In late July 2021, US President Joe Biden pledged to impose further sanctions on Cuba, a country in which scenes of anti-government demonstrations are almost non-existent. Recently, however, Cuba has witnessed massive demonstrations for the first time since the outbreak of a stifling economic crisis thirty years ago, similar to the current economic crisis that results mainly from the negative impacts of COVID-19, especially economically.
The opinions of experts and observers vary vis-à-vis the demonstrations and protests in Cuba in recent days. Various explanations have been proposed, as follows:
1- Largest economic decline in three decades: The protest against the economic crisis afflicting Cuba is one of the main explanations for the demonstrations that erupted in several Cuban cities. Cuba is facing a severe economic crisis exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has greatly damaged the tourism sector upon which the country depends heavily. Moreover, the decline in sugar cane production led to an 11% contraction of the economy last year, the largest decline in three decades. Despite the government’s attempts to enact a package of measures to alleviate the impact of the crisis, the problems of high prices, electricity cuts, and a scarcity of medicine and food have worsened.
2- Deterioration of the health situation in the country: The first week of August 2021 saw an increase in the number of COVID-19 infections. The health situation has worsened in Cuba, which last year recorded relatively few cases of COVID-19, but currently is recording nearly 9,000 cases per day. All of these health challenges come amid a president—Miguel Díaz-Canel—who lacks the revolutionary history and charisma of the Castro brothers, Fidel and Raul Castro, who ruled the country before him, which significantly weakens his popularity with Cuban citizens.
3- Demand for democracy: Some of the demands made by Cubans during the demonstrations concerned the overthrow of the dictatorship and the realization of democracy in a country governed by one party. In its 2021 report, Freedom House classified Cuba as "Not Free" because the communist state outlaws political pluralism, bans independent media, suppresses dissent, and severely restricts basic civil liberties.
4- Conspiracy sponsored by America: The Cuban president believes that the protests, which erupted at a time when the country is facing a severe economic crisis, were exacerbated by US sanctions, and he considers them part of a foreign plot to "break" the communist revolution launched by Cuban leader Fidel Castro in 1959. While the Cuban president acknowledged protesters with legitimate demands, he accused what he called the "Cuban-American Mafia" of trying to export a picture of complete chaos in the country and sees the protesters as mercenaries hired by the United States to destabilize the country.
Were they to expand geographically and spread to different sectors of Cuban society, the demonstrations in Cuba would likely have various repercussions, including:
1- Deepening of the domestic crisis: The political instability in Cuba is expected to exacerbate the country’s economic crisis and may increase the tension and societal division among Cubans. The country saw protesters divided between supporters and opponents of the demonstrations, especially with the Cuban President’s televised speech calling on his supporters to take to the streets and defend the revolution.
2- Exacerbation of regional divisions: The protests in Cuba are likely to have a strong impact on Latin-Latin relations, deepening political and ideological divisions between left and right-wing governments in the region. This was evident from the reactions of Latin American presidents to the Cuban demonstrations: while the presidents of Brazil, Peru, Chile, and Uruguay supported the protesters’ right to peaceful expression and called on the Cuban government to meet the protesters’ demands, the presidents of Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, and Mexico, by contrast, blamed the US blockade on Cuba for fomenting unrest and rejected any outside interference in Cuba’s domestic affairs.
3- Pressure on the Biden administration: While Havana blames the US for inciting the protests, the Biden administration’s foreign policy priorities are focused mainly on China and Russia. However, the US administration is facing mounting political pressure to craft a response that goes beyond merely calling for guarantees of Cubans’ right to expression and peaceful protest. In late July of 2021, President Joe Biden announced further sanctions on Havana, following the imposition of new sanctions, including the Cuban National Revolutionary Police and two of its officials.
4- Consolidation of the US-Russian rivalry: During the Cold War era, Cuba represented an important arena for US-Soviet competition. In fact, it almost caused a nuclear war between the two countries. The Cuban protests are expected to contribute to the escalation of the US-Russian rivalry in Latin America, especially since Moscow considers Cuba an important ally in the region, which has prompted Russia to intervene in the latest crisis to demand there be no foreign interference in Cuba’s domestic affairs and to reject any measures that may destabilize Cuba. Both China and Iran support Russia’s position.
A set of future scenarios can be formulated for the outcome of the protests in Cuba, including the following:
1- Sudden regime change: If the protests reach a critical mass that undermines state control over the instruments of coercive power, or if acts of repressive violence radically weaken the government’s legitimacy, the opposition will be able to overthrow the ruling regime. This outcome does not seem likely, at least for the time being, especially since the protests had no clear leader and were insufficiently organized, and the opposition does not possess weapons, intelligence information, or significant financial resources.
2- Outbreak of civil war: If the geographical scope of the protests expands to include various Cuban cities, if the numbers of those involved in the protests significantly increase to include individuals belonging to the communist regime, if the ruling regime refuses to offer concrete concessions to the opposition, or if neither side is prepared to compromise or find a middle ground acceptable to both, then matters may spin out of control and a civil war may break out in Cuba.
3- Direct foreign intervention: Miami Mayor Francis Suarez claimed that the Pentagon must seriously consider American military strikes against Cuba. However, this inflammatory rhetoric is primarily for local consumption. This scenario could come about if developments in Cuba cause serious threats to regional security such that the US army is compelled to intervene to avert violent chaos or a political vacuum that might be filled by forces loyal to China and Russia.
4- Continuity of the Cuban regime: Despite speculations of the possible downfall of Cuba’s ruling communist regime, one must not lose sight of the fact that the regime is extremely resilient and has been able to survive despite all the dangerous challenges it has faced, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the strong geopolitical tensions of the Cold War, the ongoing threat of American military intervention, and the spread of poverty and economic stagnation. This scenario is likely to occur if the Cuban regime succeeds in finding a package of incentives and concessions to accommodate the protesters’ demands. The regime will have to act quickly to address the people’s most pressing fears, i.e., those concerning the availability of vaccines and basic economic needs.
In conclusion, in light of the above, it is premature to predict a future scenario for the evolution of protests in Cuba. The situation is contingent on measures the government can take to respond to the protesters’ demands. Indeed, it has begun implementing a number of them with the announcement allowing travelers to bring food, medicine, and other necessities into the country without paying import duties and without a maximum limit. The future of these protests is also linked to the degree of citizen commitment to continue to demonstrate and expand the scope of their demands, as well as the amount of regional and international support they can garner.