The remarkable protests in Cuba this weekend show that the Cuban people still yearn for a life free of tyranny despite decades of repression. President
hit the right note on Monday by expressing American support for the protesters, and let’s hope he follows through by increasing pressure on the regime.
Protests aren’t uncommon in Cuba, where most people live in desperate poverty while a narrow governing elite benefit from a state-owned economy that depends on dollars and euros from abroad. But Sunday’s uprising was unusual it that it developed almost spontaneously and expanded across the island as the message spread on social media and apps like Telegram.
The protests weren’t planned or organized. Cubans massed in the streets to register their opposition to the economic fallout from Covid-19, which has been mismanaged on the island; widespread shortages of food and medicine; and the numerous daily blackouts from failing electric power.
Protesters picked up the cry of freedom and sang the popular “Patria y Vida” (Homeland and Life) as a way of repudiating
revolutionary slogan “Homeland or Death.” Social media is dangerous to the dictatorship because it allows people to share their dissatisfaction and feel they aren’t alone.
This time is also different because
is dead, his brother
no longer holds an official position, and successor Miguel Díaz-Canel has no claim to legitimacy beyond the military and intelligence services that back him. The public’s willingness to risk arrest by heading into the streets is a signal that their suffering is so great that most Cubans have nothing left to lose.
It isn’t clear if this outburst has staying power or can be crushed like all the others. The regime is taking no chances. Mr. Díaz-Canel has unleashed his military and Ministry of Interior agents to stop the protests with arrests and beatings.
On Sunday he called for “revolutionaries”—plain-clothes thugs—to take to the streets to attack protesters and warned that his opponents “will have to go over our dead body if they want to overturn the revolution.” This state use of violence is standard operating procedure in Cuba, and there are reports that Mr. Díaz-Canel has cut off all internet service that the regime controls. He won’t give up easily because he has much to lose.
The U.S. can’t dictate events in Cuba, but we were heartened to hear President Biden issue a statement on Monday that Sunday’s protests are a “clarion call for freedom and relief from the tragic grip of the pandemic and from the decades of repression and economic suffering” dished out by Havana. He also called on “the Cuban regime to hear their people and serve their needs at this vital moment rather than enriching themselves.”
The Administration’s challenge is to back up those words with real support for the liberation of this long-suffering nation. Step one is not to return to the failed appeasement of
that expanded U.S. travel and commerce with the island but achieved nothing in political or economic reform. The regime is more vulnerable since
restored some U.S. sanctions, and its allies in Venezuela can no longer provide much oil to keep the lights on and the military well-fed.
The U.S. can tighten the financial squeeze and impose Magnitsky sanctions on Cuba’s human-rights violators. Helping protesters foil Cuba’s internet shutdown would be invaluable, and a warning to Russia and China not to meddle by propping up the regime is warranted. The odds on a freedom revolution may be long, but the Cuban people need to hear loud and clear that America is on their side, and not on the Communist regime’s.
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Appeared in the July 13, 2021, print edition.