On July 11, 2021, Cuba erupted into the largest street demonstrations since the 1959 Cuban Revolution. They started in small towns near Havana and in the province of Santiago de Cuba and spread to fifty towns and cities before the day was over. Protestors came from all walks of life but mostly from the poorest and most marginalized groups — Blacks, women, the unemployed, retirees, lesbians and gays, and the young. They protested food, medicine and gas shortages, frequent electrical blackouts, and the lack of Covid vaccines.
Their cries for political freedom and the basic necessities of life arose from Cuba’s deepest economic crisis in decades and anger with the inefficient, bureaucratized, one-party political system controlled by the Cuban Communist Party (PCC).
Government crackdown. The PCC response to the social upheaval was swift. Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel denounced the protestors as counter-revolutionary mercenaries and called on the PCC faithful to take back the streets.
With little hesitation, he ordered demonstrations broken up by uniformed and undercover police as well as men from several branches of the armed forces, among them the Black Wasps, elite combat commandos trained to defend the island from military attack. Over 500 people were arrested; many have already been sentenced to prison in summary trials without legal representation.
On July 17 at a massive pro-government rally in Havana, consisting chiefly of state workers who were required to attend, the contrast between the predominantly white leadership of the PCC and the heavily Black protests of the earlier demonstrations accentuated one of the major social divisions in the country.
In the days following this explosion of discontent, a number of socialist and Cuba solidarity groups in the U.S. sided simplistically and uncritically with the PCC and blamed the long-standing U.S. economic blockade for the unrest, as though everything that happens on the island can be traced directly back to the White House and right-wing Cuban expats. But the blockade is only one factor, and while reactionary Cubans tried to take advantage of the protests, their slogans found no resonance beyond using the title of an anti-government hip-hop song — “Patria y Libertad” or “Homeland and Freedom” — as a chant.
What was the protestors’ goal? To overthrow the first attempt to form a workers state in this hemisphere or “to demand true socialism from the government,” as Odette Casamayor-Cisneros, Cuban author and educator, writes? The answer lies in examining the convergence of events behind this extraordinary revolt.
Gathering storm clouds. Cuba’s political and social crisis has deep roots in the past. The situation is the worst since the late 1980s and ‘90s when the Soviet Union, which had provided Cuba with subsidies and was its main trading partner, renounced socialism and turned to capitalism. As a result Cuba lost its main source of oil and entered the “Special Period” when the U.S. embargo and lack of gas drove farmers back to using oxen and human labor to till fields. These were desperately harsh and hungry years. They lasted almost a decade until Venezuela stepped in to fill the void left by the Soviet Union. Gradually, the Cuban economy rebounded.
However, in 2014, when world oil prices collapsed, Venezuela cut Cuba’s fuel share in half. Since oil turbines generate all the island’s electricity, blackouts grew along with gas lines. This caused crops to rot in fields and warehouses because there was no gas for trucks to get them to market. Today the island imports 70% to 80% of its food and electricity is available sporadically. Women stand in line for hours to buy small amounts of rice, beans and chicken only to find the shelves are often bare.
Tourism was beginning to turn things around when Trump tightened sanctions and made it more difficult for Cubans abroad to send remittances. This was quickly followed by the arrival of the pandemic. Cuba decided to develop its own vaccine in the country’s prestigious biotech sector; it succeeded in April 2021, but in June and July Covid spread rapidly, accentuating syringe shortages.
To add to these woes, the economy contracted 11% last year after the government introduced economic reforms that triggered 500% inflation. Still it persisted in investing heavily in tourism, pouring 125 times more into new hotel rooms than it did into healthcare and education combined. This angered many Cubans, especially since the good-paying jobs in tourism tend to go to light-skinned people with government connections.
Obviously the Cuban Communist Party is not the source of every calamity on the island. But it controls the commanding heights of the state bureaucracy and the economy: energy, agriculture, banking, domestic and foreign trade, import and export, transportation, tourism, communications, public utilities, heavy and medium industry, education, medicine and healthcare.
The problem now is that 62 years after the Cuban Revolution there is no way that workers can exert control over the state bureaucracy or be a part of finding solutions for the current crisis.
Revolutions deformed by imperialism. The Cuban and Russian revolutions occurred in underdeveloped countries. Rapid economic development was essential to advance their socialist goals and lay the basis for greater societal equality upon which workers democracy could flourish. For this they needed help from revolutions in advanced countries, but world imperialism made sure it didn’t come. Leon Trotsky, leader with Lenin of the 1917 Russian Revolution, warned of the merging of the party with the state apparatus. He cautioned that if all the new Soviet society could deliver was scarcity, a privileged state bureaucracy was likely to win out; it would decide who enjoyed the benefits of the revolution and usurp workers’ power to correct the state.
In Cuba, revolutionaries of various political persuasions were part of the struggle to overthrow the Batista dictatorship. However, the July 26th Movement, led by Fidel Castro, and the Cuban Communist Party of Fidel’s brother, Raul, eventually came to dominate the leadership of the revolution.
Unfortunately, the PCC modeled itself on single party rule as in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin, assassin of socialist democracy. The Cuban party was never a mere replica of the Soviet party, but it did orient toward top down rule, a development that was constantly strengthened by the threat of being overthrown by the U.S.
Now it seems that a very significant section of the party has decided to follow the Chinese Communist Party in attempting to fully reestablish capitalism, step by step, and call it “market socialism.”
Solidarity of a different kind. Cuba is at a crossroads today. A revolution calling itself socialist must sooner or later fulfill its promise or lose the confidence of the people. All those who care about seeing Cuba realize the goals of the 1959 revolution owe it their active solidarity against imperialist sabotage and their honest insight.
The Freedom Socialist Party has defended Cuba against every imperialist danger for six decades. Our founder, Clara Fraser, was an organizer for the Fair Play for Cuba Committee in 1960. We joined Radical Women in openly violating the travel ban in the Special Period to take aid to women and children. We helped Pastors for Peace get school buses from Canada to Cuba. We worked closely with the Federation of Cuban Women, helped host the Cuban delegation to the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, and more.
But we have recently been reprimanded by Stalinist groups in the U.S. as “irresponsible” and “supporting the false ideological justifications for imperialist intervention” because we recognized the July protests as a cry for help in a crisis, not just a plot cooked up by the CIA. All we can say is solidarity has to be based on more than cheerleading or hero worship. It requires defending and supporting workers democracy in the struggle to win and hold on to socialist aims.
End the U.S. blockade. No to capitalist restoration. Free all July 11 prisoners and drop the charges. Defend and expand the gains of the 1959 revolution.