In recent weeks, Cuba has seen an unprecedented wave of protests against the ruling communist regime. Open dissent in the one-party state has been rare since Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries, led by Fidel Castro, seized power in 1959 following the Cuban Revolution.
However, Cuba’s worsening economic situation has seen an already impoverished population increasingly desperate for change. As things stand, even finding basic necessities in Cuba can prove extremely challenging. Desperation means that an unprecedented number of Cubans see no alternative to taking to the streets, despite the often brutal consequences of criticizing the regime.
In Cuba, citizens do not have the opportunity to seek change through political means. Freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are simply nonexistent, and internet access is heavily restricted. Despite the difficult circumstances, we may be witnessing the beginning of a genuine opposition movement within Cuba that could finally challenge the authority of Fidel Castro’s ideological successors.
One crucial factor behind the current wave of protests is Cuba’s deteriorating living standards. While Cubans have faced many economic challenges in the past, the situation is now extremely dire. Food and medicine shortages, along with power cuts and a health system struggling to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, seem to have contributed to many Cubans losing patience. For the protesters and their supporters among the Cuban diaspora, the moment has come for ordinary Cubans to take action in openly calling for civil liberties and an end to the communist dictatorship.
For more than six decades, the Cuban regime has persecuted political opponents and minorities, engaged in extreme censorship, disregarded property rights, and generally oppressed and impoverished the population.
Today, aided by social media and the partial ability to bypass internet censorship, Cubans who are impatient for a brighter future have been able to coordinate a grassroots movement, while being fully aware of the consequences that may await them for their actions.
The Cuban regime has consistently tried to outwardly portray itself as a socialist success story, with excellent public services and high living standards, which could well be a utopia if not for the imperialist United States and its efforts at sabotage. However, the reality in Cuba is markedly different from what the propaganda would suggest.
American sanctions have negatively impacted the Cuban economy without any benefit to the oppressed population, but the economic woes the country faces today have more to do with successive generations of communist leadership. Fidel Castro nationalized industry and businesses following the Cuban Revolution, but unlike other authoritarian states like China, the Cuban regime remained ideologically stubborn in its economic policy.
Cuba’s leadership has consistently refused to implement the reforms necessary to enable economic growth. Furthermore, in recent months, the nation has suffered from staggering inflation rates following the government’s decision to devalue the Cuban peso in an effort to boost exports.
As it has always done in the past, the Cuban government is taking a zero-tolerance approach when it comes to open criticism. Sadly yet predictably, pro-freedom protesters have been met with brutal repression from both state security forces and supporters of the regime, encouraged by President Miguel Díaz-Canel in order to “defend the revolution.”
Thousands of protesters have been undeterred, defiantly chanting anti-government slogans. These include “Libertad!” and “Patria y Vida,” the latter meaning “homeland and life.” It was used as the title of a recent song made by Cuban artists in a new take on the famous communist revolutionary slogan “Patria o Muerte” (homeland or death).
The song “Patria y Vida” has become emblematic of the protest movement, with lyrics highlighting the grievances of a generation of Cubans who want a freer future for their country. In many instances, protesters have been arbitrarily detained simply for playing the song. Government officials have declared that those chanting the slogan will be regarded as “instigators,” meaning they will face further repercussions.
In the weeks since the protest movement began, the Cuban regime has arrested and detained demonstrators without informing families of their whereabouts, often for several days. Activists estimate that close to 700 people have been arrested, many of whom are reportedly still missing.
Individuals are typically arrested not for committing acts of violence or crimes that would be recognized as such by other countries, but for acts such as filming and sharing footage of the protests. The photographer who filmed part of the music video for “Patria y Vida” has been sentenced to a year in prison.
Furthermore, government agents are preventing journalists and political activists from leaving their homes. For many years, Cuba, ranked 171st in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index, has been considered by Reporters Without Borders to be Latin America’s worst violator of press freedom. Journalists who don’t follow the regime’s narrative face severe harassment and persecution from the authorities.
For decades, the government has enjoyed almost total control over the flow of information, which has been crucial to maintaining control over the oppressed and impoverished population. However, times are changing. With the current wave of protests, there is a sense of belief among Cubans that the end of communist rule could be on the horizon.
People are not as afraid to stand up to the regime as they once were, and the ruling party seems increasingly nervous about the future. The world is watching. An international audience is now becoming increasingly aware of the harsh reality in Cuba and expressing solidarity with the Cuban people in their brave fight for freedom and prosperity. There are now genuine reasons to be hopeful for an upcoming end to over six decades of communist tyranny in Cuba.
In the wake of the #CubaLibre protests, Students For Liberty held an event to discuss the situation in Cuba from a pro-liberty perspective. Hosted by our Research Associate, Andres Guilarte, the event featured Cuban-American student activist Alejandra Franganillo, who is a Students For Liberty Local Coordinator based in Miami. You can check out this insightful discussion in the video below.
This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions.