Compared with recent mass protests elsewhere in Latin America, Cuba can seem an island of stultifying calm. But a recent, social media-fed demonstration against the authorities by artists and dissidents shows that many Cubans also thirst for change. Contrary to what some hardliners in the US argue, however, the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden should not treat this incident as an impediment to re-embracing a policy of engagement with the communist-ruled island.
The controversy began a month ago, when members of the San Isidro Movement — a small collective of anti-government artists and activists — went on hunger strike to protest against the imprisonment of one of their own. A week later, the authorities raided its headquarters and detained all members, accusing them of violating Covid-19 protocols. The next day, artists, independent journalists and young creatives who had followed the news on social media gathered before the Ministry of Culture to demand a meeting. On the agenda was the need for more cultural and political opening.
The protest was unprecedented in two ways: its size (up to 500 people), and the fact it crossed generational and political lines. Moreover, the group was joined by well known cultural luminaries, even if they did not fully agree with the San Isidro movement and its anti-government message. What united them all was the demand that freedom of expression be respected, period. Talks were held, but the dialogue has since mostly fallen apart.
For Cuban authorities, the timing of these events is suspicious, as they come at the tail-end of US President Donald Trump’s administration whose punishing sanctions have hammered the economy. The hunger strike was staged, Cuban officials insisted, so as to dissuade the incoming Biden team from returning US-Cuba policy to a more rational footing. Cuban state media discredited many San Isidro members as US stooges. An ill-considered tweet from a US official calling them “colleagues” only made things worse.
If the whole thing was cooked up by US hardliners, though, Cuban officials played into their hands by responding with heavy-handed and outmoded rhetoric. Cuba is a low priority for Mr Biden, amid so many other inherited crises. But making it harder still to change the status quo are sanction supporters, who argue the protests are a sign that the “pressure works”, and that Havana’s recent moves to revive market reforms — such as its decision last week, after years of waiting, to move ahead with a currency devaluation — flow from Cuba’s worst economic crisis in three decades.
Hopefully, the Biden administration will take away a different lesson. Cuba’s economic stress has certainly contributed to unease on the island, but that distress is due more to Covid-19 and its fatal effect on tourism, as well as dwindling aid from Venezuela. Any internal changes due to Mr Trump’s hardline policies, such as a cap on family remittances, have not been worth the humanitarian cost.
Furthermore, Cuba’s latest bout of citizen activism is the product of a new and more connected generation on the island who have travelled abroad, including to the US, and have Facebook on their 3G phones. These changes were helped by the policy of engagement introduced by former president Barack Obama, not by Mr Trump’s clampdown.
Washington should listen to the protesters and their sympathisers. Many insist that US policies of hostility and blanket sanctions damage the cause of a more democratic Cuba. History has long shown that the more that events inside Cuba are mixed up with the interminably knotty theme of US relations, the more Havana will have an excuse to dodge its citizens’ calls for dialogue and reform.
The writer is an assistant professor of history at Florida International University