Cuba. The island nation so close to the continental United States has long shared a parallel and interactive trajectory with the neighboring superpower. For its size, Cuba has played a sizeable role in the world as the one scrappy Latin American country right up on the doorstep of the United States that stood up and said no by overthrowing its U.S. backed leadership in favor of a Marxist-Leninist order. Fidel Castro outlived one U.S. President after another from Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama while maintaining power and his symbolic presence throughout. Not to be outdone by a small, revolutionary Communist upstart country, the U.S. has maintained and tightened economic sanctions and embargoes over the decades.
The Obama administration made significant steps in thawing relations between the two countries with the restoration of diplomatic ties and a presidential visit to Havana, the first since 1928. Travel and money transfer eased during this time. The Trump administration reversed much of the Obama-era warming with increased sanctions and travel restrictions. The U.S. ramped up pressure on Havana in conjunction with efforts to put pressure on Venezuela, as the two ostensibly socialist Latin American countries cooperate, most crucially, in the area of energy. For as poorly administered as the Cuban and Venezuelan states have been run, there is something to be said about the U.S. meddling politically and economically that should not be ignored.
Recently, Cuba has experienced the largest anti-regime protests in many decades. The government responded with force and suppression, reportedly arresting more than 100 and killing one. Internet blackouts were also reported, a typical occurrence during popular mass demonstrations across the world in the social media driven digital age. People were seen being forcibly put into the backs of vans while demonstrators overturned police cars and threw rocks amid the violent clashes in urban areas. The movement appears to have been triggered by the longstanding shortages of food goods and medical supplies that have been a mainstay of life in Cuba for decades coupled with the COVID-19 situation in the island nation.
In 2020, the Cuban economy contracted by 10.9% and by a further 2% in the first half of 2021. The protests and subsequent responses by the Cuban government have attracted attention from around the world. Much of this attention has emanated from the United States, particularly from Florida where a sizeable Cuban diaspora resides. Demonstrations in support of the Cuban people and against the ruling regime in Cuba took place in the state, most notably in Miami where highways were blocked by those taking part in the marches. Although some liberal-leaning commentators have correctly pointed out the double-standard in Republican Governor Ron DeSantis’ lenient handling of these demonstrations compared to last year’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations, one freedom to assemble should not necessarily exclude another.
In general, American liberals and conservatives explain the ongoing problems with American-Cuban relations by pointing fingers at either one government or the other. Liberals point to the U.S. government’s decades-long blockade on the island as the persistent problem, while on the other hand, conservatives point to the Cuban government’s heavy-handed communist regime as the root of all ills in Cuba. In the former, there is often the case made for the ‘successes’ of Cuban society. These include a high literacy rate and a trained and effective medical system. While not necessarily untrue, the nature of Cuban society surrounding these achievements deserves greater scrutiny. Cuba’s highly censored and propagandized society makes the literacy rate somewhat of a moot point within the country. The medical system itself, while it trains world-renowned professionals, does not provide the high-quality, equitable care that it could in other circumstances. Again, it is the very real difficulties with procuring life’s necessities, particularly with respect to health, that these protests are largely about. The left of the U.S. would benefit from being truthful about the disastrous shortcomings of the managed society under the socialist Cuban government.
In the case of American conservatives, there is a fixation on criticizing the Cuban government. This may in large part be attributed to the Republican-leaning Cuban-American population focused primarily in the state of Florida. However, having beef with an anti-American, communist regime that has favored relations with the Chinese and the Soviets is not that big a stretch for the American right. Some conservatives are going as far as recommending military action to respond. They, however, should honestly acknowledge the intentional damage of U.S. economic sanctions on the people of Cuba, effects that get back to the causes of the current protests. Rather than letting the Cuban state demonstrate its deficiencies on its own, the U.S. gives the regime an excuse to blame problems on U.S. policy towards them.
In the end, the Cuban people are victims of both governments. The elimination of sanctions on the island would likely alleviate the suffering of the Cuban people, as well as expose the practices of the Cuban government. An attempt to overthrow the Cuban government would put an outside meddling empire back on the menu of excuses for authoritarian rule. For now, the Biden administration is in a waiting position on the issue with no easing of sanctions. Instead of allowing for some steam to escape, the U.S. is trying to keep the lid on as the pressure builds. We have seen the way it goes with the U.S. getting involved. In the event of change and reform, it will have to be the Cuban people themselves to determine the structure of their society.