Protests kicked off in Cuba over the weekend over rising prices and food and medicine shortages, as one of the world’s only remaining officially communist countries has been slammed by its worst wave of COVID-19 in recent weeks. And right on cue, as they’ve done without fail for the past half-century-plus, U.S. politicians are seizing on some justified anger in Cuba as a way to further their own interests—without much of a second thought given to the people who actually live there.
Although Western media has blamed much of what ails Cuba on government mismanagement, it’s much more complicated than that. The country has been experiencing food shortages since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and although critics of the Cuban government are quick to point out that food has been exempted from the longstanding embargo for nearly two decades, new sanctions against both Cuba and Venezuela (one of its key trading partners) put in place by the Trump administration and so far remaining in place under the Biden government have exacerbated the squeeze on Cuba’s economy even beyond the havoc wrought by the pandemic.
The Trump sanctions, for example, have resulted in a shortage of syringes, which inevitably hinders any vaccination program. (Fewer than 20 percent of the country has been vaccinated so far.)
Aggravating the rapidly deteriorating situation is the fact that, for the first time in more than 60 years, Cuba is no longer led by a Castro. Miguel Díaz-Canel inherited all of these crises when he succeeded Raul Castro as the Communist Party of Cuba’s First Secretary less than three months ago, and that was before COVID-19 cases in the island skyrocketed. So far, Díaz-Canel has blamed the U.S. for fomenting the discord.
Díaz Canel has referred to the protesters as “vulgar criminals,” and at a Monday morning press conference he attacked “those who seek to discredit the revolution and fracture the unity of our country.”
In the U.S., however, the narrative about what’s driving the protests in Cuba is a familiar one—the anger of a people yearning for freedom for free speech and from government bureaucracy. And even as politics in the U.S. have polarized further and further in recent years, perhaps more than they have in 150 years, Republicans and Democrats are joining together to capitalize on the crisis.
On the Republican side, you have some erstwhile freedom fighters whose posturing is almost comical, such as Tom Cotton, who tweeted Sunday night that “Americans stand with the Cuban people as they bravely take to the streets and demand freedom.” Yes, this is the same guy who wrote in the New York Times just days after George Floyd’s murder that the military should be sent in to crack skulls at Black Lives Matter protests.
Then you’ve got Marco Rubio, a man who has FOMO from not being able to participate in the Bay of Pigs, pretending these protests have nothing to do with material conditions. In Rubio’s telling, everyone on the island has simultaneously decided to become an anti-communist.
Not content with letting Republicans corner the market on democracy posturing, Democrats have raced to register their support for the protests. President Joe Biden, who was vice president during the most optimistic point for a thaw in Cuba-U.S. relations in decades, released a statement Monday denouncing Cuba’s “authoritarian regime” and calling on the government to respect the protests.
Florida Democrats predictably led the charge, as always convinced that their ticket to victory is managing to have an even more reactionary stance towards the Cuban government than Republicans. Take Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, for example:
Or Val Demings, a former Orlando police chief and Rubio’s most likely opponent in 2022:
Here’s Arizona Rep. Ruben Gallego’s best attempt at a middle ground, where the end result remains compliance with the demand the U.S. government has placed on the Cuban people for 60 years: nothing short of the end of the Revolution entirely.
On Monday afternoon, Rep. Gregory Meeks—the chair of the House committee which oversees the State Department—pledged his support for the protests while also calling on Biden to end the Trump sanctions in order to “help alleviate the suffering,” and offer “additional humanitarian and vaccine assistance to the Cuban people.”
But even daring to suggest that not all of Cuba’s problems are caused by the evils of communism and government incompetence has been rare. Despite their many differences, Republicans and plenty of Democrats have come together to join hands on this issue for several reasons. The primary one is that nearly all of them are unrepentant capitalists who want to open the country up to the wonders of American free enterprise—as if the colonization of Cuba and extraction of its wealth for American interests wasn’t a major factor in the rise of Castro in the first place. If the final outcome of this is that Cuba’s government does fall, there’s a lot of money to be made in the ensuing chaos and misery, and the U.S. private sector is ready and willing to jump in and make it.
The political considerations can’t be ignored either. Both parties would fight for who gets credit for bringing Cuba back into the United States’ sphere of influence, tying up one of the final loose ends of Cold War I and finishing the job on something nearly every single president since Kennedy has sought to do. It’s about Florida as a battleground state in presidential elections. It’s about signaling to China, as the right-wing Foundation for the Defense of Democracies called for last year. For Democrats, it’s about proving that actually, they’re the ones who care about democracy and freedom; for Republicans, it’s about making some point about how socialism doesn’t work, which blends nicely with their argument that mainstream liberals are doctrinaire Marxists.
It’s about all of these things and not much about either the material well-being of Cubans, or even their political freedom. If it were, you would’ve seen the U.S. react just as angrily to the coup in Bolivia, rather than backing it. You’d see statements of support from the Biden administration for the protests against Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. You would see Joe Biden condemning the ongoing repression and massacres in Colombia, instead of only speaking up to “reaffirm support” for the government when right-wing president Iván Duque’s helicopter was attacked last month. And, most of all, you would see the U.S. lifting the sanctions which continue to cause so much harm to the Cuban people.
The difference between all of these governments and Cuba is simple: they help serve our interests. If the U.S. political establishment gets its way, soon Cuba will as well. If there’s anything we’ve learned over the past six decades, however, it’s that Cubans have historically valued self-determination above everything else—regardless of whether that makes the job easier for the empire to its north.