For Cuban political scientist Javier Corrales, it is an illusion to think that the repressive power of the island’s regime is fragile, even if the demonstrations of last Sunday (11) were a surprise because of the number of people it has gathered in different cities of Cuba.
Author of books such as “Fixing Democracy” (2018) and professor at Amherst College, Massachusetts, USA, where he spoke to Folha by phone, Corrales is an expert on Latin America.
Were the protests a surprise? The problems behind the protests were not unknown to anyone, not to the Cuban people, not to the regime, or to the international community. We all knew what was going on. In that sense, it was not like Chile, for example, which surprised most people in 2019 because it was thought that everything was fine there, even if it was not true.
What caught the attention in Cuba was the number of people who, apparently without fear, joined the protest. Cuba has not had mass protests in recent decades. There were a few punctual, soon muffled. And there was the “maleconazo” in 1994, but even this one did not have the dimension of that of this Sunday, because it took place mainly in Havana. The one now was national.
Have people lost their fear or have they been driven by despair? Or both? It is possible that a new generation of protesters and the means to summon new activists via social media shows that there is less fear. But this tends to turn out to be false, as there is no sign that Cuba’s repressive capacity is weaker, and in fact it is not. The desperation, due to the lack of food and medicine, perhaps reinforced this impulse which was reinforced with the social networks.
Why do you say that the regime’s capacity for repression remains strong? First, because they act differently. In other countries, you see repression in a day, injured, detained, even killed. And then it’s all over. In Cuba, the reverse is true. The images of repression seen this Sunday are the start of the typical Cuban repression. First, they stop and identify. The next day they will know where they are working, what they are doing, that person will lose their job, so will their family members, there will be various forms of harassment until they resign or leave the country. This is the formula for success that repression still uses today.
Díaz-Canel called on Cubans to defend the country against protesters and provoked a reaction from the international community. But it is typical. This is how the regime stands, with those who denounce the other, the Cubans pointing the finger at the Cubans. Of course, this causes international repudiation, but inside the country Cubans know that this is how things work. And even though Díaz-Canel has softened the statement, that’s exactly what will be done. A stimulus for denunciations in exchange for favors, care, food.
Have people lost their fear, in part because Díaz-Canel seems more fragile than the Castros? I do not believe. Díaz-Canel in some ways was much tougher than Raúl Castro, even to prove to party veterans that he deserved the job. There are very harsh decrees. A 2018 free speech decree gave space for the emergence of the San Isidro movement, but later there were setbacks in civil rights, such as the restriction of equal unions. He has a conservative and uncompromising agenda.
Why did the 2018 freedom of expression decree provoke such rejection? From the “special period” [crise econômica causada pelo fim da União Soviética], artists enjoy great freedom on the island, as they are an additional attraction, popular wealth and a tourist product. I would say they’ve been pretty free lately, so much so that there are famous singers and writers living on the island.
The decree required every artistic organization to register and report on its activities. It means more control. One thing fed the other. These events started to provoke the decree, and the stopped regime, threatened these groups, whose activity, even more in the pandemic, was mainly online.