Cuba’s Economic Crisis Provokes Protests and U.S. Threats

Interview with James Early, former director of cultural studies and communication at the Center for Folklife Programs and Cultural Studies at the Smithsonian Institution, conducted by Scott Harris

In a rare public display of dissent, thousands of Cubans took to the streets last week to protest the island nation’s shortage of food, medicine, electricity blackouts and a spike in coronavirus infections. Cuba’s economy, already straining under the weight of the 60-year U.S. economic embargo, have worsened over the past two years due to the coronavirus pandemic that has all but closed down the Caribbean island’s important tourism industry, Trump-imposed sanctions that ended remittances from Cuban family members living in the U.S., and the collapse of Venezuelan oil subsidies.

After the demonstrations, Cuba’s government reportedly arrested hundreds of protesters and shut down the island’s Internet. U.S. politicians from both political parties predictably responded to the protests by calling for the ouster of Cuba’s communist government, ignoring Washington’s prominent role in Cuba’s economic crisis. Miami’s Republican Mayor Francis Suarez called on President Biden, who recently labeled Cuba a “failed state,” to pursue military intervention, declaring that air strikes are an option that have “to be explored…”

During the 2020 presidential campaign, Joe Biden pledged to renew engagement with Cuba and roll back Trump’s sanctions. But only now in response to the protests, is his administration taking initial steps to review U.S.-Cuba policy. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with James Early, the former director of Cultural Studies and Communication at the Smithsonian Institution and a frequent visitor to Cuba. Here, he discusses the Cuban protests, the nation’s economic crisis and the U.S. response.

JAMES EARLY: The term has been used that these are “unprecedented public protests.” And I think that’s an accurate description that reflects the unprecedented economic constraints and desperation that has not been seen since the fall of the Soviet Union during the special period in Cuba. By way of statistical comparison — which is not really a reliable one in terms of making a moral or political decision — the protest against the government explicitly against the communist party, calling for the resignation of President (Miguel) Díaz-Canel Bermudez, with whom I’ve spent some time over the last four years, is from a very small percentage of the population, but their objective material concerns are not to be dismissed. But many of them are in coordination with the U.S. State Department and with our right-wing Cubans in Miami, many of them terrorists — documented to be terrorists who shut down airplanes in past years.

And, I guess some of them are still alive who may have been involved in the Bay of Pigs invasion under the Kennedy administration. And then there is, I would say, the majority of the population which has been also in major public manifestations over the last weekend and support from a patriotic point of view, some of them just everyday citizens who complain and critique their government, but who don’t want interference, who want Cubans to resolve their own affairs. That’s because Cuba is a very proud nation, since its defeat of Spanish colonialism dating back to the 19th century. And then there are communists and socialists, and there are debates within the Cuban communist party within the citizenry and within the government. It’s important for a U.S. audience to really take a close look on our own as individuals, either with our facility in Spanish or reading whatever English documents we can put our hands on online.

And there are many things to examine. I would just transition here by saying that during that period now 10 years back, President Raul Castro indicated that this U.S. blockade was really killing them. But if it were removed tomorrow, it was a question of whether the socialist revolution would survive because of the errors and failures that the Cubans themselves have committed. I would venture to say that is a very refreshing perspective on the part of the stewards of governance, but it is not an excuse for the government not delivering for the basic needs and aspirations of its people who, whatever its external opposition might be. Ultimately, stewards of governance are responsible for facilitating those needs. So I think this presents a more complex narrative of one that is not impenetrable to a one that is not a simplified notion as presented by particularly liberal mainstream press here who takes then again, that Cold War, anticommunist optical that the poor Cubans are suffering under this oppressive government.

SCOTT HARRIS: James, I did want to ask you this. Recently, the mayor of Miami has suggested that the United States should consider conducting airstrikes against Cuba. You also have politicians like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, calling for harsher sanctions against Cuba at this time of economic crisis there and labeling Joe Biden as being soft on socialism. The United States and its policies in Cuba are driven primarily by presidential politics in Florida. And I wondered if you’d briefly comment on that.

JAMES EARLY: How hateful, how absurd, how arrogant about bombing another country, which would cause an outward migration, which the Biden-Harris administration has already announced as a primary goal: Do not get in boats and try to come to the United States because the United States is not living up to its bilateral accord with the Cuban government to provide a lottery of 20,000 visas a year in which a more normal orderly, out-migration might occur.

And this is a relationship that we have many countries of the world, not just in this hemisphere. They’re starving the Cuban people in abstract notions of freedom and democracy in order to overthrow their sons, the Cuban sons and daughters who are members of the communist party and who are members of the government. This is our responsibility, from this side, to take hold of our government and get back within the protocols of nations and where people feel it is legitimate to carry on ideological and political debate and to critique the Cubans do so. But do so within the protocols accepted by nations since its been founded in 1947, founding of the U.S. It has been a long haul when nations to come to accords and try to maintain those accords for a peaceful challenge of where people differ.

So I would leave your listening audience with that, and thank you for this opportunity to present some perspectives that I would, again, urge people, take your own initiative and be earnest in trying to discern what is our obligation here in the United States.

Subscribe to our Weekly Summary