Tuesday, January 25

Protests in Cuba: Homeland and life | Opinion

Thousands of people attend an act of support for the Cuban revolution in Havana.
Thousands of people attend an act of support for the Cuban revolution in Havana.Ernesto Mastrascusa / EFE

The unprecedented protests that were unleashed in Cuba have put the Latin American left in a very uncomfortable trance in relation to a flag that, it is supposed, should be indeclinable for any progressive project: that of human rights. Cubans demand a minimum material well-being. But the true engine of the mobilizations is the lack of pluralism and freedom to express themselves. The violent response of the regime confirmed that there is a truth behind these demands. Many leftist parties and leaders throughout the region spoke out in defense of the dictatorship and repeated its justifications. From Lula da Silva, in Brazil, to the leadership of the Broad Front in Uruguay, and Kirchnerism in Argentina. However, cracks began to appear in that claim. Dissidents that reveal that Castroism is being challenged by a different, new movement, both inside and outside the island.

Left parties in Latin America often find themselves faced with a contradiction when discussing the protection of certain public freedoms. Since the 18th century, Western civilization has defended the idea that people enjoy certain prerogatives just because they are human. By definition, human rights are universal. This is the reason why their protection is often uncomfortable: they must be respected even in the case of disgusting individuals. Subjects who appear to be unworthy of any consideration. Put in other terms: human rights are absolute. They do not admit to being relativized.

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From this conception, which places the human being at the center of society, an institutional consequence derives: global jurisdiction. It means that the barrier of national sovereignty cannot be interposed to the custody of human rights, or to penalization for their violation. This principle is the one that comes into tension with a culture like that of the Latin American left, for which the State is the star king of public life. Not only the individual must be subordinate to the State. The internal affairs of the nation are also sacred. National sovereignty is sacred. The slogan “Homeland or Death”, with which Fidel Castro began to close his speeches in the sixties, synthesizes these beliefs.

These ideas introduce a tension, which in Latin America can become infuriating, between humanism and anti-imperialism. It is the contradiction that the demonstrations in Cuba are putting into play. There the anti-imperialist tradition is much older and more entrenched than the Marxist tradition. The historical conflict with the United States is a stamp that the Cuban revolution printed on the left of the entire region.

This explains why the Miguel Díaz-Canel regime is accountable for the material hardships of the people, resorting to the US trade blockade as the only explanation. And that justifies the repression of the protests, plagued by arbitrariness, in an infiltration of the empire. It is an argument echoed by other dictatorships, from that of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela to that of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua.

The embargo established by the United States has been systematically condemned by the international community, especially through United Nations resolutions. Even so, it is not enough to fully understand the economic difficulties that are verified on the island. In principle, because this blockade is not universal. Cuba trades with many countries, including the United States. But the most relevant thing is that it has been shown in countless cases that a system that almost completely suffocates private initiative ends up collapsing. In Cuba it is almost impossible to generate wealth.

These restrictions explain the misery. But in recent times another phenomenon has appeared that is at the root of the protests these days: inequality. It is the consequence of a monetary mess that the government cannot correct without causing great dissatisfaction. Tourism revenue disappeared with the pandemic. The two-currency system that ruled for years was abolished in January. The devaluation forced a painful adjustment, unleashing inflation. The Government had to split the commercial activity: some goods are only available in stores that charge the merchandise in dollars. Many of those stores were the targets of the rage of the protesters. Two classes of Cubans are beginning to be seen clearly, with regard to consumption. The story of the revolution is fractured by this difficulty: there is no sovereignty without currency.

In this problematic context, a couple more mortifications were installed. The first is the restriction on the use of the internet, which Raúl Castro identified during a Communist Party congress as a subversive instrument. The second, the accelerated progress of the covid in recent weeks. Confirmed cases went from 1,489 on June 22 to 6,923 on July 11, which was when street gatherings multiplied. Between June 22 and July 15, daily deaths went from 10 to 69.

Foreign aid is very limited, even from friends of the government. China maintains a distant relationship with Castroism, which is perhaps explained by Russian activism. Cuba continues to be a Moscow base of operations and Vladimir Putin’s Foreign Ministry was emphatic, in the current crisis, in warning about the consequences that an external attack would have. A way of subscribing to the anti-American narrative of Castroism. And a show of gratitude for the absolute alignment that the Havana regime maintained with the Kremlin during the Crimean crisis.

Joe Biden took advantage of these affinities to include his rivals in a single package: he mentioned Cuba, China, Russia and Venezuela as examples of “captive nations.” It also evaluated the possibility of facilitating Internet access to Cubans. And he offered to send vaccines against Covid, at the same time that, from his left flank, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asks to end the cruelty of the embargo.

The Cuban regime is weakened. Someone who governed in Chile in alliance with communism, like Michelle Bachelet, today asks for explanations for what is happening on the island from her position as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: Its main fragility does not come from the economy. For the first time, Castroism is challenged by young people who demand democracy wrapped in the flag of the left. People who do not accept the alternative of exile. Voices that arise from the field of art, especially music. This novelty introduces another: the protest movement has begun to receive the support of many figures in the political and cultural environment identified with progressivism. There is a change of agenda because there is a change of time. The slogan is also transformed: from “Homeland or Death” to “Homeland and Life.”

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