This article was originally published in Spanish and English by OnCuba News.
Protests began in Cuba July 11, 2021 (J-11). They spread gradually from San Antonio de los Baños (Artemisa province) and Palma Soliano (Santiago de Cuba province) to other parts of the country. Digital traces show that social media played a central but not singular role in this process. Social media had a kind of contagion effect, spreading protests from one area to another, or served to directly call people to the streets. This also meant that what happened rapidly reached beyond Cuba through “direct” connections on social media and by content going viral on people’s personal profiles and in foreign media.
An unmanageable amount of information circulated and continues to circulate on social media, quickly becoming difficult to process. Fake news with traces of truth and lies also started to emerge. Confronting fake news was a price to pay for accessing information via citizen journalism. Meanwhile, official media exclusively reported the government’s line.
At the time of writing, the government speaks of “turmoil” (disturbios) while others speak of “social outcry” (estallido social), like the popular uprisings in Latin America throughout 2019, 2020, and 2021. An uprising or not, what happened in Cuba touched the region. No one has remained silent. And the country’s politics continues to be a red line in imaginations, instincts, and political agendas and arguments in Cuba, Latin America, and the world.
Numerous artists, influencers, intellectuals, and politicians with different political leanings have weighed in. From [Argentine] neoconservative Agustín Laje—who released a diatribe about what he called “the blockade myth” and has said that “a nation has awakened” against the “left” (zurdaje) in Cuba—to Residente of Calle 13, Noam Chomsky, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Frei Betto, Ignacio Ramonet, Claudia Corol, Gerardo Pissarello, Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak, and many others.
Internationally, Cuba sparks polarized passions that—it must be said—are caricatures. Some outright claim that the recent protests are nothing more than a U.S. plot amplified by sensationalized media coverage and that the only thing we know for sure is that this is an attack on the Cuban Revolution. Others celebrated the “end of the dictatorship,” seeing protesters as fulfilling their prophecies of the “end of the regime.” It is fair to say that there have also been attempts to critically analyze the situation.
Seen from Cuba—the Cuba both within and outside the island—the situation is more intense and complex. Our material, spiritual, political, and moral life depends on it. For the government, the protests were a mechanism of counterrevolutionary destabilization, led from the United States, that capitalized on “confused” people and manipulated discontent stemming from unmet needs. For some people, these days of protests were a mistake because they worsened the crisis in the country. Other diverse voices called for urgent—and improbable—humanitarian or military intervention to address medical and food shortages; these commentators, often weighing in from outside Cuba, held up the protests as the realization of their own aspirations. They don’t want dialogue with the government and, reaching ever-louder extremes, claim that it’s time to “kill the communists.” They make lists of “pro-government” figures, “disgusting communists,” and anyone who does not align with their political agendas.
For other people and groups, all intervention is unacceptable, and merely the suggestion of it is reprehensible. The anti-intervention camp has achieved a significant level of consensus, but it also contains differences within it. Part of this camp rejects the protests, viewing them as a threat that could spur the restoration of capitalism in the country. Another faction calls for listening to the people in the streets and starting a civic dialogue process. This group does not subscribe to the idea that the demonstrators are puppets of U.S. policy, but rather sees the protests as an expression of exhaustion on the part of at least some Cuban people due to: the impossibility of material survival; the accelerated shrinking of “equality zones,” particularly in terms of health services and supplies, that previously dulled Cuba’s successive crises beginning in the 1990s; absent or insufficient guarantees of rights to civil and political association, participation, and expression; absent or ineffective institutional responses to growing precarity; and the conviction that, if unchecked, this unsustainable situation will continue.
This sketch of different positions is not fixed nor final. There are other perspectives. And the sectors mentioned here sometimes fluctuate, overlap, and change quickly. Nevertheless, this gives a general sense of the landscape.
Agendas, Actors, and Violence
Shortly after the protests started in San Antonio de los Baños on July 11, President Miguel Díaz-Canel went there. This move continued the repertoire that Fidel Castro epitomized in 1994 during the “Maleconazo,” a popular protest in Havana responding to the crisis following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Díaz-Canel soon spoke on national television. He described the protests, not yet expanded to many areas, as part of a “soft coup” attempt or “unconventional war” organized from the United States. He also said that the protesters were “confused revolutionaries” and “people with unsatisfied needs” who had been manipulated by “counterrevolutionaries.”
In the same address, he said, “the streets belong to the revolutionaries,” “the order to fight has been given,” and “we are prepared for everything.” He received strong criticism for these statements. The speech was read as an authorization of violence between civilians. Violence did indeed occur: there were civilians who went out into the streets to confront protesters because they saw them as a threat to their political ideas or to Cuba’s sovereignty; there were civilians who were taken or called by labor and political organizations to do so; and there were law enforcement officers dressed in civilian clothes that acted as para-police. There was violence, and the matter of violence—including its magnitude, actors, means, and settings—is important.
The protests started peacefully, and there is evidence that they continued this way in many places. There was also damage to property, especially police vehicles and state-owned businesses, particularly the new freely convertible currency (MLC) stores. These stores only accept payment in cards charged with the newly approved single official currency, either in a local Cuban bank or online from abroad. [Editor’s note: In January, Cuba underwent a long-awaited monetary reform that unified its former two-currency system, leading to inflation]. There was violence between civilians and between demonstrators and uniformed police forces. This all happened. But the official narrative zoomed in on protester violence against pro-government civilians, the police, and state property. This narrative ignored the peaceful demonstrations and the many cases of violence against protesters. There has been much discussion about this in recent days. But there have been few attempts to connect the violence that took place during these days to the other forms of violence before and after.
Geopolitically, the violence that the United States exerts against the Cuban state and society—through the economic, commercial, and financial blockade and destabilization policies, such as federal funds for “regime change”—are part of these protests. These policies leverage a systematic, one-way force that squeezes the Cuban collective subject and its sovereignty. This violence is important not only because of how it strangles Cuba, but also because of how it links up with other kinds of violence.
Seen from within, from below, and looking into the eyes of those who demonstrated, the violence during the days of protests cannot be understood separate from the violence that deprives them every day of the material conditions of survival. It doesn’t matter, as the president said, that the electricity cuts or the lack of medicines and food are not a malicious strategy on the part of the Cuban government against the people. People can understand the reasons for the crisis and the role the blockade plays. But what does matter, at the scale of survival, is that life is not sustainable.
Many other things also matter: The Cuban government’s proven systematic inefficiency in designing and implementing economic policies. The unprecedented slowdown of the agricultural reform, while millions of pesos, without a clear economic logic, are funnelled into expanding hotel infrastructure. The incomprehensible and zigzagging measures that affect people’s lives here and now and that dramatically increase uncertainty. The demonstrable reduction in social assistance in the last decade. The 30-year decline in real wages, which has become more acute since the start of the monetary reordering (Tarea Ordenamiento). The absence of labor rights in the private sector because it is not regulated, and the absurd reluctance to operate and recognize small and medium-sized businesses with efficient state regulation. The unprecedented halt in the expansion of non-agricultural cooperatives that truly function as cooperatives and that embody democratic forms of production. The lack of interest in workers’ democracy and unions. The impossibility of creating legally recognized associations and the slow passage of a new association law that will allow the dense fabric of Cuban civil society to become formalized. The fact that the most important governing documents for economic and social reform and party congresses do not center a discussion of poverty and inequality. The opacity on issues that people are concerned about and on which many solutions could be provided. Secrecy and lack of transparency, and the criminalization of various kinds of activism as if they were inherently and undoubtedly a threat to institutions and the government itself.
At least a good part of the items identified in this long, incomplete list of issues could be considered together with and in spite of the U.S. blockade—which, besides, will remain in place for an indefinite amount of time and to our detriment.
The blockade was at least partly at stake in the protests, though some want to capitalize on it and others want to ignore it. People demanded “medicines,” “food,” “vaccines,” and “freedom.” They said, “the people united will never be defeated” and “we are not afraid.”
During the protests, criminal offenses were committed, including looting and attacks on MLC stores. Noting that it was MLC businesses as opposed to, for instance private businesses, does not justify the damage. But it allows us to understand part of the logic behind these actions. State media have reported that mostly high-value electronic appliances were stolen, suggesting that these were profit-seeking acts, not acts out of necessity. Even if we assume this to be true, this version of events fails to account for how the popular economy works and how one could sell this equipment later to generate income or meet consumption needs that are forbidden for the popular classes. In any case, the videos aired on national television show people taking mattresses, drinks, soap, and toilet paper in addition to appliances. In one video of these lootings, someone says: “All that belongs to the people.” Theft, looting, and encouraging these acts are crimes. Yet so is ignoring the economic violence, stemming from both external and internal factors, that some sectors of the population experience.
As the government has stated, there are “established channels” for expressing “dissatisfaction” or needs. But those “established channels” don’t work or no longer have legitimacy—and that doesn’t need to be a problem. Institutions respond to people, not the other way around. If, after these protests, the government insists that the only way to channel this unrest is through the “established channels,” in practice that means that the avenues for handling these conflicts and needs are closed off or unacceptably narrow. In any society, the “established channels” are never the only way to intervene in public life. The way civil society has organized for many years during tornadoes, cyclones, and other emergencies has outgrown the “official channels.” For that and other reasons, people should and do explore routes, spaces, and repertoires that they feel represent them and that help to put general and specific political agendas on the table.
Such exploration was also part of the recent protests. A very clear example is that of trans women who asserted their presence in the protests. Their concerns: food shortages, police harassment of trans people, social discrimination of trans people, specific labor policies for the trans community, and the lack of condoms to ensure their sexual and reproductive rights. In the protests they sought space to dignify their existence and to denounce violence in general and specifically against them as trans women. Different groups will try to capitalize on, co-opt, or otherwise wield trans women’s participation in the protests, but “politics doesn’t fit in the sugar bowl,” as Cuban songwriter Carlos Varela sings.
Violence also came after the protests. There was a technological and telephone blackout. People, especially women, visited police stations to get information about their detained loved ones, file appeals, and bring supplies. The president recognized that people could have been unjustly detained, but many innocent people now have criminal records under their belts. At the time of writing, July 15, there are detainees whose whereabouts remain unknown.
There is also violence on social media, including a dispute over arbitrary classifications and reclassifications—an accelerated mission to annihilate difference and frame the narrative. Every character, comma, and screenshot seeking to prove guilt contains cruelty. There are doomsday pronouncements and expressions of the brutality with which “the communists”—or those who want to “dialogue with the dictatorship” or those in “la gusanera”—will be finished off.
“The Bad Victim”
Up to a point, being recognized as a victim is a privilege. It means that you are seen and you are subject to protection. When an attacked person is no longer thought of primarily as a victim, they are erased from the scene.
The government’s handling of the conflict has chosen some victims and erased others. The president and other official political voices have recognized that the protests expressed some legitimate needs and that they contained different groups, who have been classified and reclassified in recent days. At the same time, the narrative constructing the protests as entirely violent paints the actors involved in them mainly as people who carried out “vandalism,” as “criminals,” and as people who interrupted a peaceful family Sunday.
Words have context and referents. President Sebastián Piñera in Chile and former President Lenín Moreno in Ecuador, among many others, also called people who demonstrated during those countries’ respective social uprisings vandals, vagabonds, and criminals. There, the governments responded to protests in a deeply bloody way. Discourses that classify protesters in this way, such as in Cuba now, do little to effectively handle the situation politically. Rather, it shows disinterest, if not directly sets up barriers. This also reproduces the myth that legitimate claims are those of “good citizens,” an idea that is both widespread and classist.
If those who demonstrated were vandals, then so are a good part of those who make up the impoverished population. Some of the images broadcast on national television to support the vandalism narrative show ordinary young people, dressed in the clothes surely sent by family members who send remittances, through which the state survives with revenues from the MLC stores. Criminal acts must be avoided, prosecuted, and condemned. But that is different from the arbitrary classification of good vs. bad citizens that results in erasing some kinds of violence while visibilizing others. No victim can be written off, as happened with Diubis Laurencio Tejeda.
Laurencio Tejeda was the only person killed in the demonstrations that has been officially acknowledged. The statement noted that “36-year-old citizen Diubis Laurencio Tejeda died…with a criminal record of contempt, theft, and disorderly conduct, for which he served a prison term.” Laurencio Tejeda’s criminal record was completely irrelevant in the events leading to his death, just as the way a woman was dressed or whether or not she had ever been convicted matters at the time of a femicide. Communicating Laurencio Tejeda’s death in this way strips him of victimhood, as if he is not deserving of mourning.
Where Is J-11 Going from Here?
We can see a clear transformation in the institutional political discourse in recent days. Since the president’s J-11 “combat order,” the language has progressively transitioned to a vocabulary of conciliation and calls for solidarity, unity, and peace. That matters.
From now on, seeking political solutions is essential. The government announced new measures on July 14. One lifts customs taxes and limits on the entry of medicines, food, and toiletries for travelers. This will cushion some domestic needs of those who have family or close friends abroad who can travel to Cuba. The measure is important not only in content, but because it responds to a demand from Cubans inside and outside the island. The government also announced changes in the salary system in the state sector and access to food ration distribution for people who live in areas other than where they are legally registered.
These measures should be understood as part of the current situation, but they do not respond to it in a broad sense. An extensive discussion and political transformation that allows the protests to be processed is essential. Different strategies are most essential at this time, even more so considering that the change in U.S. policy toward the island will now slow down even further. There are urgent tasks: building a more inclusive framework, recognizing not only the legitimacy of demands but also different ways to express them, imagining a diversity of solutions, and continuing to translate the people’s exhaustion into civic power to propose collective solutions and resist all forms of cooptation of what began on J-11.
Although the protests sparked shock, political upheaval, and sadness, the protests were not the cause. A society does not break down with a social uprising. It goes the other way around. A social uprising occurs when society is already broken. It had already exploded, silently. No matter how carefully it is charted out, there will be no return to total “normality.” The protests did not end when people left the streets. Different sectors tested their strength in public space, and that experience will continue to be deeply processed at home, in neighborhoods, online, on the sidewalks, and in the body.
Crises solidify cracks, and the cracks show the losses. But the losses can also have transformative effects and produce reflections about the meaning of political community and about the awareness that my fate is inseparable from yours and that Cuba is only partly mine and ours because it also belongs to others. If the government resorts to old dogmas, it will effectively blow up bridges and make the political rage of at least a sector of the population unintelligible. More than ever, the question of what is good and just for Cuba is an open question. And now more than ever, the answers cannot be captured in a single still photo or tone of voice.
Ailynn Torres Santana is an academic and feminist activist. She is a postdoctoral researcher with the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s International Research Group on Authoritarianism and Counter-Strategies (IRGAC), visiting scholar at the Freie Universität (Berlin), and associate researcher at FLACSO Ecuador. She has a PhD in social sciences from FLACSO Ecuador.