What sparked the massive, angry protests that spread across Cuba like wildfire this week? Despite a certain narrative out of Washington, it wasn’t just the lack of food and medicine, or even the lack of vaccines against COVID-19. What primarily shook the island, and caught its despotic rulers off guard, was Cubans’ hunger for freedom.
After 62 years of brutal communist tyranny, large swaths of the Cuban population decided not to take it any longer. Many were inspired by the young rappers of the San Isidro Movement and their acclaimed song, “Fatherland and Life.” As they courageously took a stand against oppression, armed only with flashing cell phones, observers around the world were deeply moved by their stirring cries: Down with Communism! Liberty! Enough!
Cuba’s titular head of state, Miguel Díaz-Canel, who pledged to perpetuate the Castro regime, predictably accused the U.S. of inciting the unrest. He ordered his thugs to recapture the streets and “battle” the so-called mercenaries. Along with cruel repression, the regime imposed an Internet and social-media blackout.
The big question now is what should the U.S. do, and not do? If the Biden administration is serious about human rights and democracy in Cuba, it should not unconditionally lift existing U.S. sanctions or reverse Cuba’s designation as a terrorist state — or grant unilateral concessions to the regime, such as unlimited trips and remittances to the island. As occurred under President Obama, this would mainly benefit the Cuban rulers and their allies, demoralize the pro-democracy dissidents, and infuriate Cuban-Americans.
Long-deprived Cubans would welcome humanitarian aid, if it is handled by the Red Cross or other reputable, independent institutions. But that would not address the fundamental goal of the protests: to end the totalitarian stranglehold that has subjected the Cubans to an unbearable serfdom. In other words, regime change.
Cuba today has become the epicenter of the struggle for freedom in Latin America. Given the island’s geographic location and collusion with hostile powers, the outcome of Cuba’s crusade is of paramount importance, not only to the Cubans, but to the U.S. and the region. Russia this week warned against “outside interference” that would fuel the protests and undermine the regime, an implied threat to the U.S. that flies in the face of the Monroe Doctrine. China, so far, has remained quiet, but it continues to back the Cuban regime with investments and credits, and reportedly uses the electronic intelligence installations in Bejucal, near Havana. Those facilities are potentially capable of tracking and disrupting U.S. satellites serving the eastern coast.
A comprehensive U.S. strategy is needed to foster a peaceful democratic transition in Cuba — without interference by Russia, China, rogue states, or narco-terrorist organizations.
Among other things, that strategy should:
- Encourage Cuba’s pro-democracy dissident leaders to join forces and seek recognition under a broad unifying umbrella.
- Provide resources and tools to intensify civic resistance and overcome government censorship and blackouts. A generation ago, the U.S. and others did this successfully in support of Poland’s Solidarity Movement. Today, it would require satellite technology and funds to facilitate free Internet access for all Cubans.
- Maintain open lines of communication with reformists within the Cuban government and armed forces, who may be swayed to support a democratic transition.
- Apply the OAS Democratic Charter and the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance to penalize the regime’s bloody repression and crimes against humanity, and counter — with a collective show of force, if necessary — any attempt by Russia, China, or others to quash the freedom crusade in Cuba.
As the world is witnessing, the Cuban people are not resigned to their current fate. They are, it is clear, prepared to pay the price of freedom.
Sadly, while their brave protests these last few days may not be the end of their ordeal, they could well be the beginning of the end.
Lovers of freedom and democracy everywhere should support Cuba’s patriots and help them to keep the flame of resistance alive, so that one day we can all salute a new beginning for the island nation with a resounding and heartfelt: Viva Cuba Libre!