two structural conditions that overdetermine the long-term situation: externally, the U.S. blockade and its “Trumpist” version and, internally, the course of capitalist restoration undertaken since the 1990s by the PCC, inspired by the “Vietnamese model.”
The embargo against Cuba, the longest of its kind in modern history, will turn 60 years old next year. It was imposed by President Kennedy on February 7, 1962, after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and missile crisis. And since then, like all blockades and trade embargoes, it has acted as a means of imperialist extortion to extract concessions in an eventual negotiation or to activate harsher clauses that could lead the Cuban regime to collapse. During the Obama administration, the White House promoted the “thawing” of relations with Cuba, because it considered the hard line to have failed and that the best tactic was cooptation, keeping in mind the goodwill shown by Raúl Castro and the PCC. This policy included political gestures like the reestablishment of diplomatic relations at the end of 2015 and Obama’s visit to the island. The Obama administration also offered concessions like the relaxation of restrictions on tourism and travel, the facilitation of remittances, and the removal of the country from the list of “state sponsors of terrorism.” The embargo, however, stayed in place.
These concessions were reversed by President Trump, who strengthened the blockade, imposed new financial sanctions, and put Cuba back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. These measures have important consequences. According to Title III of the 1966 Helms-Burton Act, the U.S. can take legal action against foreign companies and individuals who do business with Cuba. According to economist Carmelo Mesa Lago, this resulted in certified claims of $8 billion, plus tens of millions that were not certified. Trump banned U.S. tourists from staying in hotels and eating in restaurants run by the Cuban armed forces, and he banned cruises to the island nation. He imposed a $4,000 annual limit on remittances and tightened sanctions on the Cuban oil-importing company and foreign banks that conduct transactions with Cuba, limiting business operations and credit.
With Biden’s arrival in the White House, the Cuban regime hoped that the United States would return to the policies of the Obama era, but that did not happen. Biden is continuing Trump’s “maximum pressure” approach, owing to domestic political issues (the midterm elections of 2022) and because a not insignificant sector of the Democratic political establishment, like Senator Robert Menéndez, who presides over the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, adheres to the Cuban exile policy of “regime change.”
As happened during Israel’s attack on Gaza in May, the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, led by Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez, came out to differentiate itself from Biden’s policy. Some 80 Democratic legislators signed a letter asking the president to end the blockade, though without questioning the imperialist policy overall, much less their membership in Biden’s party.
In general terms, there are sectors of imperialism and the bourgeoisie — including some of the Cuban exiles — who favor lifting the blockade, in line with Obama-era policies. They see that, above all, the embargo harshly punishes the population and shields the PCC regime. This is in line with the United Nations, which since 1992 has voted in favor of lifting the embargo. The United States and Israel, sometimes accompanied by unconditional allies like Colombia, have voted against the resolution. Meanwhile, others don’t just favor maintaining and strengthening the blockade, but go so far as to propose direct U.S. intervention.
What’s new is the attempt by right-wing media, such as La Nación and Clarín in Argentina, to spread the baseless idea that the blockade does not exist, that it’s barely a partial embargo, and that talk of an embargo is really just an old anti-imperialist myth. As we can see, this is a crude ideological operation that’s not even consistent with U.S. imperialism itself.
Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Special Period, the Cuban regime has adopted the “Vietnamese model” as its strategy; that is, it has adopted measures to open the economy while maintaining the PCC’s monopoly on the state. Together with the blockade and the hostile imperialist policies of the United States, this strategy of gradually reintroducing capitalist relations has qualitatively degraded the material bases of the workers’ state — which is now deformed and bureaucratized — after the expropriation of the bourgeoisie following the 1959 revolution.
These pro-capitalist measures alternate moments of acceleration and moments of state recentralization. Among the most important are the various reforms of the foreign investment law facilitating the entry of imperialist capital; the erosion of the planned economy (with the exception of education, health, and defense); the monopoly on foreign trade (although in this case with mechanisms of state control); the emergence of a broad sector of self-employed workers; and the transformation of the Revolutionary Armed Forces into practically a joint stock company that manages a holding of the main tourism companies, foreign exchange stores, and other businesses.
This process of advancing capitalist relations was slower during the last years of Fidel Castro — especially in the period called the “Battle of Ideas” — and accelerated again after Raúl Castro assumed the presidency in 2008.[[A detailed study of those years can be read in Cuba: From Fidel to Raúl and Beyond, by Vegard Bye (2008).]] Under his two terms as leader, Raúl paved the way for the expansion of the private sector, the dismissal of some 500,000 state employees, and a new labor code, approved in 2014, which facilitates worker exploitation. The code allows for 10- to 12-hour workdays without overtime pay, and obviously without any right to free union organization.
The Díaz-Canel government is deepening this pro-capitalist course, endorsed at April’s PCC congress.
Thus, in addition to imperialism and the Cuban bourgeoisie in Miami, the main forces of the internal restoration are in the state itself — in the upper echelons of the PCC bureaucracy and, in particular, in the leadership of the armed forces — and in the proto-bourgeois sectors that are engaging in primitive accumulation and will probably expand from the approval of the new business law allowing more small- and medium-sized businesses.
The Cuban regime’s challenge in following the path of the Vietnamese Communist Party is its proximity to U.S. imperialism and, above all, the existence of a bourgeoisie in exile. This bourgeoisie will not tolerate the mediation of the governing bureaucracy, but openly seeks to overthrow it and take economic and political power.
In the international Left, there’s an open debate surrounding Cuba. The populist Latin American sectors are uncritical defenders of the Cuban regime. With the worn-out argument that any criticism “plays into the hands of the right wing,” they justify the unjustifiable for any leftist militant: inequality, the privileges of the ruling bureaucracy, the pro-capitalist measures, the PCC police regime’s repression. They use these same arguments to support the authoritarian Maduro regime in Venezuela.
Some currents that claim to be Trotskyists consider the capitalist restoration to have already been completed, and that it is therefore a question of fighting a “capitalist dictatorship” like any other. Using a predictably liberal logic of “democratic revolution,” these currents ignore that imperialism is a reactionary organizational force and deny that there are still conquests to defend, among others the fact that there is still no local bourgeoisie. In Argentina, the comrades of Izquierda Socialista have come to maintain — against the evidence provided by bourgeois economists (and by the United States itself) — that the U.S. blockade was defeated and is today only “partial” and very “limited.”
There is no way to confront the Cuban regime’s plans for capitalist restoration and the police control that it exercises over workers if it is not based on the anti-imperialist and internationalist struggle against the U.S. blockade, which the vast majority of the Cuban people repudiate and resist.
The processes of capitalist restoration started in 1989 have re-created exploitative relations, deepened inequality, and, against all democratic illusions, established authoritarian (Bonapartist) regimes. These processes have brought reactionary, xenophobic, and racist forces to power, as in Hungary and Poland, where basic democratic rights like legal abortion are being attacked.
To confront capitalist restoration, whether through imperialism and its agents or through the bureaucracy itself, it is necessary to raise a program that starts from the struggle against the blockade and from the most heartfelt and urgent demands of the broad masses. These include a general wage increase, price control by the population, and an end to the privileges of the ruling caste and the one-party regime through the legalization of political organizations committed to defending the gains of the revolution.
The demands must also include the right to freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, freedom of trade unions — a basic measure defended by Lenin in the 1920s in the Soviet Union — and all forms of workers’ self-organization. The workers must become the true ruling class of the state, so they can repair the monopoly on foreign trade and assume the democratic planning of the economy. More than ever, Cuba’s destiny is inextricably linked to the dynamic of class struggle in Latin America.
Originally published in Spanish on July 18 in Ideas de Izquierda.
Translation by Otto Fors