Cubans Seek Broad Reforms, Not Another Revolution (OPINION)

Apr 18, 2022
4:49 PM

Soldiers patrol the seawall in Havana, Cuba, Monday, November 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Ramón Espinosa)

Since the internet became more broadly available in Cuba, despite U.S. efforts to intentionally isolate the island from the rest of the world, more information about life there has become available. When it comes to Cuba, you would be hard-pressed to find a more polarizing issue among Cuban Americans. Particularly on Spanish language talk radio.

Thanks in large part to social media, monitoring the situation in Cuba is easier than ever. From people being charged for the July 11, 2021 protests and sentenced to exceptionally long prison sentences, to the lack of basic medicine such as Tylenol or Ibuprofen due to unilateral trade restrictions levied on the island by the U.S., we can see the direct impacts on the Cuban people.

While many in the United States use that information to justify a regime change, the reality is, that’s not what every Cuban wants. Just as U.S. citizens love their capitalist society despite its exploitative nature, many Cubans are happy with the idea of a socialist utopia just outside the reach of what they see as capitalists promising to control them and their resources for profit.

Capitalism is worrisome to Cubans because it reflects what life was like before the revolution. Examples such as full-blown segregation (including white-kids-only private schools), oppressive policies that exploited non-white populations, and dictatorial racial wealth gaps are well known. The abolition of segregation and of whites-only schools struck fear in parents. Convinced the school system would become communist indoctrination centers, white Cubans sent 14,000 unaccompanied minors to the U.S. in a clandestine operation dubbed Operación Pedro Pan (or Operation Peter Pan).

Thus began the white flight from the island.

Prior to the revolution, many new forms of racial segregation were introduced during the various U.S. occupations of Cuba between 1898 and 1922. They were policies that were expanded upon and used for more than three decades leading to brutal state-sanctioned racial oppression under the U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista.

It’s not just how the U.S. and similar capitalist societies undermine race relations. There are many political implications Cubans fear. Outside influence from the country many Cubans see as their oppressor after 60 years of sanctions and embargos also plays a major role. How the U.S. interferes with other countries in the region rightfully feeds these narratives as well.

Cubans on the island refuse to be deterred by outsiders—as can be evidenced by six decades of resolve that doesn’t appear to show any signs of weakening.

What’s Happening Now

During COVID, Cuba was in the midst of an economic crisis due to the addition of Trump’s sanctions and his approach to reversing Obama-era policies, including the opening of relations with Cuba which helped bolster the Cuban economy and its private sector. Some could make the argument that Trump’s disdain for Obama drove the decision. But they would be dishonest if they didn’t acknowledge the outsized influence far-right conservative Cubans had in it.

While people in both the U.S. and Cuba have called for President Biden to reverse Trump’s sanctions or lift the embargo altogether, it doesn’t appear as if the president is interested in going back to Obama-era policies as many had hoped. Instead, as the Biden administration announced sanctions on Russia for the invasion of Ukraine, it insisted they were intended to also target the economies of Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, thus, worsening Cuba’s woes.

Days before the widely televised July 11, 2021 protests, another protest was already happening. Prior to being appropriated and subsequently drowned out, organizers created what was a call for the international community to assist with COVID vaccine distribution and food shortages on the island. Since then, stagnant economic conditions and ruinous inflation have gripped Cuba leading to an increasingly tense environment.

According to a source who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, anxiety is highest among young adults.

“The youth are fed up. There have been power outages galore and a lot of interruptions to internet service. I’m on a VPN so I’m able to connect,” the source told me. “Yesterday in Cienfuegos, the power was out for 16 hours. It’s very, very tense here.”

In discussions with many on the island, a sense of desperation has been growing since the start of the pandemic. Efforts by the Cuban government to implement economic reforms and strengthen their private sector aren’t moving fast enough for some. Among the young adults I’ve spoken to, some expressed a sense of hopelessness yet, most remain hopeful.

“This isn’t easy. But the people don’t want another revolution. They want reforms and gradual change,” the source said.

That sentiment is one I’ve heard for years from the majority of Cubans on the island. As food becomes more accessible and power plants are brought in on barges to address power outages, influxes of cars and buses enter the country from Japan. These events are seen as signs of gradual but positive progress. However, while food may be more accessible than it was a year ago, Cubans on the island are being hit exceptionally hard by inflation.

“Even though the food situation is somewhat better than last year. By that I mean, there are more things available; more imports, and more local crops, the prices are insane,” the source emphasized.

Flights of Desperation

High inflation has driven many younger Cubans to leave the island and attempt to get to the U.S. in record numbers. According to the Panamanian National Border Services (Senafront), in 2021, more than 15,000 Cubans on their way to the U.S. crossed a portion of the Darién jungle known as the Darién Gap that creates a border between Panama and Colombia.

Alternatively and despite Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas issuing a statement asserting that any migrant intercepted at sea would not be permitted to enter the country, many Cubans are making the treacherous journey from the island to the U.S.

Late last year, Cuban authorities confirmed 1,255 Cubans were returned to Cuba from the United States, the Cayman Islands, Mexico, and the Bahamas in bilateral operations. According to the Cuban news outlet, Granma, 861 Cubans have been returned as of March 2, 2022: 345 by the U.S. Coast Guard, 473 by Mexico, and 43 by the Bahamas.

In addition to fleeing the island due to economic desperation, the families of those who leave are faced with losing access to resources that are more difficult to find. Older generation Cubans are dependent on their children more than ever. Children and young adults know how to best move undeterred and gain access to much-needed supplies and food.

“Everyone is leaving except the old ones,” the source sid. “One of my young cousins left for Mexico. People are desperate because they’re losing their kids who are often the ones that make things happen at home. Such as getting the paquetes and running essential errands. The youth know where to get things. How to get around shit. Parents depend on their kids a lot.”

Paquetes (packages) are flash drives or hard drives loaded with content and delivered every week. They are filled with American media, news, and entertainment. Once delivered the client must download the content they want and return the drive with payment. The following week a new paquete is delivered with entirely new content. While illegal, the service is Cuba’s top employer.

“The Family Code is also a big deal right now. Local activists have been working on this since 2018,” the source said. “But the double edge sword of passing the Family Code is they’re also slipping in a new Penal Code which is terrifying,” they continued.

Driving some to flee Cuba for the U.S. is the heavy hand employed by Cuban courts handing down sentences of up to 30 years in prison for some of the July 11, 2021 protesters. The sentences along with such serious charges have had a chilling effect on those who may have been considering leaving. For some, it’s the breaking point. Leaving them feeling as if they have no other choice but to make the dangerous journey to the United States.

Fears of Imprisonment

With harsh sentencing for seemingly innocuous crimes —although, some were caught throwing rocks at police, turning over vehicles, and looting— many in Cuba fear getting out in the streets and protesting again. Some are openly organizing in public spaces such as Twitter and Facebook trying to garner support to protest long sentences for the July 11, 2021 protesters.

An independent journalist, Lázaro Yuri Valle Roca, is facing six years in prison. He’s being held on charges of “resistance and enemy propaganda”. According to reports, the charges are for a journalistic piece on YouTube titled: “Havana heated up, flyers commemorating the birth of Antonio Maceo are released.”

He has been in a Cuban jail since August of 2021. His wife recently posted a video on Facebook speaking out against his imprisonment.

Valle Roca’s video shows flyers being released by a human rights group known as Titán de Bronce at the intersection of Zanja and Galeano in Old Havana. According to Valle Roca, the flyers contained quotes from Cuban independence revolutionaries José Martí and Antonio Maceo in celebration of Maceo’s birthday—both men are revered by both the population and the regime.

Musician Abel Lescay was recently sentenced to six years in prison for his involvement in the July 11, 2021 protests. According to screenshots Lescay shared on Facebook, making up the terms of his sentence are charges that have been translated as follows: “Continuous aggravated contempt, public disorder, and contempt of the continued character.” Lescay’s charges stem from accusations of causing extensive damage to a pharmacy and throwing rocks at police officers. In a Facebook post, he denies the charges.

Human rights groups have denounced Cuba’s treatment of protesters. The harsh sentences have also been met with anger and disgust by many Cubans. However, the new Penal Code is striking fears across the island. For some, it deepens the sense of wanting to flee.

“[The new Penal Code] includes the death penalty for insurrection, sedition, and terrorism,” the source said. “These are some of the charges being levied against the youth that are currently locked up for protesting last summer. Some of these kids are getting sentences as long as 30 years. There are dozens of minors in the mix.”

Reports from the island indicate a strong feeling among many who are no longer willing to endure harsh economic conditions. With no signs of assistance from the U.S. in opening access to markets or helping the people more directly, hope for more immediate improvements is all but lost to some Cubans, making the journey off the island much more attractive.

As Cuba increasingly relies on its neighbors in the region, as was the case when Latin American countries heeded the call for help in July of 2021, thousands of Cubans are preparing to leave or have already left for other countries. While most want to come to the U.S., many have settled in other Latin American countries such as Mexico or Panama.

Mass Exodus

While thousands of Cubans have sold their homes to pay for travel expenses for the journey through Central America, many more are struggling to sell theirs or even put them on the market. Others are making the 90-mile trek north in makeshift boats and rafts. In many cases, families are left behind to handle the sale of homes and belongings. Money that is often needed to fund travel or expenses once exiles arrive at their destination.

The biggest hurdle for Cubans who want to leave is the lack of staffing at the U.S. Embassy in Havana. After its closing and the removal of its staff in 2017, Cubans have been forced to travel to a third country to apply for visitor visas. Since most consular services were suspended, visa petitions in Cuba have skyrocketed creating a massive backlog. With no immediate relief in sight, many Cubans feel forced to leave.

While Panama relaxed its visa requirements for Cubans during COVID, the country recently reversed course and tightened its prerequisites for allowing migrants to pass through the Central American nation on their way to their destinations.

Weeks ago, hundreds gathered at the Panamanian embassy in Havana to protest the new changes. Many of those protesting had already scheduled their passage out of the country and were caught off guard potentially losing money already spent on travel and accommodations. Despite these difficulties, record numbers of Cubans are arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border thanks in part to Nicaragua’s decision in November 2021 to allow Cubans to travel visa-free.

While it’s impossible to tell just how many Cubans arrived via Nicaragua, the rise in the numbers showing up at the Southern Border correlates with President Daniel Ortega’s elimination of visa requirements. In the months since that decision, the number of Cubans reaching the U.S. via Mexico jumped from about 5,000 a month to over 16,000 in February.

With the lifting of Title 42, many are pointing to Joe Biden’s decision to end the policy on May 23 as the reason for a coming influx of migrants seeking asylum. However, this is also the time of year when we typically see peaks in migrants at the border. This is normal and is expected every year due to milder temperatures.

But, because of the bilateral agreement between Nicaragua and Cuba combined with the lifting of Title 42 and rumors that the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is providing special considerations for Cubans and Venezuelans, the number of asylum-seekers from the island is expected to substantially increase.

Still, Cuba Persists

Of concern with political movements regarding Cuba is that much of the influence we see online comes from what many Cubans often refer to as “Miami Cubans”. While not always in Miami, Florida, many are far-right politically only giving credence to the misinformation about Cuba. They seek to inflame the population into trying to overthrow the government.

With such divergent views among Cubans all over the world, finding truth in a sea of American media bias and Cuban propaganda can be tricky. Learning the reality of what’s happening on the island means talking to Cubans. With nearly unfettered access, mostly on Spanish-language social media, it behooves everyone to learn from their stories as we report them.

Regardless of how people in the West have been taught to view the Cuban government or its people, outright refusals to challenge those ideas are a case study of willful unfamiliarity. It prevents us from having the difficult conversations that should be had. Everything regarding Cuba requires nuance and context. To help Cubans is to listen to the voices in Cuba.

Despite what Cuban ex-pats might say, most Cubans aren’t interested in overthrowing the current regime and tossing Cuba into a state of upheaval. If not for the constant barrage of manipulated narratives perpetuated by the Cuban immigrant community and amplified by major news organizations, it would seem most in the U.S. intentionally fail to understand this.

The protests on July 11, 2021, were hardly the mass protests that were highlighted all over big media. Many of the protests we saw that were portrayed as anti-government, were actually pro-government. Anti-government protesters were highlighted on cable news throwing stones and overturning police vehicles with videos and images that are now being used against them to impose disproportionately harsh sentences. Now, western media rarely mentions them, if ever.

In the end, and despite all the negatives being highlighted at the current moment, protests similar to last year seem unlikely. While frustrations are high even among the majority who support the government, fears of repercussions will most certainly play a role in preventing protests and giving media any ammunition to use against the Cuban people.

“I don’t think people will hit the streets like last year,” the source said. “There’s too much at risk. I don’t know. The youth can get impetuous and with assholes egging them on from Miami on Facebook, who knows? Families here are begging their kids not to protest. Let’s see what happens.”


Arturo Domínquez is a first-generation Cuban American father of three young men, an anti-racist, journalist, and publisher of The Antagonist Magazine. If you’d like to learn more about the issues covered here, follow him on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram. You can also support his work here and here.