By William J. Furney
With Fidel gone and Raúl in retirement, there’s no longer a Castro cult of personality to keep the people of Cuba warm at night on their otherwise somnolent isles, despite the many chilling troubles they have to endure in their daily lives.
Now, increasingly, they’re having nightmares — sleeping terrors that translate into the long and equally difficult hours of their tortuous days.
The many freedoms the people of Europe, for example, cherish — of belief, expression, sexuality, speech — are not available (trounced) in many parts of the world, such as in Communist China and Cuba; but there’s an undeniable, human urge and desire for change and basic and fundamental rights that egocentric rulers deny their people.
Totalitarian regimes are, by nature, solely interested in propagating their deluded diktats and subjugating their citizens for their own, self-serving ends. Ultimately, it’s an untenable method of governing — China is now more capitalist than Communist, although the savage iron fist remains — and Cubans have had enough.
This week, they took to the streets in their thousands in furious protest over perceived failures of the government of Miguel Díaz-Canel, risking arrest in a Caribbean country where unauthorised gatherings are illegal. “There is no food, no medicine; there is no freedom. They do not let us live,” a protester told BBC Mundo, while at the same time, Díaz-Canel issued an alarming call for violence against those protesting: “The streets belong to the revolutionaries. I am ordering you to combat.”
Cubans rightly ignored the plea to fight their fellow citizens, and US Acting Assistant Secretary for the Western Hemisphere Julie Chung issued a rebuke to Havana, saying the Biden administration was “deeply concerned by ‘calls to combat’ in Cuba” and that the US “[stands] by the Cuban people’s right for peaceful assembly. We call for calm and condemn any violence.”
As protests continued during the week and dozens of people were reportedly arrested, amid scenes posted on social media showing police beating protesters and using pepper-spray on them, Chung hit out again.
“Reports of Cuban protestors killed by police and being beaten while in custody show that the dictatorship wants revenge, not order,” she said. “For some senior party and security officials, this is a step too far. It is not too late to take a stand against violence and repression.”
The regime conveniently blames Washington and its decades of sanctions for stoking the unrest — the biggest such protests since the communists ousted the military government in 1958 and seized power a year later. But Cubans’ anger is not just directed at an economy in tatters but also a lack of personal freedoms and what they see as the government’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic amid a surge in covid cases.
Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Cuban Studies Institute in Florida, is hopeful that a transformation may be on the way.
“We seem to be at the beginning of change in Cuba,” he told me this week. “The population is tired of waiting for change from above and are pushing for change from below. Too early to tell whether the revolt will land in a transition to democracy.”
Could there be a return to military rule in Cuba, if the Communists were overthrown by popular revolt? Suchlicki certainly thinks it’s possible.
“Without the Castro brothers in control, the successors don’t have any legitimacy. There is little respect for Díaz-Canel. We need to see how the military will respond. They are the only ones capable of filling the political vacuum developing in Cuba,” he said, adding that Havana’s pointing the finger of blame at Washington is a ruse.
“This is standard of the Cuban government, to blame the US. They never accept the failure of the regime is the cause of the problems.”
The protests are already bringing about change for the beleaguered Cuban people — for the better — with the government announcing a lifting of customs restrictions on medicines, food and hygiene products and allowing these basic items into the country. The measures are due to come into effect from tomorrow and will remain in place until the end of 2021, according to Prime Minister Manuel Marrero, who was speaking on state TV on Wednesday.
And now that Cubans are realising their own, individual power to wrest some degree of control from their authoritarian rulers, it’s likely they’re not going back to sleep anytime soon.