To explore the causes and implications of the wave of protests that broke out in Cuba on July 11, we present two interviews with Cuban anarchists and a statement from an anarchist initiative in Cuba.
Introduction: It’s Bigger than Cuba
We have heard a wide range of explanations for last week’s protests in Cuba. Right-wing proponents of capitalism blame the Cuban government, charging that the protests stem from the failures of one-party socialism. Self-proclaimed anti-imperialists blame the United States government, alleging that these protests indicate covert US intervention. Others blame US sanctions on Cuba, suggesting that these are chiefly to blame for creating the economic conditions that sparked the protests. Each of these narratives contains a grain of truth, but all fall short of grasping the whole.
How do people in Cuba see the protests? If we do not wish to simply project our own assumptions onto the events, the first thing we should do is to ask Cubans how they understand what is happening. Of course, there are bound to be countless different perspectives among the participants in a popular protest movement—but we can begin by consulting those whose politics are similar to our own.
One of the more visible Cuban anarchist groups is the Alfredo López Libertarian Workshop (Taller Libertario Alfredo López), an anarchist, anti-authoritarian, and anti-capitalist initiative that emerged in 2012. They are part of the Anarchist Federation of the Caribbean and Central America and one of the participants in the ABRA Social Center and Libertarian Library.
At the beginning of January 2021, well before the beginning of the recent protest movement, the Alfredo López Libertarian Workshop published a statement spelling out their political positions. They began by expressing their opposition to the trade sanctions imposed by the United States:
1.) We denounce any embargo on the Cuban people, whether imposed from abroad or from within, by any states, United or otherwise. We radically support the full deployment of our people’s creative capacities—their self-organization, self-subsistence, and self-liberation—in a world that needs more solidarity and cooperation.
Secondly, they expressed doubt that the sudden escalation of social unrest in Cuba would necessarily produce positive results when laborers and poor people lack structures for self-organization:
2.) We do not support provocations aimed towards a social explosion. This would be tragic in the current circumstances of organizational deterioration of the working classes and the most precarious segments of society.
This position generated controversy—see, for example, this response by exiled Cuban anarchist Gustavo Rodríguez, who explores the reasons that anarchists might support a “social explosion” [explosión social] like the recent uprisings in Chile and Colombia.
Nevertheless, four days ago, the Alfredo López Libertarian Workshop published a statement affirming last week’s protests in Cuba. It is significant that an organization that has expressed skepticism about “provocations aimed towards a social explosion” has rejected the narrative that the protests are the result of manipulation:
To make geopolitical arguments right now about the place of Cuba in imperial global strategy, to argue that the anti-government protests in Cuba are inevitably paid for by the Cuban right wing in Miami, that the protesters are simple criminals looking to loot, that the true revolutionaries are with the government—these are all arguments that describe a significant part of reality, but they miss it on one point. The people of Cuba have just as much right to protest as those of Colombia and Chile. What’s the difference? That they are oligarchies with different origins? With more or less brutal practices? More or less distinguishable camouflage? More or less servile postures towards the US government? More or less sublime ideas to justify their privileges?
The point here is simple, but it is essential. Poor people in Cuba, like poor people everywhere, have the right to stand up for themselves. Who could know better than they do when it is necessary for them to act?
“If you protest, an even worse government will come to power.” This is a pretext that any government can employ to justify suppressing opposition—and practically every government has. If we legitimize this excuse, we are siding with a section of the ruling class against ordinary people like ourselves, denying that they know what is best for themselves. If we refuse to extend solidarity to the exploited and oppressed, they will inevitably gravitate to the right—as they have across the former Eastern Bloc. To abandon rank-and-file protesters in places like Cuba is to give the far right a golden recruiting opportunity.
We should understand what is happening in Cuba in a global context. People are not simply protesting in one nation. People have been protesting in France, in Hong Kong, in Catalunya, in Lebanon, in Ecuador, in Chile, in the United States, in Belarus, in Russia, in Tunisia, in Brazil, in Colombia. Countless people in dramatically different geopolitical contexts, under dramatically different regimes, have been adopting similar tactics to express similar grievances. This suggests that what is going on here is deeper than the failures of the Cuban government or the manipulations of the US government.
Though the protests in Cuba were triggered by specific economic developments, we can identify a few common threads that connect practically all of the aforementioned examples. First, everywhere across the board, we see increasing wealth disparities and austerity measures—from the barefaced capitalism of the United States to the social-democratic countries of northern Europe to authoritarian socialist countries like China and Nicaragua. Second, at the same time that they are cutting social programs and protections, all of these governments are investing considerable resources in intensifying state violence and surveillance. Consequently, practically all of them are facing crises of legitimacy, whether those take the form of national independence struggles, populist movements, demands for “more democracy,” or bona fide horizontal social movements.
Both austerity measures and intensified policing disproportionately impact the most oppressed and impoverished demographics in each country—from Black communities in the United States to southeast Asian guest workers in the Middle East—while galvanizing reactionaries who are anxious about losing their privileges. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated this situation, dramatizing the gulfs between wealthy and poor, ruler and ruled.
So what is happening in Cuba is not unique—and it is not just the result of government misconduct or intervention.1 When we see things this way, our responsibilities become clear.
It is not within the power of anarchists to prop up authoritarian regimes from the 20th century, nor should we seek to. To tie our hopes to the receding prospects of a state project, associating our aspirations for liberation with its shortfalls, will only discredit us, the same way that the collapse of the USSR discredited socialism in Russia and the failures of Syriza paved the way for the far-right New Democracy party in Greece. We have to build a new generation of movements based in contemporary grassroots struggles, in order to grapple with the problems that capitalism poses on a global scale. Our responsibility is to the ordinary people in Cuba, not to those who rule them. We should make contact with those who are experimenting with principled forms of self-defense and self-determination in order to act in solidarity with them—under the regimes that prevail today and under whatever regimes may succeed those tomorrow.
In that spirit, we invite you to read the following interview with Cuban anarchists about the events of the past week. You can also read the statement from the Alfredo López Libertarian Workshop, “Cuba: The End of the Social Spell of the ‘Revolution,’” in full at the conclusion of the interview.
Interview: Two Anarchists
We interviewed two Cuban anarchists. One is involved with the Alfredo López Libertarian Workshop in Havana. The other is involved in projects outside Havana, elsewhere on the island; anarchists from the United States met her and her comrades in early 2019. Both remain anonymous for their safety. In translating these interviews from the original Spanish, we edited for length and clarity.
How would you like to identify yourself and how you are situated in Cuban society?
Anarchist from outside Havana (hereafter, AOH): I am a working woman. I belong to two organizations, a workers’ union and an association of creative youth.
Anarchist from the Alfredo López Libertarian Workshop (hereafter, ALLW): I’m an anarchist and I work with the Alfredo López Libertarian Workshop. I am also a student at the University of Havana and I participate in several different projects and types of activism.
As an anarchist, what have you been able to do there?
AOH: The anarchists here are small subcultures that are united. Everyone gets along and helps each other. As an anarchist, you can do a lot—whatever is necessary for the well-being of people in general.
ALLW: I’ve mainly been involved in helping free the university students arrested during and after July 11. We were able to put together a group of students and alumni that sent a letter of complaint to the Ministry of Higher Education and put pressure on them to free those arrested as soon as possible. We haven’t been spared harassment and intimidation in this process, since in Cuba university reform ended up being taken over by the state, which dominates the university administration and student organization (the Federation of University Students, Federación de Estudiantes Universitarios, FEU) together with the Communist Party. In intimidating students out of organizing, the state has employed the same pretext used to discredit the protests: that we are confused.”
Apart from my role in university circles, I’ve also done what I can to support the gestures of solidarity that have been taking place since before the protests to confront the health crisis gripping the country. These days, it’s one of the most relevant self-organized processes in Cuba, and our collective agrees that it’s important to participate in. Connecting this with other current movements will also be an important step towards overcoming conditional solidarity that ends up disappearing or being swallowed up by the state.
How did the protests begin?
AOH: The hospitals are in bad shape; there isn’t enough medication and equipment for the doctors to do their jobs and, sadly, people are dying. If you can find groceries, they’re priced way too high to afford. It’s known that the US blockade exists and that this means that other countries can’t trade with Cuba, and that’s why things are scarce. In these conditions, it is necessary to accept any humanitarian aid for the good of the people. There was an aid shipment that wasn’t accepted. [More information here.]
The protests began due to the failure of the hospitals in Matanzas and the lack of medication. Through social media, reports began to give spiritual strength to the province. Other provinces had the same problems, just less severe, and would soon find themselves in the same situation. It was an impulse, from this situation and others, that provoked an explosion from people, not simply on social media but out in the street.
They were cutting off the electricity for six hours a day because a thermoelectric plant was having problems. On Sunday, July 11, through social media like Facebook, you could see the people who decided to take to the streets in the provinces calling out to the world for humanitarian aid to help with the situation on the island.
The thermoelectric plant was fixed that same day so that all Cubans could have electricity in their houses.
ALLW: The protests began outside of Havana, in areas scourged by the supply shortage, excessive quarantines, and blackouts lasting up to 12 hours. Added to the accumulated social discontent from the present crisis produced by the intensification of the US embargo and government mismanagement—the peak of which was the implementation of a series of measures at the beginning of the year that led to increased inflation and the growth of the black market—this meant that in a municipality like San Antonio, hundreds of people poured into the streets to express their discontent. After the impact of that demonstration on social media, other protests occurred in areas suffering similar problems. Around 4 pm, the demonstrations spread nationally.
What forms of organization and protest have you seen in and out of the streets?
ALLW: The protest in San Antonio was very heterogeneous. As I understand it, one group started a caravan that passed through other towns while another group stayed in place, at one point coinciding with the Cuban president who was making his way there. They had a similar character in the rest of the country; reports say that up until 4 pm, all were peaceful. It was after Díaz-Canel’s communiqué, in which he called for his “revolutionaries” to confront the demonstrators, that harsh repression took place against peaceful marches, along with fierce clashes with the police. (The capital city had already felt the hand of the police around the Capitol building, the seat of the National Assembly, shortly before this).
Beyond this, there wasn’t much organization. All of the marches were spontaneous and ended up disoriented and easily dispersed. The Internet shutdown also reduced their visibility, while an immediate flood of (dis)information from the state proclaimed that the protests had ended in many places. Communication suffered a big hit during this whole process, since the only things getting through were the skewed news of the official media and lots of fake news spread through messaging apps. This contributed significantly to the reduction of tensions, but the return of the Internet and the publication of testimonials about repression haven’t permitted a complete return to normality. These days, the major organizing spaces are focused on the struggle to free those arrested—more than 500 people, according to some lists.
What is your analysis of the protest movement? What social and political tendencies are involved in it? How much of the population supports it?
AOH: There are several different generations in Cuba, including those who lived through the period of capitalism, suffered the consequences of [Fulgencio] Batista’s administration, and helped make the revolution so that we could have free healthcare and education. Thanks to this, they learned to read and write. That portion of the population supports [the government].
Then there’s the younger generation, those who have internet and value “living decently”—we’re not talking about luxuries, just the desire that with a job you could have adequate nutrition, because at the Cuban table it’s difficult to get breakfast with milk, lunch with an egg, and, let’s say, dinner with a small piece of meat or vegetables. This generation is accustomed to salaries that barely pay enough for a week’s expenses. They raised the salaries recently, but with the scarcity, the price of everything has shot up and basic necessities are impossible to afford. The only place you can get groceries or cleaning products, home appliances, and the like is in stores that only accept cards with dollars on them, which have to be sent from other countries because Cuba doesn’t sell them.
ALLW: The demonstrations were a social explosion, without a doubt. The crisis and the tensions generated by precarity and the collapse of the health system brought it about. Now, it wasn’t a generalized explosion across all social strata. Beyond the areas where significant portions of the towns were involved, the poorest sectors of the population carried out the majority of the protests. The classist bias with which the state and its defenders have approached the issue is evident in the criticism of the protesters and their violence. Social inequality has been growing in Cuba for decades now, and the state has played with this dynamic to make alliances and secure loyalties. In this case, there’s been a clash between the most disadvantaged and most privileged sectors. This conflict has been reflected even in the discourse of the segments of the left that are most loyal to the state. The demonstrations have been made to look like criminal actions (orchestrated from the United States), ignoring the classist foundation here.
It would be difficult to define a political tendency in the demonstrations (beyond the liberal slogans). The people went out to put an end to their precarious situation—that was really their hope, with no compass beyond the street as a space to amplify their demands.
In terms of support for the protests, I wouldn’t venture to guess a percentage. But definitely since July 11, people won’t stop talking about what happened…
How much of the population supports the government against the protests? What social and political tendencies are involved in supporting the state?
ALLW: There’s definitely a large portion that supports the government. This sector is mainly made up of people who are less poor and are privileged by their integration into the system. These were the “revolutionaries” called on by Díaz-Canel on July 11.
The old ideological apparatus of the Party is evident in support for the government. This isn’t necessarily integrated into the real, hidden power behind the state, headed by Arturo López-Callejas, a military officer and the president of GAESA [Grupo de Administración Empresarial SA, the Cuban business conglomerate owned by the Revolutionary Armed Forces], which is the largest economic conglomerate in the country. It is the leftist circles that for years have tried to climb the ladders of power with a lukewarm critique of bureaucracy and a fierce critique of dissidents, and a great part of the Latin American and international left that has sided with the false anti-imperialist discourse of the state. All of this being broadcast on official media—which are more available now due to the lack of Internet—has perhaps tilted things slightly towards the side of the state. But to reiterate, it’s difficult in this moment to assume a balance of power. In truth, given the objective situation of the country, another rupture could occur sooner rather than later, and these months or weeks will better define the character it takes.
How seriously do you take the accusation that the protests are coordinated by forces associated with the United States government? Who do you think stands to benefit most from the protests?
AOH: I don’t think that the protests are associated with the US government. No one who took to the streets was paid by any institution; they went out to ask for help. Many aren’t criminals or marginalized people; they are workers and students.
I disagree with the attitude of the police. They can’t just mistreat someone because of a difference of opinion. There must be freedom of expression and there must not be a military intervention: that is war. I also disagree with the president, who called for combat, because there must not be a civil war.
[In the past], groups from other countries have tried to topple the government by paying people in Cuba. But what’s happening now isn’t like that. It was an impulse towards rapid support for the common good in this country.
ALLW: North American interference is already an old story here. Long before the victory of the Revolution, the importance that the United States placed on Cuba was well known. Since the 1990s, especially, they have developed a subversive plan that had already been used in other parts of the world. The implementation of this plan has increased in the last few years, but it has failed repeatedly and stimulated a national debate on the political future of the country. To say now that this policy of the United States towards Cuba produced the social explosion is to disregard the fact that the reasons for which people took to the streets have more to do with the bureaucracy’s horrible mismanagement of the crisis and the tremendous increase in precarity that its policies have provoked. The people have also seen the broad incoherence between what is said in the official media and what happens in reality, and this has also helped discredit the state.
For the people, the interventionist policy of the United States has been nothing more than the irritating noise of a mosquito in their ears, in comparison to the constant hammering of the state’s nonsense.
Of course, as anarchists, we reject such an imperialist policy towards our country, but it’s not where we place responsibility for the national situation.
Many are describing these protests as the largest anti-government mobilizations in 30 years. Do these protests seem to follow in a similar thread, or are they different?
ALLW: This explosion has definitely been historic. I don’t know of anything on par since 1959. The difference is marked by several elements: first, the repeat of a situation like the 1990s crisis, but without the hegemony embodied by a personality like Fidel Castro or the same capacities for solidarity as years ago, now all spent by the state’s cooptation of multiple initiatives. Second, a national reality made more visible by the Internet helped the news of successive protests to overcome the fear that had penetrated the demonstrations. The third element is the erosion of the social pact and the project of the “Revolution,” which was unprecedented until now.
Any concluding thoughts?
AOH: To conclude… to use an expression and laugh one more time: We Cubans are like the dolphin: “Up to the neck in water and always laughing.”
A laughter that has been fading away from the dolphins’ faces in a sea turned to gray, without the blue-green of hope.
A song that I wrote:
Desde que nací,
Estoy escuchando algo,
Algo que susurra y nadie hablando,
Shhh las paredes tienen oidos
Shhh las paredes tienen oidos,
Miedo en la escuela,
Miedo en la casa,
Miedo en la calle
Miedo en el aire,
Yo quiero gritar
Pero es imposible volver a soñar
Es un miedo que asfixia
Es un control social
Shhh las paredes tienen oidos
Shhh las paredes tienen oidos
Oyeeé no te calles
Oyeee no te calles
_Yo quiero gritar.…
Ever since I was born,
I’ve been listening to something,
Something that whispers and no one is talking,
Shhh the walls have ears
Shhh the walls have ears,
Fear in the school,
Fear in the house,
Fear in the street
Fear in the air,
I want to shout
I want to breathe
But it’s impossible to dream again
It’s a fear that suffocates you
It’s social control
A riot in the brain
Shhh the walls have ears
Shhh the walls have ears
Heyyy don’t shut up
Heyyy don’t shut up
I want to shout………
Any band that wants to play this, do it, and each time you play it, say it’s for Cuba.
Cuba: The End of the Social Spell of the “Revolution”
The following text was published four days ago by the Alfredo López Libertarian Workshop.
The repressive social spell that kept a large portion of the dinosaurs of the international left pacified has vanished. Underneath the “Cuban Revolution,” and counter to its benign image, the “Cuban state” has emerged publicly, in all its repressive rawness and grandiloquence. The same Cuban state that, to confront Yankee imperialism, created an omnipresent political police force to combat the society under its control. The same Cuban state that, in the name of socialism, destroyed all the working-class organizations that, with their histories of struggle, would have made socialism’s declared victories into an everyday reality. That same Cuban state that has turned solidarity into an international brand identity while keeping us submerged in distrust and fear between neighbors. The same Cuban state that—in the middle of the intensified Yankee embargo—builds more hotels for foreign tourists than infrastructure to produce food, fruit, and milk. The same Cuban state that has produced the only vaccines against COVID-19 in Latin America, but makes its health personnel function essentially as unpaid members of the political police.
In the recent days of July 2021, that Cuban state has shown what it really is: an oligarchy like any other, zealously maintaining its absolute power at any cost; a vulgar kleptocracy putting on enlightened, humanist airs; a pyramid of power as solid and out of proportion as the pyramids of the Egyptian theocracies, but surrounded by paradisaical beaches.
To make geopolitical arguments right now about the place of Cuba in imperial global strategy, to argue that the anti-government protests in Cuba are inevitably paid for by the Cuban right wing in Miami, that the protesters are simple criminals looking to loot, that the true revolutionaries are with the government—these are all arguments that describe a significant part of reality, but they miss it on one point. The people of Cuba have just as much right to protest as those of Colombia and Chile. What’s the difference? That they are oligarchies with different origins? With more or less brutal practices? More or less distinguishable camouflage? More or less servile postures towards the US government? More or less sublime ideas to justify their privileges? All of these immense differences among the Colombian, Chilean, and Cuban oligarchies are reduced to zero when on a beautiful Sunday morning you discover that, in addition to the mafioso oligarchies in Colombia and Chile, the Cuban oligarchy is also—before an unarmed populace—armed to the teeth. A little more or a little less, to crush you and your brothers, your body and your mind, if it merely occurs to you to question the normality that they manage.
Everything the Cuban state has done to produce domestic vaccines against COVID-19, all the labor subsidies, all the wage increases it offered to many sectors in the middle of the pandemic—all of a sudden, these all evaporate, not just because of the inflationary spiral and endemic food shortage in Cuba, but also because it’s been made clear that it all formed part of the macabre framework of “repressive tolerance.” This is something that any decent person in Cuba can now discover, without needing to read any brilliant books on counterculture. We can serenely define those who would come now to sweeten that repressive tolerance in this country, and to raise the mirage of militarized harmony over it, as the new face of that which has no place in our future. Those who, in the name of a future democracy or the smooth functioning of the economy, come to discredit the affinities, fellowship, and energy that blossomed in the protests, or to reduce what happened on those days to “simple vandalism by social degenerates,” speak in the name and language of the decrepit oligarchies that once again shamelessly raise their voices in this country.
The “masses” have once again become the “people,” with all of their light and shadows, by refusing to obey the heavy chains of control and instead trusting in affection, affinity, and the minimum capacities to think and act together that have reemerged in acts of disobedience and solidarity among equals, in the middle of the spiral of violence, the pandemic, and the supply shortage. This is the new reality that was born in Cuba during these days of July 2021, and it is this new reality, as anarchists in Cuba, of which we want to be a part.
Both neoliberal capitalism and the socialist administrations that answer to it leave all of us increasingly vulnerable to the vicissitudes of markets and global supply chains. In an agriculturally productive country like Cuba, a lack of affordable food is an absurdity produced by capitalism, mediated through a socialist government that has prioritized integration into the global economy over sustainable food production. ↩