The wave of anti-government protests that broke out on 11 July and have continued sporadically since then represents the biggest crisis of Miguel Diaz-Canel’s presidency and one of the most delicate moments for the regime since the so-called Special Period of the 1990s. These protests do not come out of the blue. Even if they can be tamped down on this occasion, the combination of the twin health and economic crises, together with the domestic leadership transition, mean that the political outlook looks as uncertain as it has since the 1990s.
The rising Covid-19 caseload is becoming a real problem. Diaz-Canel himself has acknowledged that the health system is close to capacity. Medicine shortages are severe. However, the economic situation is the main issue. The economy shrank by 10.9% in 2020, and preliminary figures point to a continued hangover into 2021, with Q1 growth coming in at -2% as tourism – vital for hard currency – remained depressed. An import substitution drive does not appear to be working, while the recent sugar harvest was abysmal. What appears to be biting most is inflation following January’s exchange rate unification. Rising prices are accompanied by worsening shortages of basic goods. Power outages are adding to public discontent. All this takes place against a backdrop of tightened US sanctions and market-oriented economic reforms that only ever move at a glacial pace.
The scale of protests, and the speed at which they spread, are also explained by Cubans’ increasing access to the internet, social media, and messaging platforms. This is what makes these protests materially different from past outbreaks of social discontent. It is also why the regime has moved to block internet access since 11 July, which appears to have helped snuff out these protests for now. However, internet shutdowns cannot last indefinitely. Presumably, the regime will now be working on a new model of digital censorship, disinformation, and increased surveillance. That in itself creates risks – as last year’s freedom of association and racial justice protests by artists and intellectuals attest.
Is this time different?
There are other grounds for the regime to be concerned beyond the access to information and ability to organize that the internet provides. The health situation is clearly unpredictable; economic recovery is unlikely to be quick and will anyway still leave imbalances and dysfunction; and a crackdown on dissent is hardly conducive to the US administration adopting a softer line towards Cuba. Nor does Diaz-Canel enjoy his predecessor Raul Castro (2008-2018)’s authority; an important sign of this legitimacy challenge is the fact that Castro attended an emergency Politburo meeting late on 11 July. Relying on a nonagenarian for political support cannot be a long-term strategy.
Business as usual factors
On the other hand, the regime is well-practiced at suffocating dissent. There is no opposition figure or movement with either the visibility or capacity to lead or channel protests. Diaz-Canel can also blame the US for the economic situation while using migration as a way to defuse tensions and challenge the US; this is a tried-and-tested strategy that Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez has already hinted at this week. The real question is whether the regime can maintain its grip under a new Covid-triggered Special Period without a Castro at the helm and in the internet age.