Cubans awoke on Nov. 15 to a showdown weeks in the making. The civil society coalition Archipiélago had called for nationwide demonstrations, hoping to test whether Cuba’s unprecedented, largely spontaneous protests this past July could be replicated. The Cuban government, on the other hand, was betting that reopening the country to tourism would turn the page on what had been Cuba’s most volatile year in three decades.
The headlines since then have made it seem clear that, for the opposition, the test failed. The 15th came and went with only a modest ripple—hardly the wave of bodies that demonstrated in the summer. Protest organizers were confined to house arrest, subjected to “acts of repudiation” by neighbors, or kept incommunicado through targeted internet outages. Few rank-and-file followers took to the streets. Weeks of denunciations in state media—not to mention the continued imprisonment of over 500 protesters from July—appeared to have their intended effect. When the protest leader, playwright Yunior García Aguilera, boarded a plane to Spain the next day without telling his colleagues, it seemed a bitter symbol of defeat.
But that doesn’t mean the path is clear for the Cuban government to regain lost support (or acquiescence). The reality—and the country’s future—is not so simple, or satisfying. The implosion of 15N (as it was dubbed) shows that Cuba’s pro-democracy movement is fragile. Yet so is the Cuban government’s claim on popular legitimacy.
When thousands of Cubans took to the streets in more than 50 island towns and cities in July—inspired by live streams of a protest in the town of San Antonio de los Baños—the world was rightfully shocked. No protest on this scale had been seen on the island since Fidel Castro came to power in 1959. But in retrospect, what is surprising about the protests is not that they occurred, but that they did not occur sooner.
The Cuban economy began deteriorating markedly in 2017—the result, at first, of the freezing of necessary internal reforms, the aggressive rollback of Obama’s engagement policy under Trump, and the economic downfall of close ally Venezuela. Still, Cubans showed patience. 2020 brought the pandemic, and with it, a collapse of Cuba’s all-important tourist sector and the worst slide in GDP since the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. While Cuba succeeded in controlling the novel coronavirus remarkably well that first year, the delta strain saw case numbers climb precipitously in 2021 and the island’s vaunted health care system face unprecedented strain. Add in a disastrous currency unification process begun in January (leading to significant inflation), and by summer people had reached their breaking point.
The economic factors alone may have made the July protests seem inevitable in hindsight, but they took not only the Cuban government but established pro-democracy dissidents by surprise. Founded just this summer by a crop of young Cubans only recently turned political activists, Archipiélago set out to see whether lightning could strike twice.
Much was working against that chance. First, Cuban authorities declared the initially planned day of protest, Nov. 20, a Day of National Defense, forcing Archipiélago to move the date up. Officials then denied the group’s requests to hold demonstrations, arguing they were illicit and incompatible with the “irrevocable” nature of socialism per Cuba’s constitution. By the time November arrived, the intensity of Cuba’s multi-sided crisis from July had somewhat diminished. Authorities had stepped up the rollout of their homemade COVID vaccines, driving down case numbers. Private sector reforms—which the government accelerated in response to July 11—had reenergized hope for new economic opportunities.
Cuban authorities thus had time and ample warning to prepare. Leading up to 15N, government institutions sponsored block parties to celebrate the country’s reopening. All the while, state security agents and neighborhood watch committees surrounded protest organizers’ homes. To take the heat off the others, Archipiélago leader Yunior García decided he would march on his own down a Havana thoroughfare one day early in a symbolic display of defiance. But authorities did not let him leave his home, and the resulting confusion likely contributed to the poor showing on the 15th.
It’s premature, however, for the Cuban government and its supporters to declare victory. The island is still a long way from recouping its economic losses. Tourism is likely to recover slowly, and there does not appear to be any immediate remedy for the double- to triple-digit (or more) inflation Cubans are enduring. Recent market reforms legalizing small- and medium-sized enterprises are unlikely to immediately benefit those from marginalized communities who were the protagonists of the July protests. Close ally Nicaragua’s conspicuous announcement last week that it would allow Cubans to enter visa-free suggests that Cuban authorities know they are not out of the woods yet. This decision greases the wheels for Cubans hoping to make it to the U.S.–Mexico border—a way for Havana to ease internal pressure by encouraging the migration of the disaffected, as it has done periodically (and sometimes more overtly) over the last six decades.
Any economic recovery in Cuba also will be seriously mitigated by the continued freeze of relations between Cuba and the United States. On the campaign trail, President Biden pledged to reverse much, if not all, of the Trump administration’s efforts to exert “maximum [economic] pressure” on the Cuban government. He has yet to do so, even as average Cubans have borne the brunt of the cost. Many Cuban Americans would perceive relieving sanctions now as granting concessions to Havana while protesters from the summer are still detained. That, plus Democratic losses in Miami, where rumors of “socialism” drove votes toward Republicans in 2020, has left the administration in a political bind. On the other hand, the continuation of “maximum pressure” policies—during a pandemic, no less—has only fueled the Cuban government’s accusations that internal dissent is the product of a U.S.–sponsored siege.
But the Cuban government would be mistaken to overestimate the power of its anti-U.S. messaging. Many Cubans critical of U.S. sanctions (like García Aguilera) see no reason those sanctions justify restraints on their civil liberties. And the tribulations of recent years have fueled more open disdain toward the island’s political system among citizens previously content to muddle through with the hope of gradual reform. Even before this summer, social media had helped draw attention to a newer, dynamic cohort of government critics, many of them artists who are demanding political freedoms regardless of their views on U.S. policy. (See especially the cases of the San Isidro Movement and the historic sit-in in front of the Ministry of Culture in the former’s defense in late 2020.) This is a generational awakening that has renewed, and in some sense displaced, the traditional Cuban opposition’s ranks while politicizing many average Cubans in the process. You only need to pay attention to what the protesters on July 11 were chanting: not just “We want medicine!” and “We want food!,” but also “Freedom,” “Down with Díaz-Canel” (Cuba’s head of state), and “Patria y Vida!”—the title of an anti-government song that went viral in February.
The point, as the Cuba Study Group recently noted, is that “Cuba’s ’nueva normalidad’ [new normal] now includes a diversity of citizens who recognize the value of public protest and will continue demanding—at home—that their fundamental rights be acknowledged and respected.” Moreover, since Cubans gained access to the internet on their cellphones in late 2018, the Cuban government’s near monopoly on political communication has been broken, and won’t be regained. Many young Cubans have gotten a taste of what it means to seek out their own information and organize themselves independently, whether for explicitly anti-government political causes or to gather supplies for natural disaster or pandemic relief. Archipiélago is a product of that broader change. There is a long history and present of the U.S. financing Cuban opposition movements. But government attempts to taint Archipiélago with allegations of foreign “subversion” have fallen flat, and not only because there is as yet no such evidence in this case.
So yes, the disintegration of 15N shows that Cuba may still be a long way from a political tipping point. Archipiélago’s future is in limbo, and García Aguilera is not the first prominent activist over the last year to be compelled to choose exile over staying in his country. But the intertwined economic and political grievances that have fueled an angry awakening among growing numbers of Cubans citizens are not going away. At best, a bitter stalemate will now set in. The country may see a modest financial recovery, but emigration will likely also increase, while there remains no space for true national dialogue and consensus building, either internally or with the Cuban diaspora. Only the most cynical and self-serving in Havana can call that a win. As Cuban scholar Julio César Guanche put it, to do so “is to confuse politics with the act of hunting chickens: running behind them, and trapping one, seeing how the rest still escape.”