It’s Time to End Cuban Exceptionalism

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By Armando Chaguaceda and Coco Fusco*

It has been two years since the largest protest in modern Cuban history made headlines. On July 11, 2021, tens of thousands of Cubans marched in over forty cities and towns and railed against the excesses and failures of their government. Though food and energy shortages triggered protester’s decision to take to the streets, their chants skewered the Cuban state: “Down with the dictatorship!”, “freedom” and the hit song, “Patria y vida,” could be heard throughout the island.

The response from Cuban authorities was swift and harsh: President Miguel Diaz-Canel went on television and enjoined loyalists to fight the counterrevolutionaries. Cuba’s special forces swept through city streets in jeeps, and militias armed with sticks and bats attacked crowds1. Around 1839 protesters were detained, 777 people remain imprisoned today, and 897 have been prosecuted. Sentences have ranged from five to thirty years on charges of disorderly conduct, disrespect to authority, theft, robbery, and sedition2. Among the incarcerated are the artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara, the Grammy award-winning rapper Maykel Osorbo, and dissidents Jose Daniel Ferrer and Felix Navarro.

After being caught off guard by a spontaneous public outburst, Cuban authorities have implemented more repressive measures. Internet service mysteriously disappears when protests spring up3. The new Cuban penal code increased penalties for public expressions of discontent and criminalized the use of social media for circulating “fake information”4. Dozens of independent journalists, activists, and dissident artists have been forced out of the country to avoid imprisonment. This, combined with the island’s worst economic crisis since the 1990s, has led to the most significant exodus in modern Cuban history. Over 300,000 Cubans entered the US in the past year5, compelling the United States to reopen discussions with Cuba last winter. The plight of the political prisoners is a crucial talking point.

Pressure from the United States, the European Union, the Vatican, Cuban bishops, the United Nations, and human rights groups has not convinced the Cuban government to release the political prisoners. When 300 Nicaraguan political prisoners were freed in February 2023, some speculated that Cubans political prisoners would soon follow. But six months of negotiations have yielded no sign on Cuba’s part of any intent to grant amnesty, pardons, or offer exile to them. The island’s leadership has stuck to its playbook of mobilizing international supporters to step up their denunciations of the US sanctions to deflect attention from Cuba’s persistent human rights violations. At the same time, yet another Congressional bill has been reintroduced to lift the embargo, even though getting the votes needed to pass is virtually impossible.

It is no secret that the Cuban government wants the Biden Administration to remove it from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. Obama did just that in 2015 near the end of his second term, thus avoiding blowback while in office, but Trump restored it in 2021. The Biden Administration is unlikely to make such a concession before the 2024 election – in fact, Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, recently announced that Cuba remains on the list. By refusing to release

the prisoners, the Cuban government risks facing even harsher sanctions and a talks shutdown if there is a Republican victory in the next presidential election. But the old-timers in the Cuban Council of Ministers are more accustomed to being on the defensive against their northern neighbor than they are comfortable agreeing to a truce.

The Cuban government and its supporters blame US sanctions for the country’s economic woes, overlooking the decrease in oil supplies from Venezuela, the diversion of resources toward tourism, and the Cuban government’s disastrous attempts at economic restructuring in the past two years, which has pushed the exchange rate from 1:24 in 2020 to 1:180 in 2023. That singular focus on US policies gives credence to the position that eliminating sanctions would enable Cuba to thrive. Whether one agrees or not, the embargo does not explain or justify Cuba’s repressive state apparatus and dismal human rights record.

It is questionable that Cuba would liberalize its system or become a trustworthy trading partner if sanctions were eliminated. While Cuban authorities stall talks with the United States, they have proceeded at full speed to sign new deals with Russia to increase economic ties that entail fortifying political alliances with a country that much of the world considers an enemy state6. They have also been traveling the world seeking debt relief, which does not indicate fiscal stability7. The Cuban government has increased regulation and taxation of private enterprise during President Diaz-Canel’s tenure, not reducing it, making many personal business endeavors financially untenable8.

The mass exodus of recent years primarily comprises young adults needed to spearhead business initiatives and provide needed skilled services. The sharp drop in tourism during the COVID-19 pandemic forced most Cubans that had offered food, housing, and tour guide services to visitors to close their businesses. In contrast, competition from neighboring Caribbean countries providing higher quality services at better prices curtails rebound chances. With inflation at an all-time high, only some island residents can afford to consume more than most necessities. Small businesses engaged in services and repairs cannot rebuild a national economy on the verge of collapse. A massive influx of aid would be needed to make Cuba functional.

Cuba’s seasoned negotiators know that the embargo will not likely be lifted shortly. Still, if the island is taken off the state sponsors of Terrorism list, it will be eligible for humanitarian aid, foreign investment, and international loans. Usual standards would call for monitoring that tracks how assistance is delivered to affected populations. Still, the Cuban government does not allow NGOs to operate independently and refuses to accept foreign delegations to inspect its prisons or witness court proceedings. The Cuban government also considers non-governmental civic organizations illegitimate and characterizes independent media reporting on living conditions and state repression as “destabilizing” forces. Reports have emerged in recent years alleging that the Cuban government sells donated food and medicine at exorbitant prices9 which suggests that it would be challenging to ensure that humanitarian aid is appropriately dispensed.

Any future assistance should only be offered in exchange for assurances of crucial changes on Cuba’s part. Limits should be set on how much weaponry Cuba can import, given its proximity to the US and its alliance with Russia and China. The Cuban government should allow human rights organizations into the country and create legal frameworks for local civic organizations to function, for civil liberties to be upheld, for local businesses to grow, and for foreign investors to exercise control over the ventures they finance. Cuba’s government should accept that to partake in the benefits afforded by democratic countries, the island must accept their rules and stop treating itself like an exception. Without those guarantees, we can expect to have more political prisoners there in the future.

*About the authors:

Armando Chaguaceda, political scientist and historian, El Colegio de Veracruz, Mexico

Coco Fusco, artist and writer, and professor at Cooper Union, New York

[1] See the report by Vincent (2021, July 13) on the groups sympathetic to the government that contributed to silence the protest in Cuba (see here)

[2] The journalistic work of López and Kurmanaev (2022, January 14) offers details on these figures (see here)

[3] The Cibercuba report (2021, July 31) provides details of the internet cut (see this link)

[4] Amnesty International’s statement on the event, “Cuba: The new Penal Code presents a terrifying outlook for 2023 and beyond” (see here)

[5] On Cuba’s new migration patterns, see the Reuter report (see here)

[6] See the report by Acosta and Sherwood in Reuters (see here)

[7] Details about these actions by the Cuban authorities can be found in this journalistic work by Frank (2022, November 30)

[8] The work of Padrón and Feinberg (2018) available is recommended (see here)

[9] See report by Acosta (2021, May 1) presents information in this regard (see here)

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