For activists, scholars, and other observers who wish to stand against U.S. imperialism and in solidarity with those demanding dignified living conditions and freedom in all its forms, the Cuban case presents a complicated dilemma. This article undertakes what Aziz Rana calls a “tailored analysis” of the Cuban case, paying attention to local histories and international entanglements in order to better engage in solidarity across borders.
July 11 marked one year since the massive protests that swept Cuba in 2021. In a rare display of popular discontent, thousands of Cubans across the island flooded the streets voicing their exhaustion from decades of scarcity of basic goods such as food and medicine, which was aggravated by the COVID pandemic. But the July 11 protests unfurled in the wake of an earlier—if smaller—manifestation of discontent that focused on free speech, and which was led by a group of young artists who called themselves the San Isidro Movement. The J11 protests were therefore a spectacular display of both the accumulated fatigue after decades of severe scarcity and a loud outcry against all forms of repression—material and symbolic; domestic and international. While many analysts and observers have tended to attribute the causes of these dissatisfactions to either the 60-year-old U.S. blockade or the Cuban government’s failures—whether economic, social, or political—the situation is much more complex and requires a response more nuanced than picking a quick enemy. For activists, scholars, and other observers who wish to stand against U.S. imperialism and in solidarity with those demanding dignified living conditions and freedom in all its forms, the Cuban case presents a complicated dilemma. It requires us to undertake what Aziz Rana calls a “tailored analysis,” which wrestles with contextual differences and pays attention to local histories and international entanglements simultaneously. In this case, such a tailored analysis requires an attention to the long history of U.S. imperialism in Cuba as well as to the Cuban government’s track record of safeguarding its citizens’ social, political, and human rights.
On the one hand, the punitive history of U.S. foreign policy towards Cuba cannot be disentangled from the Revolutionary government’s economic and social policies. Decision-makers on both sides of that still-standing iron curtain have historically acted in response to one another—albeit from deeply unequal positions of power. It is important to keep in mind that the Cuban Blockade is an egregious act of imperialism, which the U.S. has stubbornly maintained even against the expressed opposition of most of the world, and which has been calculated to cost Cuba an estimated 130 billion dollars—an amount that simply cannot account for the accrued human cost, some of which protesters on the streets were undoubtedly bearing. Furthermore, the numerous attempts to undermine Cuban sovereignty since the 1959 triumph of the Revolution can hardly be overstated. Together, U.S. attacks on political sovereignty and economic well-being in Cuba have created not only an immoral situation of dire scarcity on the island, but also an environment of well-founded fear and distrust. In environments like these, even righteous and autonomous political expressions—such as the protests—can be quickly suspected to be extensions of the long arm of imperialism.
On the other hand, it is important not to minimize the agency of the Cuban government in making decisions that have negatively impacted their population. In the face of the U.S.’s relentless campaign against its national sovereignty, the Cuban government has opted to exile, co-opt, or silence dissent. There is a long, well-documented history of this, and J11 was not an exception. In addition to hundreds of arrests and a wide deployment of police forces on the streets, the government utilized widespread intimidation tactics. According to both mainstream media and independent sources, the crackdown included door-to-door detentions, retaliations, and a disproportionate use of force, which resulted in the police killing of a black man, Diubis Laurencio Tejada. Furthermore, the scarcity that Cubans face today is also the result of the economic policies that the Revolutionary government has adopted over the years. In particular, the Cuban government’s decision to invest in tourism rather than in the development of national industries for local consumption has not delivered the necessary respite that Cuba has needed since the fall of the Soviet Union. And while many analysts had been noting the problematic nature of this decision for some time—citing the evident deepening of social, economic and racial inequality on the island—the pandemic was perhaps the last blow against this misguided bulwark of hope for a more prosperous future.
Despite this complexity, analyses of the protests and their aftermath continue to fall on one of two sides of a long-standing Manichaean divide. On one side are those who blame U.S. foreign policy towards Cuba for the plight of the Cuban people and by extension express sympathy with the Cuban government’s crackdown, casting it as a legitimate effort by a Third World country to combat the relentless attacks of U.S. imperialism on its sovereignty. On the other side are the vocal critics of the Cuban regime invested in characterizing it as an authoritarian and decrepit Communist dictatorship, ignoring the long and brutal history of U.S. foreign policy intent on bringing about regime change at any (human) cost. The challenge for the international left is to avoid playing into this ossified Cold War field; to maintain a coherent political stance that is capable of denouncing U.S. imperialism while taking seriously the voices of locals everywhere who are holding their government accountable for their righteous grievances. Because, as decolonial and anti-colonial scholars and activists remind us, building global left-wing solidarity around foreign policy requires a recognition that the left is different in different places, and that any left-wing stance on foreign policy is necessarily the result of any local population’s relationship to colonialism, imperialism, and white supremacy, both at home and abroad.
When we fail to adopt a coherent, yet nimble and contextualized political stance, the impact falls disproportionately on the most vulnerable. This was unfortunately the case with Black Lives Matter’s attempt at forging anti-racist solidarities following the protests. I recall the BLM critiques not to reproduce the simplistic accusations that were launched against them, but because I believe we can gather important lessons from their attempt to forge international solidarity. Though motivated by a Third Worldist anti-colonial spirit, BLM’s statement ended up being read by many—on both the left and right—as a justification of the Cuban government’s deployment of its security apparatus against the very black and brown people with whom BLM intended to stand in solidarity. It is important to be clear: BLM’s statement did not expressly exonerate the Cuban government for its use of excessive force or other human rights violations. But in a highly polarized field like the one I describe above, BLM’s praise of Cuba’s “historical solidarity with oppressed people of African Descent” and denouncement of the U.S. government’s “inhumane treatment of Cubans” went unheard, and was instead interpreted by many as a wholesale endorsement of a government whose recent treatment of dissenting civilians was less than exemplary. For some black Cuban activists and scholars, the result was not simply disappointing, but ran counter to African Diasporic solidarity. In its attempt to uphold Cuba’s right to sovereignty, BLM casted doubt on the validity and veracity of the grievances expressed by Cubans on the streets, the majority of whom were black and brown. Odette Casamayor, for example, lamented BLM’s stance by noting that “state violence must be denounced everywhere, even in Cuba, the last rampart of leftist hopes.” How is it that in articulating a statement of solidarity with oppressed people across the globe, a movement committed to dismantling the security state apparatus at home ended up (inadvertently?) turning a blind eye to another country’s own problematic security forces?
The BLM example is useful because it raises the urgent question of how to simultaneously articulate an opposition to imperialism and white supremacy—and how to do it across national borders consistently. I deliberately replace Rana’s preoccupation with authoritarianism with an attention to white supremacy for two reasons. First, because a nuanced analysis of the Cuban protests and BLM’s solidarity statement necessarily requires a racial lens. And secondly, because while useful, Rana’s invocation of leftists’ dilemma as the false choice between “anti-imperialism” and “anti-authoritarianism” makes the two appear as commensurate—if seemingly antagonistic—categories. However, if we recall that imperialism and authoritarianism are heir to two very different political legacies—Marxist and liberal political theory respectively—it becomes apparent that this framing mixes apples and oranges. In other words, the two have never been mutually exclusive. In the end, we must hone fine analytical tools that can hold all this complexity at once, making explicit the links between domestic and foreign policy while being careful not to conflate our stances regarding the security state at home and abroad. In the case of BLM’s attempt to build international solidarity, this approach requires that we hold both governments accountable for their inhumane securitization tactics and their complicities with white supremacy.
In the aftermath of the protests, the Cuban government has maintained its repressive stance. Just a few months later, days before a second wave of protests planned for November 15, the government preemptively shut down the island’s only internet service claiming that the state-run company, ETECSA, was due for maintenance precisely on that day. This shut-down was followed by more overt attempts at limiting dissent and punishing dissenters. For example, in August of 2021 the government implemented a new decree (Decreto-Ley 35/21) that monitors cyberspace and significantly limits online political debate and whose main objective is stated as “contributing to the use of telecommunication services as an instrument in defense of the Revolution.” In addition, the Supreme Court passed a new Penal Code which increased the number of crimes punished by death and life in prison, codified the criminalization of social media use, further constrained citizens’ ability to challenge authorities through peaceful assembly or protest, and penalized “foreign financing” of activities regarded as threats to state security with up to ten years in prison.
Meanwhile, and despite Biden administration’s recent announcement of a policy shift on Cuba, the United States’ grip on the Cuban economy has not loosened. Biden has been slow to undo the Trump era’s increased sanctions, even in the midst of a global pandemic and a renewed international outcry against the Blockade. As a result of this foot-dragging, today it is still nearly impossible to send Cubans remittances from the U.S and travel to the island continues to be more restrictive than during the Obama era. For the majority of Cubans, these combined policies from within and outside the island continue to make their living conditions precarious and the respect of their human rights ever more tenuous. The dilemma certainly hasn’t dissipated. Hopefully, we have learned from radical movements, like BLM, that the stakes are high when navigating the waters of international solidarity; and from analysts, like Rana and his interlocutors in Dissent Magazine, that when faced with these polarized scenarios, we must take time to carefully weigh the power and history of the various forces at play.