By Domingo Amuchastegui
“We change, or we sink,” Raúl Castro categorically said more than a decade ago. A little later, his older brother Fidel had harsh words about socialism, the Cuban way: “This is not even good enough for us…”
Such statements seemed to promise profound transformations. But the promise went largely unfulfilled, and now the July 11 protests and subsequent incidents mark the collapse of an exhausted model.
A spontaneous and large social explosion
I do not give “credit” for the 7-11 collapse to the United States — nor to Cuban Miami or the paid opposition (as I have always called it), for that matter, let alone the delinquents and other marginalized folks who always accompany such social outbursts. Let us stop blaming the empire for all our ills. Washington, Little Havana, the “wage earners” on the Island — everyone was taken by surprise, as were the Cuban rulers. Obviously, the hostile elements immediately tried to capitalize on what happened.
I say this to support my impression that this is a spontaneous and large social explosion covering numerous provinces and cities, involving thousands of people. In notoriously poor areas and neighborhoods, where blacks and young people — pillars of the revolution in past decades — stood out during the protests, some hoisted, in expressions of a sort of neo-annexionism, symbols of the United States. All this while in the streets of Miami the crowds clamored, again and again, for an intervention by Washington as the ultimate solution.
No monopoly on “the people”
Both sides wrongfully claim a monopoly on “the people.” In fact, either side is mobilizing large segments of the population. Thousands of Cubans were in the streets on 7-11, protesting both against and for the government — “masses versus masses”. This polarization is a product of hardship, extreme shortages, of the total lack of incentives (both material and socio-cultural), and of dollarization beyond the usual context. I consider it particularly a reaction to the currency merger and devaluation that began in January. For 30 years, Cubans were told again and again that the leadership would never apply a “shock therapy”. But in practice the “Ordenamiento” resulted in precisely that: A monumental shock therapy that left the vast majority of the population in a situation in which prices, fed by hyperinflation, and salaries became antagonistic categories. Its prolongation led to the spontaneous social explosion, which assumes massive proportions thanks to the Internet and social networks, in which more than half of the population already participates.
The Internet and social networks are having an unprecedented viral dynamic, which the state monopoly now tries to silence. This is a useless act of political cowardice. You confront the United States, Cuban Miami, and opponents on the island on their own terrain, with the means at your disposal together with the value of your arguments and truths. The Cuban government, benefitting from such a “shutdown” of the Internet and social media sites? Certainly not. It benefits the opponents and discredits the one who does it.
The culprit: Resistance to change
The essential responsibility for all this lies in the institutional resistance to any significant change. We are talking about an inoperative model that has rested on a set of absolutist-statist dogmas such as Party-State and Party of the Cuban Nation, which are totally inadequate and outdated, 62 years after the triumph of the revolution.
The urgency of change first became evident in 1980 with the Mariel exodus. Nothing was done, everyone who raised their voice was disqualified as “scum”, and the rigidity of the system was reinforced. The “Rectification of Errors” of 1986 gave rise to hopes of change, but without contributing anything effective. The 4th Party Congress of 1991 saw a wave of proposals for radical changes. The response of the Party leadership was one of total rejection and severe recriminations and warnings. The leadership repeatedly liquidated any possibility of change, including an expansion of the “Economic Perfectioning” system used and promoted by the armed forces since the beginning of the 1980s.
The collapse of “real existing socialism”, Soviet-style, in 1989-1991 presented the most suitable juncture to promote a comprehensive remodeling. Rather, the leadership perpetuated absolutist mechanisms, while conceding two or three patches that achieved little in the already urgent need for profound change. The argument that “if we slacken, the situation will get out of hand” prevailed again and again. Meanwhile, cases of corruption and enrichment of leaders, their children and grandchildren — such as offshore accounts and trips abroad — were becoming more and more visible, and with it, the leadership’s moral authority eroded.
Thus, Cuban leaders began to live with their backs turned to time, refusing to realize that the new generations were no longer the enthusiastic revolutionaries of the 1960’s nor the obedient militants of other times. In the course of 60 years, the mechanisms of communication and interconnection have changed. But these leaders thought they could stop time inside the country and keep everything the same.
At the time of the 6th Party Congress, the winds of change were blowing again, but without resulting in anything tangible, and the 7th Congress proceeded to suppress some of the changes that were previously adopted. Once again, the “backward march” was imposed.
By the time the 8th Congress arrived in April 2021, without broad debates and preliminary consensus, Cuba was facing unprecedented poverty and shortages, worsened by Trump’s economic war and the pandemic, reaching a gravity almost impossible to imagine. The Congress could have been a turning point towards profound transformations. But it did not, cranking out ethereal and vague language instead. Blindness prevailed among Party and government leaders. This was the last chance to defuse tensions and encourage a reshuffle. All these failures are what leads directly to the social outburst of July 11 and its aftermath of tensions and unknowns.
To figure out where Cuba is headed, the first and most urgent question Is whether the government is collapsing. The answer is a categorical no. But for now, it remains on probation. Its internal and international image, its prestige and legitimacy have already been seriously eroded. It will never be remotely the same again; the stigma of July 11 will be indelible.
It will be official Cuba’s willingness and ability to comprehensively redesign the system that will determine the outcome. The government’s range of action is extremely limited by bankruptcy, with defaults on major debt agreements with the Paris Club, China and Russia. This situation is now aggravated by the fact that potential investors and tourists, post July 11, see Cuba as less attractive. Restarting foreign investment and the reinsertion of Cuba in international financial institutions and global financial markets is essential to ensure the necessary capital and technology flows in the medium term.
But given the government’s narrow range of options, the main thing to do now is to finally undertake the comprehensive redesign of the internal order. In the short term, it will be necessary to work wonders with agriculture, expand private small and midsize businesses’ access to all activities while granting them legal standing and predictability, and substantially reduce state monopolies, to name just a few measures suggested for years by Cuban economists. Little patches, such as the temporary lifting of customs duties on the import of food, medicine and toiletries, allowing installment purchases, and legalizing garage sales won’t do the trick anymore. Recent measures like these seem to have been taken out of an antique store; they might have had an impact in the 1980s, but today they are laughable.
Cuba’s leaders cannot expect any rescue from outside. Even a moderate improvement of relations with the United States would be a miracle. This will not be happening under Joe Biden, since his administration seems hell-bent on helping produce a Cuban collapse in order to win Florida for his party.
Even if mass vaccination in Cuba progresses as planned, the effects of the pandemic on tourism will linger for a while. A quick return to five million tourists a year — or even to a flow of 600,000 Cubans visiting from abroad — is not in the cards.
So: It’s “change or sink” for Cuba’s leaders.
Former Cuban intelligence officer Domingo Amuchastegui has lived in Miami since 1994. He writes regularly on Cuba’s internal politics, economic reform, and South Florida’s Cuban community.