Social protests began in Cuba on July 11 (J-11), 2021. They gradually spread from San Antonio de los Baños (Artemisa province) and Palma Soriano (Santiago de Cuba province) to other parts of the country. Digital traces show that social networks played a main but not exclusive role in this process; they had a kind of contagion effect from one territory to another or were directly convened. Thus what happened was quickly known outside of Cuba through “direct” networks and the viralization of content in personal profiles and unofficial foreign press media.
An unmanageable amount of information circulated and circulates on the networks that quickly became a skein difficult to process. Fake news with bits of truth and lies also started coming out. The spectacular logic and confrontation with the fake news was the price to pay for accessing the information via citizen journalism. Meanwhile, the official media exclusively reported the line of government discourse.
To date, the government speaks of “riots” while others of “social outbreak,” like the popular uprisings in Latin America during 2019, 2020, 2021. Call it an outbreak or not, what happened in Cuba spreads over the region. No one has been silent. And the fact is that the country’s politics continues to be a watershed in the imaginations, drives, programs and political arguments in Cuba, Latin America and the world.
Innumerable artists, influencers, intellectuals and politicians of different signs have spoken out. From the neo-conservative Agustín Laje — who has uttered a diatribe about what he calls “the myth of the blockade” of the United States against Cuba and has said that in Cuba “a homeland has awakened” against the “left” — to Residente (Calle 13 ), Noam Chomsky, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Frei Betto, Ignacio Ramonet, Claudia Corol, Gerardo Pissarello, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and a very long list.
In the international arena, Cuba awakens polar passions that are, it must be said, caricatures. Some state outright that the social protests of the past days are exclusively a U.S. plot amplified by the media’s show, and that the only certainty of these days is that there is an attack against the Cuban Revolution. Others celebrate the “end of the dictatorship” and/or see how their prophecies of the “end of the regime” are coming true through those who demonstrated. There are also, it is fair to admit, attempts at creating problems and critical accompaniment.
From Cuba — the one inside and the one outside the island — the plot is more intense and complex. And it is that our material, spiritual, political and moral life depends on it. For the government, the protests were an instrument of destabilization of counterrevolutionaries, directed from the United States, who took advantage of and manipulated the discontent of people with unsatisfied needs or confused groups. For a part of the people, those days were a mistake because they exacerbate the crisis that the country is experiencing. Other voices, diverse within them, defend the urgency of an — improbable — humanitarian and/or military intervention to solve the crisis of shortage of medicines and food and have extoled the demonstrations, many times from outside Cuba, as a fulfillment of their own aspirations. They do not want dialogue with the government and, at their increasingly audible extremes, they warn that what has to be done is “killing the communists”; they make lists of “government officials,” “disgusting communists” or anyone who does not meet their political standards.
For other people, actors, groups, no type of intervention is admissible and its sole statement is reprehensible. The anti-intervention line achieves important levels of consensus but has differences within it. A part of them rejects the protests, considering them a risk that could lead to capitalist restoration in the country. Another requires listening to the people in the streets and opening a process of civic dialogue because they don’t believe that those who demonstrated are ventriloquists of U.S. politics. On the contrary, they understand the protests as an expression of the exhaustion of at least a part of Cuban society with: the impossibility of materially sustaining their lives; the accelerated narrowing of the “equal zones” (specifically that of services and supplies related to public health) that previously cushioned the successive crises that Cuba has been experiencing since the 1990s; the absence of guarantees, or insufficient guarantees, for civil and political rights of association, participation, speech; the absence or ineffectiveness of institutional responses in the face of the growing precariousness; the conviction that this unsustainable situation will be sustained.
This map of positions is neither a fixed nor a closed one. There is more. And the mentioned sectors sometimes flow and overlap and change rapidly. It does, however, give some idea of the panorama.
Agendas, actors, violence
On July 11, shortly after the protests began in San Antonio de los Baños, the President of the Republic, Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, arrived in that territory. Thus he gave continuity to the repertoire that Fidel Castro had personified in 1994, during the “rafter’s crisis”: a popular protest in Havana that reacted to the crisis of that time.
Soon after, Díaz-Canel spoke on national television. He explained the protests (at that time they had not yet spread to so many territories) as part of an attempt at a “soft coup” or “unconventional war” organized from the United States, although he said that “confused revolutionaries” and “people with dissatisfied needs” who had been manipulated by the “counterrevolutionaries” had also protested
In the same address he said: “the streets belong to the revolutionaries,” “the order to combat is given” and “we are ready for anything.” For this he received strong criticism. The address was read as an authorization for violence between civilians. Violence that in fact occurred and there was all kinds of it: civilians who went out on their own to face the demonstrations because they saw in them danger to their political ideas or Cuba’s sovereignty; civilians who were brought and summoned (by labor and political institutions) to do so; law enforcement officers dressed as civilians who acted as para-police. There was violence and the question about that violence matters; its magnitude, its actors, its means, its settings.
The protests had started peacefully and there are records that they did so in many territories. There was also damage to property, especially to police cars and state businesses, mostly those that operate in freely convertible currency. There was violence between civilians, and between protesters and uniformed police forces. All that happened. But the official narrative has zoomed in on the violence of protesters against civilian defenders of the government, police and state property. Thus it has ignored the peaceful demonstrations and the violence exercised against those who demonstrated, of which there are numerous records. Much has been said about that in recent days. Less has been tried to connect the violence of those days with the others that existed before and that exist later.
Geopolitically, the violence that is exercised against Cuba (society and the State) by the governments of the United States via the blockade (economic, commercial and financial) and destabilization policies (federal funds for “a regime change”) is part of these protests. There is in this policy, stronger in recent times, a systematic and unidirectional use of force that expropriates the collective subject Cuba, of its sovereignty. That violence counts not only because of the asphyxiation it implies but also because of the way it is linked with others.
Seen from within, from below and looking into the eyes of those who demonstrated, the violence in the days of protests cannot be understood separately from that which strips them, every day, of their material conditions of existence. It does not matter that, as the president said, the power cuts, the lack of medicines and food are not a malicious strategy of the Cuban government against the people. People can understand the reasons for the crisis and the role of the blockade in it. But what matters, on the scale of life, is that those lives cannot be sustained.
It also matters that a systematic inefficiency of the Cuban government in the design and implementation of economic policies has been proven. The unprecedented slowdown of the reform in agriculture matters, while millions of pesos in resources are devoted to expanding the hotel infrastructure without economic sense. The zigzagging and incomprehensible path of measures that affect people’s lives here and now and that dramatically increases uncertainty matters. The proven reduction in social assistance in the last decade matters. The 30-year decline in the value of the real wage matters and is becoming more acute after the start of the Task of Reorganization. The absence of labor rights in the private sector because there is no regulation for it, and the absurd reluctance to operate and recognize small and medium-sized enterprises with efficient state regulation matters. The unprecedented brake on the expansion of non-agricultural cooperatives that really function as cooperatives and that embody democratic forms of production also matters. The lack of interest in workers’ democracy and the sense of the unions matters. The impossibility of creating associations with legal recognition and the slowness in passing a new association law that allows the formalization of the dense fabric that Cuban civil society really has matters. The fact that most important governing documents for economic and social reform and party congresses do not have as their central theme the discussion on poverty and inequality in Cuba matters. The opacity on issues that people are concerned about and on which many solutions could be provided matters. The secrecy, the lack of transparency, the criminalization of various activisms as if they were, without a doubt and initially, a danger to the institutions and the government itself matters. At least a good part of the sentences in this long, incomplete paragraph could be topics to be taken up together and despite the U.S. blockade, which, moreover, will remain there indefinitely and to our detriment.
A part of it, at least, was at stake in the protests, although some want to capitalize on it and others wash their hands of it. “Medicines,” “food,” “vaccines” and “freedom” were requested. It was said that “a united people will never be defeated” and “we are not afraid.”
During the protests, criminal acts were committed, including looting and attacks on businesses in freely convertible currency. Noting that it was those and not others — private businesses, for example — does not justify the public harm, but it allows us to understand part of their grammar. In the state press it has been said that mainly high-value electrical appliances were stolen and that this shows an act of profit and not of necessity. Given it as true, this data does not know how the popular economy works and the ways in which it is possible to obtain income by selling this equipment later, or to meet consumption needs (not at all unrelated to the logic of the Cuban markets and symbolic capitals) that are prohibited for popular classes. But, in addition, in the same videos shown on national television, the opposite is seen: people taking, in addition to electronic equipment, mattresses, soda, soaps, toilet paper. In one of the videos of these lootings it was heard: “all that belongs to the people.” Encouraging theft and looting is a criminal act; stealing and looting is a crime; so is ignoring the economic violence that at least part of the people experience and that is due to external and internal reasons.
There are, as the government has repeated, “established channels” to express “dissatisfaction” or needs. But those “established channels“ don’t work or are no longer legitimate and that doesn’t have to be a problem. Institutions are due to the people, and not the other way around. If, after the protests, it has been insisted that the only offer to channel this gorging are the “established channels,” in practice what that means is that the possibilities of processing conflicts and needs are unacceptably narrow or closed. The “established channels” are never, in any society, the only way to intervene in public life. The organization of civil society during tornadoes, cyclones or emergencies for many years has outgrown “established channels.” For that and much more, people should and can explore ways, spaces, repertoires that they feel represent them and that help to make general and specific agendas central and politicized subjects.
The latter, in fact, were also part of the Cuban protests. A clear example is that of trans women who, in their own voices, argued their presence in the protests. Their declared agenda: food shortages, police harassment of trans people, social discrimination towards them, necessary specific labor policies for the trans community, non-existence of condoms to ensure their sexual and reproductive rights. They looked there for a space to dignify their existence and against the general and specific violence against them. From different shores they will to capitalize on this, coopting or dispatching it, but “politics doesn’t fit in the sugar bowl.”
There was and is violence afterwards as well. Technological and telephone blackout. People, especially women, visiting police stations to get information on their loved ones, file appeals, and bring them supplies. The president recognized that people could have been unjustly detained but many, innocent, already have criminal records under their belt. Today, July 15, when I write these lines, there are detainees whose whereabouts are unknown.
There is also violence on social media. A dispute over arbitrary classifications and reclassifications. An express mission to annihilate the difference and frame the interpretations. There is viciousness in every character, every comma, every screenshot to prove guilt. There are announcements of the final day, of the brutality with which “the communists” will be finished off, as well as those who want to “dialogue with the dictatorship,” “the gusanera,” everyone.
“The bad victim”
Being recognized as a victim is, up to a point, a privilege. It means that you are, you are seen, you are subject to protection. When an attacked person is canceled to be thought of, in the first instance, as a victim, he is erased from the scene.
The government processing of the conflict has chosen some victims and erased others. The president and other official political voices have recognized that legitimate needs were expressed in the protests and that there were different groups (who have been classified and reclassified during these days) in them. At the same time, to build the narrative that it was all violence, the specific actors that have been represented have been described mainly as people who carried out “vandalism,” as “criminals,” as vulgar, as subjects who interrupted the tranquility of families on a Sunday.
Words have context and referents. Piñera in Chile and Moreno in Ecuador, and many others, also called vandals, lazybones and criminals those who demonstrated in their countries during the respective social outbreaks, which were managed in a deeply bloody way. The discourse that classifies in this way, in contexts such as the one we are experiencing, does little favor to the political handling of the situation and rather shows disinterest in it or a barrier is directly created. This also reproduces the fiction that legitimate claims are those of “good citizens.” Suggesting it is as commonplace as it is classist.
If those who demonstrated were vandals, so is a good part of the impoverished people. In some of the images that have been broadcast on national television to complement the discourse of vandalism, ordinary young people are seen, dressed in the clothes surely sent by the same families that send remittances and through which the State survives with what it collects at stores in freely convertible currency. Criminal acts must be avoided, prosecuted, and condemned. And that is something different from the production of some type of arbitrary classification of good citizens vs. bad citizens that also results in the erasing of some types of violence and the visibility of others. No victim can be canceled, as happened with Diubis Laurencio Tejeda.
That is the name of the only person killed in the demonstrations that has been officially reported. The note reported that “36-year-old citizen Diubis Laurencio Tejeda died…with a criminal record of contempt, theft and disorderly conduct, for which he served a prison term.” Laurencio Tejeda’s criminal record is completely irrelevant to the facts, such as the way a woman was dressed or whether or not she had a judicial conviction at the time of a femicide. Communicating a death in this way expropriates the person of the condition of victim as if he did not deserve mourning. It was not necessary; it is not necessary.
Where is J-11 going and up to where can it go?
It is possible to see a clear arc of transformation in the institutional political discourse in recent days. From the “combat order” of J-11 there has been progressively a language of conciliation and a call for solidarity, unity and peace. That matters.
At this time and from now on, the search for political solutions is essential. The government announced new measures on July 14. One of them frees from customs taxes and quantity limits the entry of medicines, food and toiletries by travelers. That will cushion some domestic needs of those who have families or close friends abroad who can travel to Cuba. The measure is important not only for its content but because it responds to a claim from Cubans inside and outside the island. Changes in salary regimes in the state sector and access to the “ration book” for those who do not reside in the territories where they have legal registration.
These measures should be understood as part of this situation, but they do not respond to it in a broad sense. An extensive program of discussion and political transformation that allows the protests to be metabolized is essential. The most necessary strategies at this time are, above all, different strategies; and even more so considering that the change in U.S. policy will now slow down further. It is urgent to build a more inclusive plot, to recognize not only the legitimacy of the demands but also the way to express them, imagine a diversity of solutions and continue translating the gorging into civic power to propose collective solutions that, on the other hand, contain the capitalization on all the parts of what began on J-11.
Although the protests have caused shock and much political enervation and sadness, they have not been the cause. A society does not break down with a social outbreak. It is rather the other way around. When the social outbreak occurs, it is that society was already broken. It had already exploded, silently. No matter how much it is staged, there will be no return to total “normality.” The protests did not end when people stopped being on the streets. Different sectors tested their strength in public space and that experience will continue to be deeply processed at home, in neighborhoods, portals, sidewalks.
Crises confirm cracks, and the cracks, losses. But the losses can also have a transformative effect and produce a reflection about the meaning of the political community, about the ties and not just about the fracture, about the awareness that my fate cannot be separated from yours and that Cuba is only to a certain extent mine, ours, because it also belongs to others. If political power recovers or affirms dogmas, what it will do is blow up bridges and make untranslatable the political rage of at least a part of the people to whom it is owes itself. The question about what is good and just for Cuba is today, more than before, an open question. The answers are today, also more than ever, unattainable in a still photo and in a single tone of voice.