Three Years After Cuba’s 11J, Discontent and Persecution Continue

Since the outbreak of the largest protests seen in nearly three decades, the Cuban government has tightened its grip on the economy, further reducing citizens’ freedoms.

July 10, 2024

Havana, Cuba, 2012. (Matias Garabedian / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

July 11 marks three years since protests erupted in different parts of Cuba expressing a collective cry for political and economic change. At the time, President Miguel Díaz Canel responded by issuing a “combat order,” calling on loyalists to take the streets to fight those who had joined the demonstrations. However, as it became clear that inciting people to engage in street violence had been a mistake, he toned down his rhetoric, called for unity and peace, and committed to reforms.

Three years later, protests continue—692 took place in 2022 alone. Despite the promises for change, unity, and love, the state continues to control uprisings by force, and ambiguous language within the 2019 Constitution facilitates the criminalization of dissent. A new penal code, introduced last year, establishes social media posting as a criminal category and increases prison sentences for offenses such as “public disorder,” “resistance,” and “insulting national symbols.” The second-largest demonstration after July 11, 2021 took place on March 18 of this year, when hundreds in Santiago de Cuba protested shortages of food and electricity. This time, although the president acknowledged that the discontent is real, he added, once again, that the enemies of the Revolution were using the occasion to promote chaos.

The United States embargo negatively impacts the lives of Cubans. However, these ongoing protests show that the model the Cuban leadership calls socialism is not fulfilling socialist aims and is not working for much of the population. Cubans need an end to political persecution and space to implement alternate models.

Since 11J, Cuba’s economic crisis has worsened, triggering a dramatic rise in migration. At the end of last year, the government announced that it would either increase fuel and electricity prices or reduce rations for basic supplies. Both actions have ensued. In addition, power outages have grown worse in the last months.

In January 2021, the government launched the unification of its currency, scrapping the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), which was artificially pegged at 1:1 to the U.S. dollar. The Cuban Peso (CUP)—the currency of Cuban salaries—is now the only legal currency. Following this reform, inflation and prices have risen dramatically. The current average monthly wage of Cubans is around 4,000 CUP per month (the equivalent of $11 U.S. at the informal rate).

Despite the monetary unification, Cubans are now dealing with three basic currencies: the U.S. dollar, which some receive through remittances; the CUP; and the MLC (moneda libremente convertible). The latter is a digital currency backed up by foreign currency that circulates in government-issued cards (loaded by relatives abroad) that people can use only in government-owned MLC stores. MLC stores, which opened in 2019, began as outlets for electrical appliances but eventually began selling essential products at inflated rates. During the 11J protests, the government labeled the looting of MLC stores as “vandalism.” The problem with this narrative, as Ailynn Torres Santana has rightly put it, is that it does not take into account the economic violence to which ordinary Cubans are subjected.

A few months after the July 11, 2021 protests, and after years of much consideration and lingering, the government legalized small and medium business ownership, approving the first 32 private businesses, or Mipymes, in 60 years of socialism.

But the transition to privatization has been a slow and cumbersome process. Since the early 1990s, the government legalized a tightly limited form of self-employment to alleviate the crisis caused by the collapse of Soviet aid.  Then in 2011, with the express purpose of “updating the economic model,” the VI Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba approved the Guidelines of the Economic and Social Policy of the Party and the Revolution, allowing private jobs with the objective of building a “prosperous and sustainable socialist society” while “guaranteeing the irrevocability of socialism.” Following the 2019 Constitution, in August of 2021 the Gaceta Oficial published new laws that allow for the existence of “micro, small and medium businesses (Mipymes), cooperatives, and trabajo por cuenta propia (self-employment),” which took effect on September 20 of the same year. The main difference is that while before there was a process of licensing in place, now people can have ownership of their business.

The approval of the Mypimes is significant, especially considering measures announced by the Biden administration at the end of May 2024 to support Cuba’s expanding private sector, whereby Cuban entrepreneurs can have business bank accounts in the United States and conduct remote online transactions. Earlier in the same month, the U.S. removed Cuba from its list of countries not cooperating fully against terrorism, a necessary step for the reform mentioned above.

“It’s the Economy…” But is it?

At first glance, these economic changes appear to significantly favor most Cubans, but reality proves otherwise. Only those with relatives abroad or enough capital can start a Mipyme. Rumor has it that many of the owners of the newly approved businesses hold connections to the government, which does not seem far-fetched considering the collateral risks of allowing a dissenting sector of the population to hold economic power.

It would be easy to attribute such comments to right-wing propaganda if not for the fact that the theory appears to bear out in practice. Sandro Castro, Fidel Castro’s grandson, owns a few bars in Havana and consistently brags on social media about his lavish lifestyle. Lisa Titolo Castro, Raúl Castro’s granddaughter, owns the café and supermarket GAIA SRL, which she actively promotes on Facebook and Instagram.

In a cruel twist of irony, publicly owned media outlets—the only ones authorized to operate in Cuba—run ads paid by the most well-off Mypimes, which, to no one’s surprise, are owned by those with government connections. Cubadebate, the most visible government-owned mouthpiece, recently ran an entire article sponsored by the photography agency Cubamodela promoting CBM Tienda, an online store. Both Cubamodela and CBM Tienda are owned by Alejandro Peñalver Mauri, who holds a master’s degree in management and entrepreneurship from the United Kingdom’s Cranfield School of Management and who is also the son of Mayda Mauri Pérez, vice president of the state-run biotech firm BioCubaFarma.

On May 26, the government approved the Social Communication Law, which establishes that news agencies and printed and digital social communication media may include advertising with prior authorization. It dictates that the media is exclusively socialist property and does not recognize independent journalism as legitimate. Article II 5.1 ratifies the requirement that communication practices abide by the emancipatory ideals of José Martí, Fidel Castro, Marx, Engels, and Lenin. A recent video of Russian porn star Monika Fox promoting Legendario rum has raised questions about whether the state is endorsing this type of publicity.

Race and Poverty

A pending investigation—hindered by a lack of data transparency—calls for the study of how many of the about 11,000 active private and state-run Mypimes and cooperatives are owned by Black Cubans. One can only venture that this number is a minority, if any. In contrast with the ostentatious lifestyles of the predominantly white sector that controls the economy, Afro-Cubans and other vulnerable groups who live in areas with high rates of material insecurity continue to face extreme difficulty making ends meet. Despite the president’s visit to some of these neighborhoods and his promises for improvement, the situation has worsened. Since the majority of Cubans living abroad are white, Afro-Cubans receive remittances at a lower rate.

New anti-racist laws explicitly condemn racism, but in practice not much is done to enforce them. For example, as many believe that foreigners would rather interact with white Cubans, Afro-Cubans are underrepresented in the government-owned tourism industry. Discrimination frequently goes unchecked in private enterprises. Last year, an online rental listing advertised an apartment “For whites only.”

While a nouveau wealthy class flourishes amid the new reforms, those accused of robbing MLC stores during the protests—many of them Afro-Cubans—are still serving long prison sentences. Visual artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, imprisoned at the time of the 11J demonstrations on charges of contempt and insult to national symbols, is currently serving time, as is Mykel “Osorbo” Castillo Pérez, another Afro-Cuban with a leading role in street activism.

Women at the Forefront

Since the July 11, 2021 protests, women have progressively taken more of a leading role in Cuba’s public sphere. As mothers and caregivers of other family members and thus disproportionately affected by the crisis, their voices have become more audible. Moreover, it is often women who demand the freedom of relatives apprehended during the protests, making them unintended targets of government repression. Some have called this process “the feminization of protest in Cuba” and the “feminization of Cuba’s political dissident leadership.”

During a 2022 protest calling for electricity and water, Esmeralda Cárdenas Hidalgo was beaten by an assailant when she came to the defense of a young woman the man was assaulting. Mayelín Rodríguez Prado was charged with “sedition” and sentenced to 15 years in prison for posting videos on Facebook of a 2022 protest in Nuevitas, Camagüey. Since 11J, at least 314 women have been detained in Cuba, with some of them serving lengthy prison sentences. Some detainees have been minors. Teenager Gabriela Zequeira Hernández, 17, was threatened with rape while detained on July 11, 2021 and later sentenced for “public disorder.”

Alina López Hernández stands in from of statue of José Martí in Parque de la Libertad, Matanzas, Cuba. (Julio César García)

More recently, the case of historian Alina Bárbara López Hernández and anthropologist Jenny Pantoja has attracted attention. On June 18, the two women were on their way to participate in a peaceful protest in Havana when the police stopped them. When López Hernández asked why they were being detained, the female officer answered, “You know very well why we are stopping you.” López Hernández has been protesting for some time now and is well known to the authorities.

López Hernández insisted that she wanted to know the reason for the detention. The officer then swept López Hernández’s legs, causing her to fall backward and hit her head on the gravel road. Three officers dragged López Hernández toward their car and pulled her by the hair. One officer sat on top of Pantoja Torres.

The two women are currently awaiting trial as they are charged with the crime of “atentando,” or an attack against the authorities. “Atentado” is a semantically ambiguous term that, in the Cuban context, has the connotation of “a terrorist attack.” The vague definition of this crime in article 182.1 of the 2022 Penal Code allows for arbitrary enforcement.

In such cases of criminalization, the Cuban state attempts to downplay or erase any political connotation of the events. Meanwhile, a letter with 200 signatures, including that of singer-songwriter Fito Páez, has circulated in support of these intellectuals, and members of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) sent a letter pressing LASA’s executive committee to condemn the political repression in Cuba in general and in the cases against López Hernández and Pantoja Torres.

“Decolonizing Socialism”

Both López Hernández and Pantoja Torres share progressive and socialist ideals, and yet they have become personae non gratae for the government. The same is true for sectors of the left that disavow the role of the state and its military arm in controlling the economy. This movement, which some have called la izquierda crítica or “the critical left” existed before the July 11 protests. In May 2021, an image of Leonardo Romero Negrín holding up a sign that read “Socialismo sí, represión no” (Socialism yes, repression no) went viral. Romero Negrín was later apprehended during the 11J protests while defending a student from police aggression.

Since 11J, the critical left has become more organized in their advocacy for ending the neoliberal-like policies that the government has implemented as a solution for the current crisis. Although the group is a minority within the country’s intellectual strata, their message has gained some visibility. In a 2021 “Declaration for popular democracy and emancipatory socialism,” originally published on social media and later included in the volume Cuba 11J: Perspectivas contrahegemónicas de las protestas sociales, signatories asked for workers’ rights to have autonomous trade unions not subordinated to state interests, to demonstrate and strike, and for students’ rights to university autonomy. They have also demanded a law that accounts for the freedom of assembly and called for the United States to lift the embargo on Cuba. The campaign received international support from several anarchist and socialist organizations.

Alexander Hall, an Afro-Cuban history student at the University of Havana and a leftist, has candidly called for “decolonizing socialism in Cuba” to end the current “state capitalist” model. Like Romero Negrín, he was apprehended during the 11J protests.

The socialist profile of this group has not protected them from government persecution. Under the new state-capitalist paradigm ruled by the descendants of party cadres, union rights, environmental policies, and the promotion of collective initiatives do not seem to matter. This new rich class, a radical mutation of Che Guevara’s “new man,” is more interested in becoming economically entrenched—with the help of government favoritism—than in preserving the socialist ethos. Ironically, the critical left has become a thorn in the Cuban government’s side. After all, socialism in Cuba seems to be revokable.

María Isabel Alfonso is a Professor of Spanish and Chair of the Modern Languages Department at St. Joseph’s University. She is the creator of the 2019 documentary Rethinking Cuban Civil Society: Something Deeper than the Truth.

Editor's note: This article was updated July 11, 2024 to remove an outdated position regarding food price caps. The Cuban government announced price caps on certain items on July 8, 2024.

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