When thousands of Cuban citizens surged peacefully into the streets last week in spontaneous protests against their wretched living conditions, decrepit health care, and endless food shortages, they must have known how the government would respond. Within a day, the communist regime deployed its paramilitary Black Berets to attack the protesters and haul many of them to jail. Cubalex, a nongovernmental organization that promotes human rights in Cuba, created a spreadsheet to keep track of individuals who have since been detained or disappeared. As of Tuesday, it showed more than 530 names.
It wasn’t only material deprivation that drove so many Cubans to take a public stand. Protesters cried “Abajo la dictadura” (“down with the dictatorship”) and “Libertad!” Some waved American flags. “These protests,” wrote the noted Cuban dissident Yoani Sánchez, “are fueled by the desire for freedom.”
The determination to strangle that desire is, of course, why the government reacted with such brutal repression. That is what always happens when Cubans dare to speak out against the homicidal one-party dictatorship imposed by the Castro brothers 62 years ago.
The last time Cuba’s rulers were faced with such a broad-based upwelling of anti-government sentiment was in 2002, and it took place not in the streets but on paper. That year, more than 25,000 Cubans joined the Varela Project, signing a petition organized by Oswaldo Payá, the founder of Cuba’s Christian Liberation Movement. It called for freedom of speech and assembly, honest elections, the release of political prisoners, and the legalizing of private enterprise. Payá's campaign was based on Article 88 of the Cuban Constitution, which requires that a proposed law be put to a public vote if 10,000 citizens sign a petition supporting it. Instead, the government assaulted dozens of signature collectors and, in the spring of 2003, arrested scores of human rights activists, journalists, and intellectuals and sentenced them to prison.
Cubans know what they risk by speaking out against the dictatorship. Which makes their heroism last week so extraordinary.
Many in the West hailed that heroism. President Biden endorsed the protesters’ “clarion call for freedom” and condemned the “decades of repression and economic suffering to which they have been subjected by Cuba’s authoritarian regime.” Similar sentiments came from leading members of Congress. “Listen to their cries of desperation,” declared Senator Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Support their demands by ensuring we do not perpetuate the regime’s decades of repression.”
But from the progressive left, which has long romanticized the Castro revolution and excused its failures, came a different message. Echoing Cuba’s president, leftists contended that US economic restrictions are to blame for Cubans’ misery. Black Lives Matter issued a blistering statement, denouncing not the rulers in Havana but America’s “cruel and inhumane” embargo. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York fingered the “absurdly cruel” embargo as the American “contribution to the suffering of Cubans on the island.” The Democratic Socialists of America, posting a “Cuba sí, bloqueo no!” banner, demanded that Washington “end the blockade.”
In fact, there is no “blockade” — Cuba trades with scores of countries, unmolested by the United States. As for the US embargo, it doesn’t apply to food or humanitarian products, which explains why the United States sends millions of dollars’ worth of exports to Cuba each month. According to the State Department, total exports to Cuba in 2018 totaled $276 million. In 2019, the total climbed to $286.5 million.
It may comfort the diehard left to imagine that Washington is at the root of the island’s distress, but there is a reason why those throngs of brave Cubans in the streets last week were chanting “Down with the dictatorship!” and not “Down with the embargo.” They know that their agony is caused by the ruthless despots who for more than six decades have stopped at nothing to keep them in chains.
During a visit to Cuba in 2002, I met with Payá, whose Varela Project was then soliciting signatures on its pro-democracy petition. When I asked his opinion of the US embargo, he thought for a moment before answering: “Tiende tu mano a Cuba, pero primero pide que le desaten las manos a los cubanos.” Extend your hands to Cuba — but first unshackle ours.
Payá did not live to see the recent outpouring of pro-freedom yearning by so many of his fellow Cubans. He was killed in a car crash under suspicious circumstances on July 22, 2012, nine years ago Thursday.