In a beautiful and moving essay, Odette Casamayor-Cisneros recently issued a call for more solidarity from the global left with the Cubans who took to the streets in July to protest as the humanitarian crisis on the Island has intensified. She calls on the global left to voice a more public solidarity with a people whose diversity outsiders are liable to underestimate—their ethnic, religious, sexual, and ideological diversity—with a people who appeal to the Cuban government for greater civil liberties and a profound political transformation in a moment of shortages of both food and medicines and in which the Covid pandemic is surging. I write from the United States and from this ¨left¨ (even as I acknowledge the term´s conspicuous inadequacy) to respond to such a just call, to express my solidarity with a complex and diverse Cuban citizenry that, in spite of personal connections and years of travel and study, I do not pretend to understand. It does not fall to US leftists to read ¨what the Cuban people really want¨ since our friends and family on the Island tell us sometimes irreconcilable things. It does not fall to us to choose between divergent narratives or perspectives, but simply to reaffirm the right of Cubans to control their own political destiny and to denounce unequivocally any and all violence against peaceful protesters.
The primary purpose of this essay, then, is to respond to and affirm the call of Professor Casamayor-Cisneros and of others who have issued similar calls. The second is to attempt to say something tentative, preliminary, about what such solidarity might mean in practical terms for that portion of the global left that resides in the United States. We occupy a peculiar position here, not only because the US government has been waging for sixty years an ¨economic denial program¨ intended to impose ¨hunger and desperation¨ on a civilian population in order to provoke unrest and the overthrow of the government, but also because the language of ¨solidarity¨ with Cuban protesters has been co-opted, for the most part, by Cold War hardliners calling for even more punitive measures and even, in extreme cases, for military intervention. The solidarity of the political left with the Cuban people can in no way be confused or lumped together with the ¨solidarity¨ of those who are calling for more ¨hunger and desperation,¨ for increased funding of groups engineering subversion, for more US intervention in Cuba´s internal politics.
Perhaps most concerning in this moment is the call we have received from too many Cubans in the US to silence, in this critical moment, any discussion of US policy towards Cuba, as if a sixty-year campaign to drive a civilian population to desperation and unrest becomes in this crucial moment a mere ¨distraction¨ from the essential conflict. Our sole responsibility, we have been told too often on social media in recent days, is to unite with the protesters and their demands as they are interpreted for us by a subset of Cubans in the United States. Professor Casamayor-Cisneros, in contrast, writes that ¨to limit the solution to ending the embargo is rather simplistic. There are other, domestic problems, and those are the problems fueling the frustrations that launched multitudes to the streets.¨ This is a valid critique and a good starting place. How does the political left in the United States communicate and put into practice solidarity with Cuban people and their urgent and legitimate grievances without renouncing our critical perspective on a US intervention that has always had unrest and subversion as its ultimate goal?
Given our geographical and political coordinates, our responsibilities are twofold, and come in the following order: 1.) we express solidarity with Cubans who peacefully articulate legitimate grievances and ethical demands, we amplify their voices by sharing their written statements, videos, and social media posts, and 2.) we appeal to our own government in the US to honor the will of the Cuban people, to recognize and respect their considerable ideological diversity and to recognize even those demands that are not consistent with US geopolitical objectives. We demand that our elected representatives recognize the destructive and unjustifiable role of US policy in bringing about hunger and desperation and political unrest—which US policy was always designed to do—and that they dismantle a foreign policy that far from liberating in fact brutalizes, that far from defending human rights in fact systematizes human rights violations, as nearly all the nations of the world recognize year after year in the United Nations when they denounce these policies.
The political left in the United States finds itself in a historical moment that should drive home the common interests of social justice movements even when these arise in national contexts as different as those of Cuba and the United States. Last summer thousands of US citizens also took to the streets in the heat and in the middle of a pandemic. We denounced police brutality and repeated killings of unarmed black people and a legal system that routinely exonerates the officers responsible for these abuses and killings. Peaceful protesters faced police brutality, some of it encouraged or ordered by the president of the United States. I watched this play out on television and social media and even in the streets of a small town in Indiana, where local residents organized a march and weekly demonstrations in front of City Hall. This small town lies on the banks of the Ohio River, about an hour from Louisville, Kentucky, on the other side of the river, where police had broken into the apartment of Breonna Taylor in the middle of the night, shooting and killing her in her bed. None of these officers had been charged when we marched in protest last summer.
Curiously, Louisville, Kentucky is also one of the fastest-growing Cuban American communities in the nation, with perhaps as many as twenty to twenty-five thousand Cubans now calling the city home. My reading of social media posts and threads and comments over a period of years suggests that the majority of Cuban Americans vocal on area Facebook pages had squared off ideologically against Black Lives Matter, aligning themselves unequivocally with conservative talking points about the people who wanted to ¨destroy America¨ and with President Trump, in spite of his race-baiting that was so clear to racist and anti-racist Americans alike and that should have deeply preoccupied Cubans.
We had taken to the streets in a moment when the pandemic and white supremacy were both surging, we saw a nation so profoundly polarized that for the first time in our lives it was not absurd to speculate about significant political violence. Historians had begun to discuss seriously the possibility of a second civil war. The book How Democracies Die had been published in 2018, and we worried about the survival of the democratic republic months before the January 6 insurrection on the Capitol in Washington, DC. We marched, then, keenly aware that the right wing and especially conservative white men were feeling emboldened and capable of the kind of violence we would see months later when, incited by a president determined to convince the American public of the big lie that the 2020 presidential election had been ¨stolen,¨ they breached the Capitol determined to disrupt the certification of the Electoral College vote count.
This reflection is by no means intended to suggest that the Americans who protested in the summer of 2020 and the Cubans who have protested in the summer of 2021 occupy analogous positions. They do not, of course. The shared concerns on both sides of the Florida Straits for economic inequality that disproportionately hurt black people, the police brutality that these protests drew, the encouragement or calls for violence from our respective heads of state, the denigrating generalizations about the protesters as delinquents or rioters or marginados, the suddenly real possibility in both cases that the political order was vulnerable—none of these apparent similarities allow us to assert even a rough analogy. The political orders that seemed vulnerable and the position of the protesters vis a vis their respective governments will not admit such an analogy.
But the obvious overlapping of many of the concerns of these social movements is clear enough to require us to recognize our responsibility to one another. It is inadmissible now, in the face of these movements, to resort to an old left paradigm according to which antigovernment protesters in Cuba are the pawns of empire, ¨mercenaries¨ or ¨traitors¨ in the language of the Revolutionary government, whereas antigovernment protesters in the United States are autonomous and politically enlightened. To claim now that protesters in Cuba are “reactionary” in contrast to “radical” US leftists who stand up to neoliberal hegemony and a protofascism fueled by American white supremacy is dishonest and ahistorical. To claim now that the protesters in Cuba are all funded by the United States, or responding mechanically to US propaganda, or are protesting conditions that are only the result of the United States economic denial program while the protesters in the United States exercise full political agency is inaccurate and insulting. All of the old neoimperialist objectives and strategies still obtain, of course, and they are unconscionable—the economic denial program, the massive anti-communist propaganda campaigns gone viral in the age of social media and celebrity influencers, the lavishly funded subversion campaigns that the Helms-Burton law describes euphemistically as ¨democracy-building efforts.¨ But these nakedly imperialist instruments cannot explain the protests in Cuba. The protests are much much more than this.
What can we do?
While US leftists have a clear obligation to be vocal and public in their solidarity with those Cubans demanding radical political changes, greater inclusion, social justice, and their own democratic norms and institutions, we must also recognize that we are in a position—as the right-wing or the hardliners of the exilio histórico cannot be—to understand the disfiguring effects of foreign intervention on democratic ideals. Our own fresh memories of Russian “election hacking” and Trump´s collusion with Russian operatives must drive home to us the hyperdestructive effects of even smaller-scale foreign interventions than the US sixty-year-long regime change efforts—not to mention full-scale attempts to engineer regime change like the 2014 Zunzuneo debacle, launched under the auspices Obama-Biden administration. Even a much shorter and more targeted foreign intervention in the US political process created the potential for a constitutional crisis with the impeachment of a president whose campaign was all-too willing to accept intelligence and advice and collusion from Russian officials, as a bipartisan Senate investigation was later able to confirm.
The first clear political imperatives for the US left, then, are to recongize the right of Cubans to exercise the same rights we exercise, to amplify or echo their demands, and to use electronic media to dialogue, build solidarity, and strategize. The US economic sanctions that have a significant, though not exclusive, role in precipitating the current humanitarian crisis and the lavishly funded propaganda and subversion campaigns (see Tracey Eaton´s The Cuba Money Project) can under no circumstances serve as pretexts for delegitimizing or minimizing the grievances and demands of Cuban on the Island. Our second political imperative is to establish publicly and relentlessly that our solidarity is with a diverse Cuban people whose demands will not bend to US geopolitical objectives. We must articulate cleary and energetically to the government that represents us, and whose policies are responsible for ¨brutal human costs¨ on the Island, what a humanitarian policy committed to the political will of the Cuban people would look like.
Only those of us who have demonstrated in recent years an unflaggling commitment to social justice, democratic norms, racial equity, economic equality, and the right of the people to shape their own political future without interference from foreign powers are in a position now to credibly articulate a humane and ethical US foreign policy towards Cuba. Those who denigrated the Black Lives Matter movement (Senator Macro Rubio, for example, recently called BLM an ¨extortionist ring¨ and offered to help their leaders move to Cuba), those who winked at Russian collusion or minimized it, those unwilling to support the investigation into the January 6 insurrection, and those actively working to legislate new racist voter suppression laws and thereby undermine democratic ideals have so clearly demonstrated their opposition to the principles they claim to promote in Cuba.
Conservative Americans, including conservative Cuban Americans, who have long advocated for the maintenance or the intensification of the economic sanctions and who have been enthusiastic supporters of the regime change industry in south Florida decided a long time ago that the interests of the Cuban people and those of the US State Department were essentially aligned, and that most basic human needs of the former could be subordinated to the latter. Our solidarity, therefore, rejects the authority of the US government to ¨interpret¨ or speak on behalf of a Cuban people it has been brutalizing now for sixty years. The time has come to recognize mutual interests of grass-roots movements on either side of the Florida Straits, and begin to imagine and build a solidarity we have been too slow to initiate. The same electronic media that the United States is harnessing in order to engineer regime change can also be used by grass-roots activists to initiate a dialogue and build an understanding and a solidarity we should have started building years ago.