Cuba one year after the protests

A year ago, on July 11, a small protest by Cuban dissidents in a poor suburb of Havana sparked anti-government protests across the country. In dozens of cities and towns, thousands marched to protest food and medicine shortages, power outages and a surge in Covid-19 infections. Most of the protests were peaceful, but in some neighborhoods protesters fought with police, overturned cars and looted stores.

The unprecedented protests were a symptom of deep economic and political discontent. They shocked Cuban leaders, emboldened the opposition, and revived Washington’s eternal pipe dream of regime change. Twelve months later, Cubans are still struggling with a sluggish economy, which is triggering an increase in irregular migration.

When the protests broke out, President Miguel Díaz-Canel denounced them as counter-revolutionary and called loyalists to the streets to defend the revolution. Police arrested more than 1,300 people. A few days later, however, Díaz-Canel softened his tone, conceding that the protesters had legitimate grievances. The state policy that followed included both a crackdown on vocal opponents and programs to alleviate the hardships that brought people to the streets. Protesters charged with violent crimes have been sentenced to long prison terms, ranging from five to 30 years, and key dissidents have been harassed or imprisoned. Meanwhile, the government has launched a program to improve living conditions in 302 “vulnerable communities” – poor neighborhoods that were the sites of the worst violence on July 11.

Hoping to capitalize on popular discontent, last September a group of opposition artists and intellectuals calling themselves Archipiélago joined mainstream dissidents in calling for a “Civic March for Change” on November 15. The government denounced them as counterrevolutionary agents of Washington’s regime change strategy. The forward-looking protest garnered huge international attention and the Biden administration’s wholehearted support. But on November 15, no one showed up to march or bang empty pots as organizers had requested.

The failure of the march was due in part to government harassment and defamation of the organizers. But the demands for political reform, made by young middle-class professionals, did not address the most pressing problem for the majority of Cubans: the deterioration of their standard of living. The failure of the November demonstration left the organized opposition demoralized and in disarray. Many of the young artists involved have gone into exile.

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