Cuban Protests: Coercion and Revolution for Export

Tobias Belgrano
Raul Castro and Nicolas Maduro (Source: CNN)

Since 1991, Cuba has suffered economic and political unrest due to the fall of the Soviet Union and the consequent lack of Communist aid. During the ’90s, the Cuban government and Fidel Castro himself referred to the post-Soviet era as a “special period”. In fact, Cubans remember this time as a period of hunger and repression.

The socialist island was able to ease economic tensions for a few years during its alliance with Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. In 2000, the two leaders signed an agreement of cooperation that involved the economic integration of both countries. The Cubans contributed to the Venezuelan economy with technology and services to “support the economic and social program for the development of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela” in exchange for a daily shipment of 53,000 barrels of crude oil a day. Even today, the island receives subsidized oil barrels despite the economic disaster caused by the Maduro regime. 

The oil was resold by Castro’s regime to gain hard currency; however, the island’s situation has become more difficult in recent years, due to the economic crisis in Venezuela, the drop in the oil prices, and the Covid-19 pandemic that killed tourism, a big source of income for the island.

Is this the end of the Cuban dictatorship? 

“Movimiento San Isidro”, born from artists and human rights activists in favor of the change, has been significantly impacted due to recent internet access, despite the government’s shutdown, which allows the world to see some of the abuses of the dictatorship, a compelling difference with the “Maleconazo” movement in 1994.

Further, the civil society that rose against Cuban autocracy has a stronger identity than ever. The song “Patria y Vida” (Motherland and life) and the movement’s name “Movimiento San Isidro” have given the anti-regime protesters a slogan and an anthem that helped put their movement on the map.

In a recent interview, Steven Levitsky talked about regimes that are born from social movements, as is the case in Cuba, and their long-term stability. One of the reasons this Harvard professor identifies is that in this kind of revolution there is a total collapse of the ancient regime, for instance, the church, former military, and pre-existing political parties. Subsequently, a revolutionary army is created through the indoctrination of the new leadership. This tends to reduce the chances of military uprisings, and, in the long term, can result in a total fusion between the political elite and the armed forces. 

The ambiguity over the monopoly of power and violence has been exploited by Castro and his commanders in several instances to assure the obedience of his army, which has never rebelled against the revolution, allowing the Cuban politburo to buy some long-term stability.

Another ticket for autocratic stability is the consolidation of a powerful, coercive system. The organizations controlled by the new elites made the Cuban regime immune to military coups. The fearsome apparatus created by the Cubans was known as the G2, created in the early ’60s by former Interior Minister Ramiro Valdez Menendez, with advisors from the Czech intelligence, the consent of Anastás Mikoyán and Raul Castro, and the supervision of the KGB.

The revolutionary veteran Ramiro Valdez (Source: La Patilla)

The G2’s have also been exported to counsel the Maduro regime, to help wipe away the opposition and the unsubmissive media, and ultimately build an authoritarian regime. Ramiro Valdez was named advisor of an energy commission in 2010 by President Hugo Chavez himself. The former Minister was the face of a large number of Cubans who joined the public administration of Venezuela during this period.

The once prosperous Venezuelan democracy, ruled by a bipartisan regime, became a battleground between a republic that has not passed away and an autocracy that has not yet been born. As Gramsci once said, it is “the time of monsters”.

Mr. Valdez is one of the historic leaders of the revolution. He enlisted with Castro in the Moncada insurrection when he was 22 and followed Castro’s to imprisonment and exile. After the triumph of the revolution, he was sent as the second commander of the “La Cabaña” military fortress, a place that is well known for being chosen for the execution of the former Batista army and police forces. 

In 1960, he was a key member of the Cuban delegation that received training in military intelligence in Czechoslovakia, his fearsome reputation in this field gave him the alias “Charco de Sangre” (pool of blood).

“Valdés has governed Cuba with repression and a rifle under his arm, that’s the only purpose he has. He never managed engineering matters,” said Enrique Márquez, spokesman for the opposition party “Un Nuevo Tiempo” in an article to “El Mundo” journal.

However, giving some hope to change, Levitsky assures that when the revolutionary generation disappears, the dictatorship needs to find alternative bases for stability. For instance, in the cases of Vietnam and China, the solution was industrial economic growth. However, the latter did not work in Cuba, despite loosening private property control and advances from the Chavez alliance.

Protests in Cuba (Source: BBC)

The Cuban Revolution created a society that, between the ’70s and late ’80s, was socially integrated thanks to the help of Soviet aid, despite the fact that dissensus was eliminated with repression. From the ’90s onwards, coercion and ideology were the only recipes the revolution could offer to build political stability.

President Canel faces the challenge of choosing whether to open Cuba to the global markets as the rest of the Communist dictatorships did. This would buy stability for the political branch, with the cost of inner resistance from the Cuban politburo, as Deng Xiaoping suffered in his time. The risk of not addressing reforms would expose the regime to more years of political tension and repression.

  • Can scattered protests who lack charismatic leadership take down a coercive system?
  • Is Diaz Canel willing to open Cuba to the Chinese model against the will of the commander’s establishment to revitalize the Cuban model and buy long-term stability?
  • Is the blockade the right policy to end poverty and repression?

Suggested Reading

Convenio Integral de cooperación entre Cuba y la República Bolivariana de Venezuela.

The Durability of Revolutionary Regimes, Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way.

Fue Cuba: La infiltración cubano-soviética que dio origen a la violencia subversiva en Latinoamerica, Juan B. Yofre.

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Cuban Protests: Coercion …

by Tobias Belgrano time to read: 4 min
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