Cuba’s Heroes

No one remotely familiar with how things work in Cuba can feel anything less than awe and admiration for the thousands of Cubans who have taken to the streets—first in San Antonio de los Baños and then in many parts of the island—to protest against the dictatorship.

There are few places on earth where the regimentation and control of the population are more suffocating than in that country of eleven million people that has been governed with an iron fist for 62 years by the Castro brothers and the Communist Party.

Every neighborhood is under close surveillance by “Committees for the Defense of the Revolution” that make sure that any attempt at showing public discontent is nipped in the bud. That thousands of Cubans, desperate under the economic and social conditions they have been suffering for years, could take to the streets in such large numbers shouting out slogans against the regime and crying for freedom speaks to their extreme courage and to a significant amount of dissent among the spies supposed to control them.

So, yes, those Cuban protesters are heroes for showing the world what they really think of the communist dictatorship and, in the face of the vicious repression unleashed by Miguel Díaz-Canel, the puppet president who answers to Raúl Castro, continuing to demonstrate even as scores of people were beaten up, arrested and sent to detention centers where they are being tortured. The whereabouts of those detained are in many cases still unknown.

A few months ago, during the VIII Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba, the hierarchy of the Revolution underwent some changes. Part of the international community met with a certain degree of hope the fact that Raúl Castro left his post as the first secretary of the Communist Party in favor of Díaz-Canel and that the political bureau was reshuffled (leaders from Castro’s generation, such as Ramón Machado Ventura and Ramón Valdés, were replaced by younger revolutionaries). But those were purely cosmetic changes.

What better proof than the response by Díaz-Canel to the massive demonstrations? He ordered thousands of thugs who serve in the military and the police and in paramilitary units (including “rapid-response brigades”) to unleash hell on the people of Cuba, who had no weapons other than their voices.

Cuba is still run by Raúl Castro through his cronies. His former son-in-law, Gen. Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Calleja, the head of Gaesa, a network of companies run by the military that controls seventy percent of the island’s economy, a key figure for quite some time, became a member of the political bureau in April. Raúl Castro’s son, Col. Alejandro Castro Espín, who runs several spy agencies, is another key figure. Díaz-Canel, a disciplined cadre, is nothing but a figurehead in a power structure in which the Castro family calls the shots.

And there is not the slightest sign that the regime is willing to begin a transition to liberal democracy under the rule of law.

From time to time, given the economic pressure, it is under since the collapse of Venezuela’s economy (Cuba has lived on Venezuelan subsidies, at one point amounting to 12 percent of the island´s gross domestic product, for years), it allows a measure of private enterprise, but nothing that could create social upward mobility and the rise of a middle class potentially eager for political reform.

It is not the first time large numbers of Cubans show their rejection of the communist regime. Traditionally the Castros dealt with critics with brutal, selective repression. Whenever those protests went beyond small groups of dissidents, the regime has launched waves of emigration to the United States (for instance in 1980 and 1994), using migrants as a political weapon against the enemy and an escape valve to relieve the pressure.

For the moment, Díaz-Canel, who is blaming the protests on the U.S. “blockade” (even though Cuba actually trades with ninety countries, including the U.S., its fifth source of imports), is using brutal repression. We should not be surprised if the next step is to open the gates for thousands of migrants to head north.

Alvaro Vargas Llosa is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute. His Independent books include Global Crossings, Liberty for Latin America, and The Che Guevara Myth.
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