Most of the opinions circulating about the July 11 protests in Cuba, particularly those that reject disorder and violence, as well as those that interpret and propose solutions to the conflict, must be right. Many reflect civic concern and commitment to issues that go beyond personal interest. Seen like this, they would be a sign of “social glue,” of citizen participation and consensus. At the same time, they are the mirror of a significant conflictiveness.
In this brief space, I will avoid discussing good or bad intentioned interpretations, experiences lived, read or heard, recommendations to the government, etc. I only propose to take a step back, to coldly examine some basic problems, among the many that lie ahead.
What do the protests mean?
If we were to ask Émile Durkheim, one of the founders of Sociology, what is the nature of these protests, he could answer that it is a classic case of anomie. Anomie defines a situation where previously established norms and values disintegrate; a typical reaction of periods of drastic and rapid changes in the social, economic or political structures of society. Social groups that experience anomic reactions may feel disconnected, as if they do not belong to their society, and as if their society does not value their identity. Anomie can cause purposelessness, hopelessness, and encourage deviance and crime. I have intentionally underlined a few keywords in this classic definition, which is the ABCs of sociology.
In Cuba, we have been going through a transition process for more than two decades, characterized by profound changes in the social structures and in the economic life of the people, but also in the relations between civil society and political power. Among other changes, let’s say, there is the very idea of socialism, which now incorporates conceptions different from those defended for half a century, as well as unprecedented policies. This transition has made visible a crisis of norms and values, widely debated in various public spaces and media. Likewise, the weakening of the sense of belonging has been pointed out; and the reproduction of marginality and its typical behaviors, within subordinate neighborhoods and social groups, but also the proliferation of crime in other social and institutional spaces, where corruption grows. As for despair, the art and literature disseminated on the island are a good mirror.
In other words, what is happening in Cuba is an anomie that should not catch us by surprise, because its factors and manifestations have not remained hidden or muzzled, as anyone can see without having to read social networks or anti-government newspapers. It has been there, in front of everyone, analyzed and discussed for too long, to ask ourselves now where the protests come from, as if they were thunder in a clear sky. Rather, one should ask why they have not happened before.
How is it that the Cuban opposition, on the island and in Miami, using the fashionable unconventional war manuals, and the CIA itself, have not managed to unleash something like this until now? And why precisely now? Durkheim would resort to another concept shared by social sciences and civil engineering: fatigue. After a year and a half of COVID-19 and six months of queues to buy basic products — as Dr. Durán would say — we are all more vulnerable.
What is happening to the new government?
I have pointed out before that the consensus has become more heterogeneous and contradictory in Cuba, that it has incorporated dissent, and that the Cuban government knows it. Before taking office as president, Raúl recognized that the leadership of the founder of the Revolution, Fidel, was not inherited. Díaz-Canel, who was already in the Political Bureau in Fidel’s time, was also able to know this; and in any case, he has experienced it firsthand since he took office in 2018. In fact, continuity has entailed different ways than the historical ones did before. Circumstances, which are the benchmark of politics, had already been imposed on them before they retired.
I underline what I say about a new government, because if it is postulated that this is “the same Cuba as Fidel and Raúl,” witty literary metaphors can be constructed, but the country’s political and social process is difficult to understand. This government has sought to build its own consensus from the beginning, instead of resting on what some call “the political capital” of the Revolution. However, the yardstick to measure change is already another.
In effect, the new government has proposed unprecedented reforms since 1960, beginning with a new Constitution, which admits a mixed economy, with markets and the private sector, and which grants unprecedented autonomy to local powers. Its new style, learned by holding leadership positions in the provinces, emphasizes the interaction between the central and local level; and it has ministers under the age of 60 explaining problems and answering questions on television. Unlike previous periods, citizens can identify them by their names, judge them, praise them or openly mock them.
There has never been a moment like this before in terms of freedom to criticize the government, on social networks, but neither in public media, nor to access information from very diverse sources, including those of the opposition; nor is there greater freedom to enter and leave the country. Article 56 of the Constitution approved in 2019 establishes the right of association and public demonstration. In fact, a demonstration law was scheduled in the legislative calendar for October 2020 — postponed, along with a dozen other bills due to the coronavirus. Regardless, the prevailing yardstick dictates that this government has done far less than it should. According to that rod, its glass would be almost empty.
As if that were not enough, after a year and a half focused on a formidable global human security crisis called a pandemic, without resources or protective alliances like those of yesteryear, this government has had to deal with the largest manifestations of discontent that occurred since 1959 Going down the streets of San Antonio de los Baños, President Díaz-Canel must have remembered, like all of us who lived the summer of 1994, Fidel followed by a sea of people, going down San Lázaro street, to control that outbreak of anomie on the Malecón, without weapons or specialized forces to deal with riots. In a certain way, he did exactly the same thing as Fidel: to appear at the scene of the events, and summon the revolutionaries to take to the streets and face violence, by force, if necessary.
The same media, however, may produce different results in other circumstances. It took him a few hours to realize it. But his first slogan was carried out to the letter, not only by the police, but by the summoned organizations, first of all, the Party. Across the street, the opposition, as on November 27, 2020, capitalized on the discontent and increased the tensions. The classic escalation of violence studied by experts in conflict resolution1 was immediate.
A more complicated scenario could not be imagined to maintain the route outlined in the 8th Party Congress, just 90 days ago.
What violence and how?
In a model country for many in terms of stability, citizen respect and internal order, such as Japan, protests against police brutality against foreigners or racism are not uncommon. A group of “foreign” (that is, Korean) protesters can gather around them a cloud of police officers dressed as characters from Star Wars, with polycarbonate helmets and armor, armored shields and tonfas.
We are used to seeing images of violent demonstrations in other countries. Those who throw stones are part of the people, who rebel against injustice; those who shoot jets of water from riot control vehicles, tear gas, rubber bullets, or real ones, are the repressive forces. These global images do not discriminate between countries such as Chile, South Africa, Kyrgyzstan or the United States, with hundreds of wounded and dozens of deaths that are their balance.
The photos and videos that circulate in the media — such as BBC Mundo — above all suspicion of collusion with the “Cuban regime” reveal that neither the National Revolutionary Police (PNR), which here in Cuba is the only police institution, nor the special troops from the Ministry of the Interior (MININT) or the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) deploy those resources. Surely the Institute of Police Sciences of the MININT teaches how to face violent scenarios. But no class or exercise is equivalent to dealing with 700 angry people marching down the street under the summer sun — or doing it by force if necessary — even if its instructions say to avoid injuring them or using lethal means.
This is not a technical or circumstantial detail. Among the images of the protests that went viral on social networks, a dozen protesters turned police cars upside down, and even other vehicles, jumped on them and destroyed them. Compared to any capital in Latin America, there are no forces that prevent these attacks on authority, and that repress them at that time. At the same time, some police officers and civilians, summoned to mobilize in the theater of the confrontation, incurred excesses.
Among the few data available to measure physical violence is the looting of stores, in freely convertible currency and in Cuban pesos. There were none in San Antonio de los Baños; nor in Havana until after the television appearance of President Díaz-Canel (4:30 pm). Of the 28 assaults registered up to that time, 68% (19) occurred in Matanzas, the province most affected by the pandemic; almost all of them in Cárdenas (13), where the combination of the drop in tourism in Varadero plus the quarantine has hit a relatively higher standard of living than in other places in the province. In that period, there was only significant looting (4) in Colón (Matanzas), and Güines (Mayabeque); and others scattered in Holguín, Bayamo, Güira (1). After the President’s intervention, 13 stores were raided, including 4 in Havana.
The social polarization that this violence shows is inversely proportional to unity, that is, to the construction of consensus. In addition, it has a negative impact on the image of the country, which works in favor of the cornerstone of U.S. policy: isolation. Preventing the battle won at the UN from being lost in the streets of Cárdenas or Paseo del Prado is also a national interest.
After having tried everything with Fidel and Raúl, and 25 years after the end of the Cold War, Barack Obama and his government considered that this policy was ineffective, according to their national interest. However, although Joseph Biden, vice president of that government, supported normalization, things have changed for them. What if Díaz-Canel, without the wisdom and experience of “the Castros,” were not able to deal, at this moment of vulnerability, with the Cuban crisis? They might reason that it is better not to lower the heat on the blockade right now, but to let it continue to simmer the island. As you would say in Cuban: what’s the rush?
The protests are lessons for all who want to read them. They could teach some economists that the success of the reforms does not depend only on technically solving planning, the market, the socialist state enterprise or the private sector, but on tackling problems such as income redistribution, consumption stratification, the adjoining economically “brilliant” or “dark” spaces, the inequalities and territorial and local setbacks, the state of the productive forces called workers. They have also shown politicians that the problem of national unity is that of consensus, and that it is not solved only with summoning mobilizations of revolutionaries, but through sustained dialogue with all citizens. They have shown the Party apparatuses, once again, that the effectiveness of a public media system is not ideological, but political, and that it is measured by its credibility and capacity to convince (the unconvinced, of course). They have confirmed that law enforcement agencies can provide first aid to outbreaks of violence, but at the cost of other damage, and that it is not they who should deal with the social and political problems where dissent takes root. Finally, it has shown U.S. politicians that its alliances with this bellicose opposition reinforces the hard line on both sides, and damages the real exercise of freedom and human rights in Cuba.
The common denominator of these lessons is Cuban society, with its lights and shadows. Knowing how to decipher its present, without bipolar roadmaps, will decide what will come.
1 “Violencia y solución de conflictos,” in Temas magazine # 53, January-March, 2008.