By William Tucker
Just days after the assassination of Haitian president Jovenel Moise, protests across the Windward Passage consumed nearby Cuba and rattled its long-ruling communist regime.
The Cuban government had made some low-level efforts towards liberalization that included internet access to a wider portion of the island’s population. That led many of the Cuban protesters to coordinate their activities across the country. In short order, the government cut off internet access and forcefully cracked down on the protesters in the streets.
Unsurprisingly, Havana Claimed that the U.S. Was Behind the Protest Effort
Unsurprisingly, Havana claimed that the U.S. was behind the protest effort and that the U.S. embargo was the root cause of the economic problems that spurred the protests. Cuba has long been dealing with high prices on vital consumer goods and food shortages, but this is an issue that arose from government mismanagement rather than from the U.S. embargo.
It’s important to note that, despite the embargo, the U.S. is the largest exporter of food and agricultural products to the island. Furthermore, Cuba trades with 70 nations globally. So no, the island is not so isolated by the U.S. embargo that Cubans are starving as a result. Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel eventually admitted some government culpability in the crisis.
About a decade ago I conducted several lectures on so-called “rogue regimes” and Cuba, along with its intelligence apparatus, was one of the nations I spoke about. At the time Cuba had transferred its leadership from Fidel Castro to his brother Raul and signs of economic stress were becoming more acute.
Raul Castro Traveled Abroad Looking for Economic Support, but Found Little Help
As president, Raul Castro traveled abroad looking for economic support but found little help from other nominally communist nations other than energy support from Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. The recent protests over the availability of necessities clearly show that the economic situation on the island has not improved over the past decade.
Castro and then Diaz-Canel did attempt several efforts aimed at revitalizing the economy and eliminating inefficiencies. But one problem the government faced is the built-in corruption that Fidel Castro employed to ensure loyalty among his military and political elite. As a result, many of Castro’s closest allies have controlling interests in state-run companies and removing these interests often means undermining the entire system.
Due to attrition, many of these initial Castro loyalists are leaving their positions of power and are being replaced by a younger generation. What this really means is unknown at this point, but one failing of the attempted economic initiatives was the lack of people with the know-how to modernize both bureaucratic and private institutions.
Facing political pressure from both sides of the aisle, President Biden finally addressed the situation in Cuba by slapping sanctions on several Cuban government officials. There are many Cuban ex-patriots living in Florida who vehemently oppose the current Cuban regime and tend to have an outsized voice in U.S. policy towards the island.
Any U.S. president faces a difficult situation trying to appease a large voting bloc in a critical electoral swing state and crafting effective policy in a region important to U.S. national security.
Biden Is Unlikely to Go Beyond Sanctions as Punishment for the Abuse of Cuban Protesters
Biden is unlikely to go beyond sanctions as punishment for the abuse of Cuban protesters, but other avenues are likely to be exploited. The protests relied heavily on internet access to coordinate activities and the U.S. could conceivably provide that access without Cuban government disruption.
The last time Washington tried such a thing in Cuba it did so through USAID but the operation was disrupted by the Castro regime. New technology may allow the U.S. to provide access remotely as opposed to the previous operation of establishing a digital network on the island itself. That said, one option that many hope for but is rather remote is forcible regime change. As long as Washington can keep foreign adversaries from exploiting the situation in Cuba the administration will simply let the situation fester.
Despite the current protests and the poor economic outlook, the Cuban regime will continue its hold on power until there is a legitimate breakpoint whereby the government itself ruptures. This can happen with mass protests that the military cannot or will not suppress, as we saw not long ago in the Middle East. However, the outcome of such chaos is not guaranteed to end in democratic rule.
This is where the U.S. can find itself in a bind. It can support the protesters now, which will likely lead to further repression, or it can try to support pro-democratic forces later when the government weakens. The problem with waiting too long is that Washington may lose the trust of pro-democratic forces, or another oppressive faction may take the helm.
Neither option is enviable, but domestic political issues preclude current involvement beyond token measures. Whatever happens next is up to the Cubans. Despite the best efforts of the U.S., that has always been the case.