A year ago, on July 11, a small protest by Cuban dissidents in a poor Havana suburb sparked nationwide anti-government demonstrations. Thousands demonstrated in dozens of cities and towns to protest food and medicine shortages, power outages and a surge in Covid-19 infections. Most demonstrations were peaceful, but in some parts of the city, protesters fought with police, overturned cars and looted shops.
The unprecedented protests were a symptom of deep economic and political discontent. They shocked Cuba’s leaders, emboldened the opposition, and reignited Washington’s eternal dream of regime change. Twelve months later, Cubans are still struggling with a faltering economy that is fueling a surge in irregular migration.
As the protests erupted, President Miguel Díaz-Canel denounced them as counter-revolutionary and called out loyalists to defend the revolution. The police arrested more than 1,300 people. A few days later, however, Díaz-Canel softened his tone, acknowledging that the protesters had legitimate grievances. Subsequent state policies included both a crackdown on vocal opponents and programs to alleviate distress that drew people onto the streets. Protesters charged with violent crimes were sentenced to jail terms ranging from five to 30 years, and dissident leaders faced increased harassment or jail terms. Meanwhile, the government has launched a program to improve living conditions in 302 “vulnerable communities” – poor neighborhoods that were scenes 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 traditional dissidents to call a “citizens’ march for change” on November 15. The government denounced them as counter-revolutionary agents of Washington’s regime change strategy. The expected demonstration attracted enormous international attention and the unqualified support of the Biden administration. But on November 15, no one showed up to march or hit empty pots, as organizers had urged.
The failure of the march was partly due to government harassment and defamation of the organizers. But the calls for political reform put forward by young, middle-class professionals failed to address the most pressing problem facing the majority of Cubans: their declining standard of living. The failure of the November protests left the organized opposition demoralized and confused. Many of the young artists involved went into exile.
The Biden administration had attempted to lift some of Donald Trump’s sanctions on humanitarian grounds, but the scale of the protests revived hopes for regime change, so sanctions remained in place. “After July 11, we hit the pause button,” said Juan Gonzalez, Joe Biden’s senior national security director for the western hemisphere. Biden’s Cuba policy might have had to remain on hold indefinitely had not the White House been urged into action by a wave of Cuban migrants on the US southern border and the prospect of embarrassment at the Americas Summit.
From October 2021 to May 2022, more than 140,000 Cubans arrived at the border — more than three times the number for all of the previous year and more than during the 1980 Mariel Boat Lift or the 1994 Rafter Crisis. The humanitarian case for lifting sanctions was made bolstered by the argument that reducing economic pressure on Cuba could reduce the migratory push.
Meanwhile, several Latin American presidents, most notably Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador, threatened to boycott the June summit in Los Angeles over Biden’s decision to exclude Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. The White House tried to placate the Latin American left by easing some of the sanctions against Cuba, but López Obrador and half a dozen other heads of state stayed home anyway.
Biden’s measures were good in theory but weak in practice. Restrictions on wire transfers have been removed, but there is no provision allowing Western Union to resume wire transfer services. People-to-people group travel has resumed, but the ban on using state-owned hotels makes large group travel nearly impossible. Cuba’s family reunification program has resumed and may allow safe, legal immigration, but most Cubans still need to travel to a third country to apply for a visa. Without further action, Biden’s cautious moves forward will have limited impact.
Cuba faces another long, hot summer with shortages and power outages. Inflation has leveled off, but with the informal exchange rate of the Cuban peso to the US dollar four times the official exchange rate, real incomes have stagnated. Although the tourism industry has reopened, the number of foreign visitors fell by 77 percent in the first quarter of this year compared to 2019. Cuba also suffers collateral damage from the war in Ukraine, as global inflation drives up prices for food and fuel, Cuba’s main imports.
The current economic crisis is the main reason for the surge in migration, but Cubans are also exhausted from years of unrelenting hardship. Those leaving are disproportionately young adults who see a bleak future for themselves on the island. Eleven years after Raúl Castro announced his plans to build a “prosperous and sustainable” socialism, reforms are still incomplete, the economy is no longer thriving and living standards have not improved. Díaz-Canel’s slogan “We are continuity,” meant to convey stability in the post-Castro era, sounds hollow, especially to younger generations waiting for change.