Popular anger in Cuba

Image: Yuting Gao
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By JOANA SALÉM VASCONCELOS*

The popular revolt in Cuba reflects dissatisfactions of two natures: economic and political.

Before classifying the popular uprising that took place on July 11th in different parts of Cuba as a “color revolution” or as an imperialist move, it is necessary to look closely at the country's internal problems and the current contradictions of the revolution.

With the pandemic, Cuban GDP fell by 11% and tourism came to a standstill. Foreign exchange brought in by tourists has dried up. These were responsible for irrigating an important part of the economic life of the population of the larger cities (Havana, Santiago, Santa Clara, Trinidad, among others). Faced with the scarcity of foreign exchange, the government decided to bring forward a monetary and exchange rate reform that unifies the two currencies issued by the State and reforms the structure of national income. The package was called Sorting task and enacted in December 2020. Despite good intentions, the measure generated imbalances and distortions that are difficult to correct.

The popular uprising on Sunday (11/07) reflects dissatisfaction of two natures: economic and political. Before labeling them, it is essential to understand them.

Economic dissatisfactions: impacts of the Tarea Ordenamiento on the lives of Cubans

The main objective of Sorting task and monetary unification is to correct social inequalities and end the disincentive to productivity generated by the internal border of the two currencies in the Cuban economy. So, the Sorting task deleted the CUC (convertible currency or “Cuban dollar”, with approximate parity with the US dollar) and unified the national currency in the Cuban peso (25 to 1). As a transitory buffer, the government created the Freely Convertible Currency (MLC), which has currency value (1 MLC is worth 25 Cuban pesos) and only exists in card form. It is a “transient store of value”, which should be closed soon. Along with this, the government eliminated subsidies on products and everyday items, raised tariffs and multiplied wages fivefold.

It doesn't take a genius to realize that the measure can trigger inflation and generate exchange rate imbalance in the parallel market. In a context of scarcity of products, the measure requires monetary liquidity that does not seem to exist in society and can create a cauldron of dissatisfaction. But now, unlike 1994, this dissatisfaction is expressed through social networks and smartphones.

In summary, the Sorting task it was supposed to be a medicine, but it directly impacted Cubans' purchasing power and showed harsh side effects in everyday life. Although the government created the MLC, it does not seem to have been enough to reorganize popular consumption capacity at the immediate level.

In everyday life, the relationship between popular need, product availability and purchasing power has been unbalanced since 2020. The abrupt end of the CUC led to an increase in the parallel currency market and exchange rate imbalance zones, resulting from the immediate needs of people in consume some items in a context of scarcity. We are not talking about luxury or consumerism. It's food, electricity, gas, fuel and other basics that have become harder to find and buy in the pandemic.

The US blockade represents an important part of this crisis, there is no doubt about it. But it is a mistake to attribute the problem solely to blocking. Part of the Brazilian left repeatedly makes this mistake and fails to examine the internal contradictions of Cuban society. The revolution's longevity can only be explained by its internal strength. Refusing to see the inner fissures is also a form of denialism.

The economic crisis (blockade, pandemic, tourism at almost zero level, shortage of currency and products, abrupt end of the CUC, inflationary pressure from the parallel market, imbalance between need and income) is a trap that is difficult to get out of. In addition, in June and July, Cuba faced the worsening of the pandemic, risking a shortage of syringes to administer the vaccine and an increase in the contagion curve. The Cuban government has controlled the pandemic in an exemplary way so far, more efficiently than Belgium or Sweden, which have the same population and respectively 10 and 20 times more deaths from covid. But the recent attempt to revive tourism on the island has paved the way for new variants, generating record daily deaths (47 in one day). Perhaps the approval of the Abdala vaccine, 100% Cuban, is the only good news of the year for the island.

Political dissatisfaction: crisis of popular power

As at other times in its history, Cuba could go through the economic crisis with popular unity. But there is still a political problem that should not be overlooked. There is a rigidity or breakage of popular power channels in the political structures of Cuban socialism. For years, some left-wing Cubans have warned about the need to recreate the forms of popular power. The popular power of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR), the CTC-Revolucionaria, the Federation of Cuban Women, the communist youth organizations and other branches of the Party are bureaucratized, have lost historical representation and become insufficient. They are too official and no longer absorb the internal contradictions of society, to vocalize the population in its different nuances. In fact, many of them have become bodies representing the State before society, and not society before the State.

Fernando Martinez Heredia, a friend of Che Guevara who died in 2017, said that the popular policy of the revolution was the basis of its strength and that building a culture of organic solidarity was a constant battle. Some left-wing Cubans have long indicated that the government needs to create new decision-making mechanisms and popular power beyond the biannual elections. The revolution cannot survive without popular support, and that support is not automatic. In a revolutionary process, the relationship between the State and society needs to be constantly reinvented and reconstructed. That's what makes a revolution a revolution: being able to revolutionary recreate the mechanisms of popular power, so that governments represent social processes of real and direct decision of the population about their country.

If Raul Castro decidedly committed himself to reforming the island's economy by expanding forms of private business, reformism did not affect the country's political structures in the same way. The representative bodies are bureaucratized and, with the exception of the 2018-2019 constitutional period, no alternative methods of popular decision were created. The 11/07 uprising expresses this: a people who are feeling angry and experiencing economic hardship, but do not have enough channels of expression and power. The result is this pressure cooker.

Protest legitimacy X imperialist opportunism

The Cuban population has legitimacy to protest. When realizing that their demands and dissatisfactions are not listened to by the government, that the spaces for dialogue between the Party and society are no longer as effective as before, or even disappeared, the population may eventually take to the streets in anger.

Nor should we overlook the cultural mobilization of November 2020 and the 27N manifesto – which claimed to be within the constitution, therefore, of socialism. Signed by more than 300 culture workers, the manifesto demanded more channels of political decision-making power for the population and new forums for dialogue in which it is fully possible to disagree. 27N is the most organized face of culture workers, which amicably anticipates a broader sense of dissatisfaction.

Of course, imperialism will “play its part” and Cuban-Americans in Miami will try to appropriate the sentiment on the streets of 11/07. Since 1994, the Cuban right wing based in the US has not had such a fertile political opportunity for its counterrevolutionary militancy. “Algorithms” are enabled. Imperialism both produces the crisis and benefits from the country's internal difficulties.

Within Cuba there is a popular sector against the revolution, which considers the government a dictatorship. They are the ones who shouted “down with the dictatorship” and “freedom” on 11/07. We were unable to accurately measure the size of this sector, but historically it was a minority.

It so happens that imperialism and counterrevolutionary militancy mix with the Cuban people in their dissatisfaction and try to direct their anger towards an anti-socialist logic. Cubans in the streets should not be labeled and generalized as “manipulated” or “liberals” or “counterrevolutionaries”. Care must be taken to examine what the angry people feel. There is legitimacy in your anger and if the government does not create fast economic mechanisms to solve the problem of consumption of everyday basic items, if it does not open efficient channels of dialogue and does not produce new bodies of popular decision-making power, this anger may not pass so easily . And that is what the enemies of the Cuban revolution want.

Lastly

Finally, we cannot overlook the role of Raul Castro's own economic reforms in the kind of revolt that occurred on 11/07. Since 2011, the Cuban government has facilitated the creation of individual self-employed businesses, which have grown from 50 to over 500 between 2010 and 2020. The creation of cooperatives has been hampered by bureaucratic procedures and lack of incentives, with no more than 700 the new units created in the same period.

An economy that grows with private business and not with cooperatives encourages an individualistic subjectivity, which the Cuban revolution (notably Che Guevara and Fidel Castro) struggled to combat. The State's unequal treatment for the creation of private businesses and cooperatives has been pointed out as a problem by researchers allied with the revolution for a decade now.

If the strength of the Cuban revolution is its capacity for popular cohesion and solidary subjectivity, it is time to open new channels of representation and streamline the relationship of listening and dialogue between society and the State. The government needs to be more convincing, not just with words, but with emergency economic measures, so that the angry population feels truly heard.

Joana Salem Vasconcelos she holds a PhD in history from USP. Author of Agrarian history of the Cuban revolution: dilemmas of socialism in the periphery (Avenue)

Originally published on Movement Magazine, on 12/7/2021.

 

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