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Cuba’s youth, empowered by the internet, could spur real change

After 62 long years, Cuban citizens seem to have reached a breaking point

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Anti-government protesters march in Havana, Cuba, on Sunday, July 11, 2021.

Anti-government protesters march in Havana, Cuba, on Sunday, July 11, 2021. Hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets in several cities in Cuba to protest against ongoing food shortages and high prices of foodstuffs.

Eliana Aponte, Associated Press

On the day I was born, the front page of the New York Times reported on Fidel Castro’s first visit to the United States as the leader of Cuba

The story noted that he had met with acting Secretary of State Christian A. Herter. Castro had said there was no reason why relations between the two countries should not be improved.

Sixty-two years later, there are many. Let’s start with 109. That’s the number of political prisoners Human Rights Watch said Cuba was holding in 2019. Add to that the 150 names the New York Times says Amnesty International has compiled of people arrested in recent protests, a number that seems to be growing by the day.

This week, the Times quoted Guillermo Fariñas, a longtime Cuban dissident journalist familiar with prisons, who said he was surprised to see unfamiliar faces filling the police station he was taken to during mass protests on Sunday. Many of them were teenagers, far different from the usual assortment of familiar agitators. 

Against this emboldened insurrection, Cuba’s president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, looks silly as he tries to hold together Castro’s revolution. He repeatedly blames U.S. economic sanctions for the shortages of food, medicine and other supplies that have spurred large and defiant street protests in 40 or more cities, including Havana. 

But the people were chanting, “We want freedom,” not just, “We want food.” They apparently understood that one thing would lead to the other.

Also, some of the protesters were carrying the American flag, using it for the purpose it was intended — as a symbol of freedom and liberty. Clearly, they weren’t drawing the same line between their problems and the United States that Cuba’s leader was.

The last time I wrote about Cuba was in 2014, just after President Barack Obama had decided to ease the long embargo against the island nation. He declared the long policy of isolation to be a failure. 

My conclusion then was that U.S. policy toward Cuba — whether it involved economic embargo or open relations and trade — mattered little. Policies seldom cause dictatorships to relinquish power or change behavior, or to truly improve the lives of their people.

The State Department’s annual human rights reports have told a consistent tale of official abuses through the years. The 2021 report lists details of “unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings, by the government; forced disappearance by the government; torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of political dissidents, detainees, and prisoners by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrests and detentions; political prisoners; significant problems with the independence of the judiciary; and arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy.”

Until a few years ago, I would regularly attend briefings for editorial writers, hosted by the State Department in Washington. Inevitably, someone in our group would ask this question: Why does the United States try to influence democratic change differently in one country than in another? Why did it launch a bombing campaign in Libya to oust Moammar Gadhafi and launch an all-out invasion in Iraq to dethrone Saddam Hussein, while maintaining diplomatic relations and trade (albeit with tariffs) with China and off-and-on sanctions against Cuba? 

The answer we got was fairly consistent from one administration to the next. Each nation presents a different set of circumstances, a separate history and unique economic realities. 

Cuba, only 90 miles from American soil, together with the vast Cuban expatriate population in politically important Florida, is a special case, and an especially difficult one. 

However, no answer, whether it involves sanctions or military action, is clearly right or without consequences.

“We stand with the Cuban people …” has been the only official response from President Joe Biden so far.

Sixty-two years after Castro’s visit to Washington, after a long history that includes a botched Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban missile crisis, CIA assassination plots, the Mariel boatlift, sanctions, an easing of relations and then sanctions again, it’s easy to lose hope for change.

But Fariñas, surrounded by his new, young cellmates, empowered by the internet, would argue otherwise. 

“I told the state security guard who arrested me, ‘You’re going to have to change,’” he told the Times. “‘This is the people, and not just the people, but the youth. Look at them: They’ve decided they are not just going to continue leaving the country — they want change here.’”

That kind of resolve, if true and undeterred, would be more powerful than all the sanctions in the world.