Six decades ago, America tried to save Cuba from the totalitarianism that would decimate that nation’s treasure and crush its soul. But the Kennedy administration catastrophically bungled the effort; over a hundred heroes died, the rest were captured. Democracy would have to wait. We’ve now come full circle: it is now the Cuban people who are sending the world—and especially the U.S. (as many demonstrators held American flags)—that same message of freedom. But if this crashes, it is not the Cuban protestors who would have failed: it is America.
Don’t count on the mainstream media to explain what is happening there. Here is how a New York Times July 28 editorial by Ernesto Londoño skillfully spun the July 11 uprisings: “When Cubans, spurred by a severe economic crisis, erupted in a rare wave of public rallies, government critics on the island and abroad hoped the act of defiance would force the island’s authoritarian rulers to embrace political and economic reforms.” And who were those rabble-rousers? “State-run media outlets denounce demonstrators as vandals and looters.” We have them here too; though admittedly, this does sound excessive: “Police officers have gone door-to-door making detentions, human rights activists and protesters said.” Economic crises can certainly cause lawlessness.
Two days later, Reuters duly echoed the narrative: “Thousands took to the streets, angry over shortages of basic goods, curbs on civil liberties, and the authorities’ handling of the pandemic.” Never mind that one cannot “curb” what doesn’t exist. Nor is simple anger what makes you walk into the firing squad pointed at your people’s heart for six decades. This isn’t journalism; it’s whitewash.
In reality, the Cuban protests were explosive: “Simply unprecedented,” declared Sebastian Arcos, associate director of Florida International University’s (FIU) Cuban Research Institute (CRI), at a CRI conference on July 21. “It is without a doubt a watershed moment in the history of Cuba.” For while there is a “deepening economic crisis compounded by a health crisis and, of course, Covid,” the demonstrations were not “grievances for economic issues or local government issues. They were openly, politically radicalized against the regime,’’ declared Arcos. “The chants for freedom, down with [Cuban President] Díaz-Canel, down with Communism. The population doesn’t believe the narrative [of the Cuban government] anymore.”
Just watch one of the countless videos circulating on social media, which captured an 81-year-old woman yelling at a cell phone camera: “For over 60 years, we’ve been lied to and cheated, and this must end. We’re taking off the cloak of silence.”
That is the best metaphor to describe what is going on in Cuba today, writes Hilda Landrove in the progressive NACLA Report on July 27. “The significance of these protests cannot be exaggerated; they are the biggest and most radical expression of discontent in a 62-year process that the ruling elite call a revolution, although little remains of the original revolutionary impulse except the name.” The cause of the current disaster is the same as Venezuela’s and every other leftist dictatorship, explains Landrove: “A soviet model of economic control has concentrated wealth in the hands of government-run corporations, exacerbated unstable living conditions for much of the Cuban population, and hindered non-state controlled economic growth, including sustainable popular and community economies.”
A Mesoamerican Studies Doctoral candidate at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and a Cuban culture organizer, Landrove understands and loves her people: “These protests are rooted in an enduring tradition of resistance, dissent, and opposition to the equally long-standing totalitarian Cuban government. Since November 2020, the 27N and Movimiento San Isidro (MSI) movements have changed the island’s political landscape and civil society by insisting on ‘the right to have rights.’ The state responded to those efforts by intensifying repression and criminalizing dissent.”
Her target audience? Look at the title: “With Cubans Speaking Out, How Will the Left Respond?” It is her progressive colleagues whom she accuses of rank hypocrisy. Even as life on the island worsens, “the image of Cuba, as the lighthouse of the Americas and a model for many anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist movements, has remained intact.” Accusing them of an “ongoing voluntary blindness” and double standards, she lashes out furiously: “Time and again, we Cubans that live in Latin America have felt compelled to explain, usually to deaf ears, the systemic crisis of education and health, the collapsed social security system, and the unstable living conditions that most of the population suffers.” Focusing on the North American embargo may be useful as “an ideological marker but few really understand from a legal standpoint what has affected the Cuban economy.” Far from being caused by the embargo, “the island’s economic downfall is a result of the powerful elite’s iron grip and stockpiling.”
American economic sanctions—which, incidentally, exempt food and medicine—were explained by John Suarez, executive director of Center for a Free Cuba, on July 31: “American companies, due to the Castro dictatorship’s monopoly over the economy, can only sell to the regime. The dictatorship is the one exploiting Cubans. For example, American companies sell chicken to Cuba for $1 per kilo and the Castro regime turns around and sells it to Cubans in government stores at $7 per kilo pocketing the difference for the Castros.” No wonder that, as Landrove points out, “[d]aily life in Cuba has become unbearable for a majority who don’t have dollars and are unable to shop at stores that accept this currency. Stores operating in local currency are often unable to stock essential products.”
But most to blame are “[t]hose who call themselves the Latin American Left today [who] will have to decide what to do with their words, which conceal the spectacular fall of the narrative of a submissive people and a benign government. Will they continue to empty their words of meaning or uphold their principles?” But what exactly are those “principles”? Their roots were sewn in the 1960s—the heady days when radicals conspicuously genuflected before the communist model. Writes former leftist Bryan Burrough in his seminal Days of Rage: “Apocalyptic revolutionaries represented a strident new voice in the [radical] movement . . . [whose] favorite blueprint was the Cuban Revolution, their icon Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, Castro’s swashbuckling right-hand man.”
These included members of the Weather Underground, Black Panther Party (BPB), and May 19th. Some became terrorists—notably Joanne Chesimard, a.k.a. Assata Shakur, former member of the Black Liberation Army (BLA, an offshoot of the BPB) that was devoted to armed struggle. Until her escape from a New Jersey state prison in 1979, Shakur had been serving a life sentence for the 1973 murder of a U.S. state trooper.
This brings us to today. Shakur eventually reached Cuba, which granted her asylum in 1984. She is still there, and on the FBI’s most wanted list. So too is Charlie Hill, former member of a militant group called the Republic of New Afrika (RNA), which sought to create independent black nation in the American South. Hill, along with two other men, stands accused of killing a policeman in New Mexico in 1971. Another is fellow RNA member Cheri Dalton, alias Nehanda Abiodun, sought for her involvement in the armed robbery of an armored truck in New York in 1981, in which two policemen and a security guard were killed. Is it any wonder that their former colleagues, fellow radicals variously pardoned and hired to teach in universities, activists in organizations such as Black Lives Matter, would be reluctant to antagonize the Cuban government?
”Fair enough,” concedes University of Texas professor Jorge Felipe-Gonzales. But he thinks there is more to it: “the organization [BLM] is using the Cuban movement to criticize the U.S. government and its foreign policy,” he argues in the July 17 issue of The Atlantic. It praised former President Barack Obama for lifting sanctions against Cuba, which his successor later reversed, and which the Biden administration has been slow to amend. Cubans—and particularly Black Cubans—are suffering. The Cuban judicial system is prosecuting the protesters with sentences of up to 20 years.” Laments Felipe-Gonzales, “BLM, of all organizations, should be aware that Cubans can’t breathe either.”
Perhaps it is; but whom does BLM hold responsible? Its website “condemns the US federal government’s inhumane treatment of Cubans.” Read on: “Since 1962, the US has forced pain and suffering on the people of Cuba by cutting off food, medicine and supplies, costing the tiny island an estimated $130 billion. Without that money, it is harder for Cuba to acquire medical equipment need to develop its own COVID-19 vaccines and equipment needed for food production. This comes in spite of the country’s strong medical care and history of lending doctors and nurses to disasters around the world.”
That the “strong medical care” shares with “lending doctors and nurses to disasters around the world” top prize for stale mythology appears not to matter. Even the BBC reports the findings of Prisoners Defenders, a Spain-based NGO that campaigns for human rights in Cuba linked to the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) opposition group, indicating that “doctors on average receive between 10% and 25% of the salary paid by the host countries, with the rest being kept by Cuba’s authorities.” What is more, starting in 2020, Human Rights Watch has denounced Cuba’s treatment of its health workers as virtual slaves. Health workers who “abandon” the missions to which they have been assigned, for example, are subject to a de facto entry ban to Cuba of eight years. In November 2019, the UN special rapporteurs on contemporary forms of slavery declared that the working conditions reported to them, including from first-hand sources, “could amount to forced labor.”
None of this seems to have been noticed by the BLM establishment. But it will be increasingly harder to ignore the truth now that the whole world is watching. As former dissident and former Czech Ambassador to the UN Martin Palous, Director of the Václav Havel Program for Human Rights and Diplomacy, told the hundreds of participants at the July 21 FIU conference: “This is not only about Cuba. It’s about the future of democracy in the world. We have an obligation to help, and we have a chance to help. This is a transatlantic issue and certainly a global issue.”
Arcos underscored the importance of this moment: “What we saw in the streets of Cuba and in the streets of Miami is that there has been a generational shift. Younger people have taken the cause of freedom and have made it theirs. They have demonstrated that they have the passion, and they have the interest.” The leaders of this new movement are “a cross-section of Cuba and they are younger, darker and female. Young people and women especially have played an incredible role” in these demonstrations.
In neighboring Venezuela, opposition leaders have praised the pro-democratic movement in Cuba, added Astrid Arraras, professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations. It was summed up by Carlos Saladrigas, an entrepreneur and president of the Cuba Study Group: “This is not the beginning of the end,’’ he added. “We are seeing a vindication of openness and communication. None of this is going to be resolved in a day. We need to think of this as a process.”
This process, however, must start with facing the truth. That is why Landrove’s message, addressed to her friends on the left whatever they may call themselves—socialists, Marxists, progressives, liberals, whatever—is particularly powerful. They will have to decide where they stand, “how they define revolution, people, sovereignty, freedom, and what type of world they want to build when they use these words.” Absolutely. Words with respectable pedigrees have been repurposed with Gramscian-Leninist cynicism into their precise opposite, while progressives do not flinch as history marches backward to slavery.
The Castro dictatorship and most of the American media call the U.S. economic embargo a “blockade,” flying in the face of U.S.-Cuba trade statistics over the past 20 years. What does exist, reports the Center for a Free Cuba, is an “internal blockade” on Cubans imposed by the regime. Its website provides ample details. Also, do pay attention also to Cuba’s cozy relationship with Iran, which was re-established in 1979. On June 18, for example, the president of the Assembly’s International Relations Committee, Yolanda Ferrer, gushed on Twitter about welcoming Seyed Mohammad Hadi Sobhani, from the Islamic Republic, to discuss their “solid bilateral relations.”
To ignore reality and use words disingenuously is bad enough. But Landrove has one more request: “And they will also have to decide when to stay silent, because silence in the face of injustice is complicity.”
While examining their conscience, they would be well advised to read Against All Hope, the 1986 prison memoir of Armando Valladares, the nation’s Solzhenitsyn. The book ends by describing an orgy of blood, when suddenly a man emerged, “raising his arms to the invisible heaven and pleading for mercy for his executioners.” He was summarily gunned down. But his image stays indelibly etched in the reader’s mind. Let us not forsake him and his brave people.