‘A unified feeling’

In a Q&A, Romance languages professor Odette Casamayor-Cisneros discusses the Cuban protests, government response, and the ‘sense of unity’ among the Cuban people.

People standing on the streets of Havana in protest of the Cuban government.
Protests in Havana against the government of Cuba on July 12, 2021. (Image: 14ymedio)


n July 11, thousands of Cubans joined to protest in the streets, calling for reliable access to food, electricity, and medicine, all of which have been in short supply on the island. The Sunday protest was met with swift military response from authorities, who detained an estimated 700 people.

In response, the Biden administration pledged support for Cuban dissidents while imposing additional sanctions. Following the protests, the news of which spread via social media, the Cuban government shut down internet access for five days. The government recently announced they are now increasing internet censorship, with a new decree making it illegal to write online comments that might destabilize the state.

Cuban-born scholar Odette Casamayor-Cisneros, associate professor of Romance languages, has been vocal about the situation in Cuba, critical of the Black Lives Matter movement’s statement on the Cuban protests and of U.S. sanctions, and writing on yearning “for solidarity from the ‘global left.’” Penn Today spoke with Casamayor-Cisneros about the catalysts for the Cuban protests, the government response, and what’s next for the Caribbean nation.

You have been critical of how the Black Lives Matter movement and others have characterized the Cuban protests. What, in your view, is the full story?

Aspects of Cuba’s original revolutionary project have for decades fueled leftist imaginations. Perhaps this is what has drawn some on the left to focus so single-mindedly on discussions of the U.S. embargo’s huge role in creating the economic desperation driving the protests without also wrestling with the complexity of the protest movement and the painful reality of the state repression that the protesters have faced.

But Cuba is not a political token that can be used to entertain political and ideological fantasies. This is a people that is suffering, and this suffering deserves to be recognized. Many on the left only have ears for what the government says rather than the voices of Cuban people, who are the ones who have truly sacrificed for others. The Cuban people are the soldiers that fought in wars for independence, the doctors who saved lives, the technicians and teachers who helped build new societies across the global south. It is dehumanizing to tell these people that it does not matter that they are repressed or that they are beaten by the police, that only the utopia of socialism matters. State violence must be denounced everywhere, even in Cuba, the last rampart of leftist hopes.

On the other hand, a similar political tokenization occurs on the right, with several U.S. politicians demanding military and humanitarian intervention on the island. I insist that Cuba is not an abstraction. Life in Cuba is extremely complex and cannot be reduced to one or two factors. It is a combination of many elements at the roots of today’s Cubans’ feeling of disempowerment. You can ask the students that took my course, Contemporary Cuba: Culture, History, and Society, last semester; I will never get tired of repeating that to understand the current situation it is necessary to consider decades of great fatigue that have preceded this moment.

Of course, the costs of the embargo imposed in 1962 by the United States have exacerbated the economic crisis, but the embargo is by no means the only variable. What happened on July 11 was the outbreak of anger and discontent maintained for years by Cubans, the explosion of an unbearable, pressure cooker situation. The protestors asked for improvements in their life, not only regarding the current COVID crisis but also from an economic point of view. They also clearly asked for freedom of speech and political reforms. And the government’s response was not to seek dialogue—which is what would be expected in a socialist system that is for the people, that defends the people—but to order their violent repression. That gives the measure of what has been happening during all these decades with respect to the demands of the Cubans.

Another fundamental factor is the government’s poor administrative and economic management, which has devolved in recent years under Miguel Díaz-Canel’s presidency. There are, of course, the economic restrictions imposed by the United States, but the government has not responded as they should to the needs of the population. Political intransigence prevails, and the protests demonstrated the exhaustion of an immutable bureaucratic one-party socialist project. The Cuban people are asking for changes, but these changes must be accomplished by Cubans on the island, not through international intervention.

In an article for Literal magazine, you suggest that the Cuban government has prioritized funding the military and tourism over the needs of the people.

I don’t have all the data because for that you need to be inside the government, which has consistently kept total opacity over its policies and practices. But in the protester-leaked images of July 11, we saw the police, the military, and the special troops dressed in black—who are trained to defend the country from an enemy attack—all repressing the people. These are the troops that were thrown into the streets with weapons. Against an unarmed population, the government’s proposal was to plant a military response.

At the same time, there is an urgent need in Cuba to get, for example, syringes to be able to vaccinate people with the vaccines produced within the country. That can give you a measure of how enraged Cubans feel. With 1,186.3 COVID cases per 100,000 habitants, Cuba now has the third-highest COVID per capita rate in the world.

That is the question that I ask myself in the article: How is it possible that there is money to keep the government so militarized and not to get syringes to save the people? Why is it that we see on the one hand that there are no syringes and on the other that there are weapons?

In your view, how will history remember this moment?

As someone who was born and raised in Cuba (experiencing both the solvent 1980s, when Cuba was still under the Soviet Union’s patronage, and the critical 1990s, the intense economic crisis known as the ‘Special Period’, which occurred after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989), I see this moment as a watershed. That is why the government has placed so much emphasis on saying that these are small, isolated, protests. By systematically identifying the protestors as marginal, petty criminals, the government is adamant on insisting that there was not a mass social protest.

I also believe this has been an unprecedented opportunity to listen to the actual Cuban people, not just the government. And within the Cuban people, we must pay particular attention to its more impoverished sectors, in which Black Cubans are the majority. It is thus understandable that their presence in the protests has been so noticeable. The protests have exposed to the world the extent of racial inequalities in today’s Cuban society, when a silenced but significant part of the population became suddenly visible, loudly expressing their frustrations and their sense of abandonment and agency deprivation.

Decades of disinformation and lack of knowledge on Cuban realities—a consequence deriving from the U.S. embargo, travel restrictions between the two countries, and the harsh politics of the Cold War—have fomented powerful misconceptions among many people from both sides of the political spectrum. That void of information has been filled by political propaganda from both the Cuban and the U.S. governments but rarely from the voices of Cubans living on the island.

One unexpected and encouraging experience that came from these events was a sense of unity between Cuban nationals and those living abroad. I spoke with Cubans from all over the world with different political positions: those on the right, those on the left, and those who were never interested in politics. We were all together, with a unified feeling. We had unfortunately come together under painful circumstances; I would have preferred that they were somewhat happier, instead of pain.

It is possible to end the embargo while at the same time hold the Cuban government accountable for their actions, although the main solutions have to come from Cubans themselves. Lifting the embargo will help to improve living conditions for Cubans while leaving the Cuban government with no excuses to justify its failed internal policies. Without the embargo, the authorities on the island will be forced to see themselves on the mirror and, maybe, to introduce the necessary reforms to bring the change the people are desperately asking for.