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After the Maleconazo, the Cuban leaders claimed a Pyrrhic victory. While the revolutionary government had not been overthrown, it had few options to save the island’s ruined economy. The government sought to revive tourism, which had been condemned as the legacy of US imperialism in the 1960s, but quickly became Cuba’s main source of income. As a result, the gap between official rhetoric and everyday reality began to widen as unofficial markets emerged and social inequalities were felt. Nevertheless, the gradual, often sluggish, liberalization of the Cuban economy, accelerated by Raúl Castro, has nonetheless created new business opportunities and sources of income on which Cubans have become dependent.
The pandemic was, of course, as with so many others, catastrophic in this regard. Actions taken by the Miguel Díaz-Canel administration, including recent moves to prevent US currency deposits a year after the 10% US dollar tax was lifted and new hard currency stores opened, have only made matters worse.
Now a different generation of Cuban citizens born during the revolution, like their predecessors, are faced with the same set of impossible choices. They know that they have little control over the economic and political forces at local and global levels that play such a large role in shaping their future. But they are also aware that they cannot escape the consequences of these forces.
But in contrast to previous generations of young Cubans, many of today’s demonstrators lack the loyalty reserves that sometimes still bind their parents and grandparents to the revolutionary project. They, too, face persistent legacies of political authoritarianism, economic stagnation, and international isolation, but increasingly have no one to blame but the revolutionary government. This has led many young people to “dream of airplanes,” as the Cuban saying goes, even though changes in US migration policy in the Obama era made the prospect of escaping by air or sea increasingly unprofitable.
The long history of popular protests and revolutions in Cuba suggests that young people were also the most resourceful in finding solutions to the unfortunate circumstances they faced, no matter how stupid they are. José Martí, hero of the island’s Wars of Independence, was only 16 years old when he was imprisoned for opposing Spanish colonialism. His story exemplifies the revolutionary spirit of Cuban youth. As Martí once said: “The youth are happy because they are blind: this blindness is the source of their greatness: this inexperience feeds their sublime faith.”
Given the challenges Cubans routinely face, believing in the future can itself be a revolutionary stance. Unfortunately, all too often this belief has resulted in extreme and tragic sacrifices, as in Martí’s own martyrdom on the battlefield at the young age of 42.
Since 1960, Cubans have been brought up with Castro’s revolutionary proclamation of “patria o muerte” (fatherland or death) and demanded perpetual militancy in the face of international and national threats to the survival of the revolution. It is therefore of great importance that the rallying cry of the current protests is “patria y vida” (fatherland and life) and opposes the impossible choice on which Castro’s original formulation was based. This is not just because many have less and less to fight in the revolution that they are still obliged to defend. This is also due to the fact that survival – in the language of the revolutionary Cuban “resolviendo” – has become a way of life for many who since the so-called “special period”, as Castro called the difficult years of the 1990s.
Equally suggestive was the protesters’ soundtrack along with some of the intellectual work behind the current mobilization of Reggaetoneros, Practitioner of a genre of music that elites and politicians have long dismissed as “vulgar” and apolitical. Like many who have taken to the streets, they insist that “patria” must ensure and not endanger the “vida”: that their pursuit of food security and even material stability is an inherently political act.
For now, the movement has come together over a common, if necessarily nebulous, vision for a different life: perhaps a government that is no longer led by Díaz-Canel, perhaps an economy, be it socialist or capitalist, in which they exercise more autonomy can and agency. Many participants advocate warmer relations with the United States, some passionately (critics would say naive).
Moving forward, the questions protesters face will begin with whether they can generate enough momentum to force meaningful changes amid escalating government action. Should the mobilizations continue or even widen, it will be no easier for supporters than their predecessors to solve the island’s economic and political challenges, which range from Covid-19 to more than 200 years of economic precariousness and political authoritarianism .
It is too early to look for solutions or even platforms and manifests. But at the beginning Cuba’s new generation of opposition has to decide whether “Fatherland and Life” can offer a sufficiently comprehensive banner for the various political voters of the island to unite behind it – and whether in the longer term it will result in a more concrete route to bread and Freedom.