Santiago de Cuba, March 17, 2024. Photo: Aris Arias Batalla / Facebook.

Cuba: “The Enemy Attacks, but the Revolution Resists”

25 / marzo / 2024

On Sunday, March 17, 2024, images of protests in Santiago de Cuba and later in Bayamo surprised Cubans inside and outside the island once again. Surprise continues to be part of the immediate reaction to popular demonstrations; a response probably more associated with the moment in which they occur than with the fact of their occurrence itself. Despite systematic repression, massive exodus, and the inertia sustaining the regime, it was somewhat expected that the worsening living conditions would lead to new protests (in the absence of another viable channel to express discontent and seize the right to participate in the country’s political life).

After July 11, 2021 (11J), the Cuban Government opted for regular repression, using laws that would guarantee further closure of the space for civic struggle, and for propaganda to repeatedly return to its imagery, highlighting the deep disconnection and disinterest in the lives of ordinary people. Nevertheless, the Cuban powers that be should not have been completely surprised by the emergence of popular discontent in the form of spontaneous demonstrations. It is foreseeable, even for an alienated Government, that the worsening economic crisis would result in the eruption of discontent.

The possible evidence that it was not the type of surprise that mobilized the crème of power on 11J, was the response that some media and state voices gave during the first hours. Instead of the agitated response that in 2021 called “the revolutionaries to take to the streets” —mostly read as a call to civil confrontation—, what happened on March 17 and the following day was an effort at normalization.

According to Cubadebate —which reproduced a fragment of the original thread by El Necio (as the pro-government communicator Pedro Jorge Velázquez presents himself) on X—, “several people took to the streets and a popular demonstration occurred” in reaction to the long hours of power outages and “other situations derived from the current economic crisis.” There were, in addition to requests for food and electricity, chants of “Patria y Vida,” (Homeland and life) but “were not followed by the majority,” according to official sources.

The government description leads to a series of clarifications. The police showed up at the scene to prevent violent events (“they are only guarding the demonstration and directly dialoguing with the citizens”). Authorities also showed up “to dialogue with the population and attend to their demands.” That is, a “normalized” view of the protest —although it is a vague description, it is recognized as such—, people express their dissatisfaction, the police guard and prevent any violence, and the authorities engage in dialogue.

However, the apparent change in communicative approach should not be read as a change in the general strategy for dealing with protests. It is possible that the “normalization” responds to a change in tone because the original thread on X, replicated by Cubadebate, comes from an influencer spokesperson for the Cuban Government (El Necio) who does not resort to the typical rhetoric of state media. Moreover, the gap between the influencers who speak for the Government and the communication channels of the Cuban State is too small to notice different positions in the difference in tones. Therefore, the new approach should be considered, rather, as a communicative strategy that adds to the general strategy with components of more recurrent use.

The general strategy continued to be —fundamentally— the same, blaming the United States and the policy of the embargo (called “blockade”) for the occurrence of the demonstrations. Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel posted on X the day after the protests that “mediocre politicians and terrorists on social media from southern Florida jumped in to heat up the streets of Cuba with interference messages and calls for chaos.”

The tactic, increasingly inappropriate within the country and facing its diaspora, continues to be useful for garnering support from allied countries and organizations. This is the case of The People’s Forum, which, on the night of the 17th, shared a message whose central content was that the blockade by the United States had strangled the Cuban economy to the point that the Caribbean nation could not receive fuel or food shipments, and the situation was deteriorating. According to the state message, the above would be the full story that the US media did not tell when they reported on the protests in Cuba.

It is also the case with the article from Peoples Dispatch, an alternative media outlet in the United States that systematically replicates Cuban state propaganda. The text —translated and republished by Cubadebate— reproduces the statements of Manolo de los Santos, executive director of The People’s Forum, which highlights the Cuban Government’s response to the protests, and compares the situation with the United States where, he claims, “hundreds of thousands of people have mobilized in cities across the country to demand a ceasefire in Gaza and national and local leaders have repressed, ignored, and ridiculed protesters and their demands.” The comparison with the US, in which Cuba always stands out as an example of democracy and respect for human rights, is accompanied by criticism of corporate media, which, according to them, respond to a media war dynamic to discredit the island’s government.

The next day, ALBA issued a statement stating: “The member states of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America strongly reject the attempts at destabilization against the Republic of Cuba, coming from external agents who only seek to break the internal order of that nation.” In the absence of a direct relationship that could be revealed between destabilization attempts and the demonstrations, the ALBA statement argues that the US Government insists on its attempts to provoke a social outbreak by reinforcing the economic blockade and sabotaging “the capacity of the [Cuban] State to respond to the population’s needs, inciting destabilization through toxic platforms and promoting a defamatory campaign against Cuba, in flagrant violation of international law and the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter.”

The governmental strategy to deal with the demonstrations also appeals to a supposed gap between the reality of the streets —which would be covered with objectivity only by state media— and the reality seen through the filter of social networks.

Just these days, the III International Patria Colloquium was held in Havana. The event is an important part of the government’s effort to explain how social networks and digital media allow for a dynamic of psychological, media, and cognitive warfare; and to argue how the “dictatorship of the algorithm” works in which the dominant state narrative would occupy the truth side in a scenario of fake news, post-truth, and misinformation.

The explanatory framework was immediately used to show that many of the references to the demonstrations were fake news. Humberto López, a well-known regime spokesperson, explained on a Cuban television program on March 18, 2024, that although protests had occurred (and mentioned the places where they occurred), many of the social media posts were false. The false posts about protests were connected, in the program’s script, with statements from US officials and the US Embassy in Havana. Thus, the audience was led back to the issue of the US blockade’s responsibility for the occurrence of protests within the archipelago.

It is curious that the dramaturgy —which begins with a denial and exposure of fake news and leads to the repetition of the trope of US guilt— is built on obvious manipulations of reality. To give two very obvious examples, the videos of the protests were broadcast without audio, so the slogans could not be heard. The massive exodus that the country has experienced in the last two years was described with the words: “some relatives and friends have chosen to try their luck in other lands. It has always happened and happens everywhere.”

Humberto Lopez’s program added to the previous (supposedly objective but actually highly manipulated) positioning a warning about what would happen in the “hypothetical case —which will not happen—” that the Revolution fell. In such a scenario, Cuba would be controlled by a coordinator, “a US citizen who will direct everything (…). And that coordinator, as a first task, has to return to Batista’s thieves and murderers everything they had stolen from this people.”

At the level of public communication, the general strategy for dealing with the protests thus appeals to a series of tactics. Namely: an attempt to normalize the protest (probably contingent), blaming an external agent for its occurrence (the United States and the blockade), and a framework of occurrence described as a context of media war. Similarly, it refers to a disaster scenario in case the current Government falls and uses messages from accounts sympathetic to the Government to show the tranquility reigning in the streets.

The array of governmental strategies has revealing implications. On the one hand, it completely denies the independent participation of the protesters. Although on this occasion (so far) they have not been criminalized as delinquents or mercenaries, as was done during 11J and in several of the protests that followed. They are presented only as people who “show their dissatisfaction” in the face of specific situations such as the lack of electricity and food, implicitly manipulable by the enemy’s intentions. Secondly, they deny the responsibility of the Havana Government in the current situation. They go so far as to say that the blockade prevents the Cuban State from maneuvering, a false argument even if the impact of the US economic embargo on the island’s economy is acknowledged.

The double denial of the population’s independent action and the Government’s responsibility is the best expression of the state’s incapacity to find political solutions to popular discontent and the best guarantee of the continuity and probable growth of popular demonstrations. Despite continuous promises of dialogue and listening —reiterated again by Diaz-Canel at the closing of the III International Patria Colloquium—, the Cuban Government turns a deaf ear to popular demands. Instead of building the way, the island’s State dedicates its resources to the communicative battle. But such is not, contrary to what its agents think, the most important battleground. Unable, or unwilling, to understand this, they will continue to repeat until the last moment that the people who take to the streets only want food and electricity, ignoring the obvious desire for radical changes that would make it possible to have food, electricity, and basic freedoms. Nor will they stop blaming the embargo for a responsibility that, whether they acknowledge it or not, lies squarely with them.

This article was translated into English from the original in Spanish.

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