Tue Jun 18, 2024
June 18, 2024

Cuba | Protests against the general blackouts

At the end of last September, hundreds came out to protest in various districts and neighborhoods in Havana (Cuba’s capital) and other cities throughout the country, against a general blackout that lasted several days throughout the island. Occurring a little over a year after the demonstrations of July 11, 2021 (11J), what do these new protests mean?

By Alejandro Iturbe

First, let’s look at recent events. Beginning on September 23, Hurricane Ian passed over Cuba, which devastated the country and then affected the US state of Florida. The electric production plants and distribution networks stopped working and there was a total blackout, lasting a day. According to a report by the official British news agency: “In the following days, some of the power plants distributed throughout the island began to function again, and the supply of electricity was gradually restored in some areas. However, the majority of Cuba’s 11.1 million people are still without electricity, or only receive power for a few hours a day” [1]. President Miguel Díaz-Canel attributed the situation of continuing power cuts entirely to the effects of the hurricane and “made an unusual request for aid from the White House for the island’s emergency following the passage of Hurricane Ian.” 

It is evident that this natural disaster had its impact, but the Cuban government’s explanation for the permanent restrictions on the energy supply denies the reality that these cuts were already habitually in place before Hurricane Ian. One article from last July, from the same British news agency, reported: “Blackouts have become a daily problem for millions of Cubans, who watch in resignation as the power goes out more and more often, for more and more hours” [2].

This situation arose from the fact that “The Cuban electrical system faces two fundamental problems: a lack of fuel and increasingly frequent malfunctioning. Most of Cuba’s power plants run on oil, which is scarce in the country. Moreover, the deterioration of electrical centers is increasingly difficult to reverse due to the lack of resources dedicated to malfunction repair and new part acquisition” (emphasis in the original) [3]. That is to say, the power outages suffered by the Cuban people point to a much deeper structural problem, which the Cuban government refuses to acknowledge.

Spontaneous and just mobilizations

At the same time, last July, there were already popular reactions against the power cuts: “The residents of Los Palacios, a town of around 38,000 inhabitants in the western province of Pinar del Río, protested with a “cacerolazo” on Thursday night. ‘Here there are children without food because there is no power,’ exclaimed one of the spontaneous protest participants, in one of the videos widely disseminated online” (emphasis in the original) [4].

These “spontaneous protests” are now taking place in Havana and other Cuban cities. They are just protests because they express the growing weariness of the Cuban people against a reality that intensifies the deterioration of living conditions and increases the daily hardships suffered by many to ensure their survival, especially the most impoverished sectors. This is a reality that the Díaz-Canel government not only denies, but rather, far from working to improve it, continues to aggravate. The outcry expressed in recent protests, each with hundreds of participants banging pots and pans, was: “We want light!” Many of them took place in “low-income neighborhoods in the capital” [5]. Due to the character of the Cuban people’s righteous expression of anger, we express our support for these protests.

Photo by Yamil LAGE / AFP

On the part of the Díaz-Canel government, the response was, firstly, to deny its responsibility for the issue of power cuts. Secondly, the government showed its repressive character since, once the protests began, “shortly after, police agents arrived and surrounded the demonstrators.” According to information that has come out, the repression did not reach the level of 11J, which led to hundreds of demonstrators being arrested, tried, and convicted. Many of them remain incarcerated in Cuban jails, which is why we have built a permanent campaign for their release [6]. What indeed was repeated were the partial restrictions on Internet usage inside Cuba and a total blockade of communications with the outside world.

What is Cuba today?

When we give our support to these mobilizations, we are expressing that the Cuban regime is responsible for the situation that has generated them and repudiating its repression, in a way that inevitably reopens debates which exist in the global left on the character and meaning of these mobilizations, the definition of what Cuba is today, and what the role of the Castroist regime is, in this context.

In general terms, on the left there are three different analyses and characterizations on what Cuba is, and from these we may derive three distinct political stances towards the current kind of mobilization. This is a debate that examines the immense impact of the Cuban Revolution of 1959 on the global left – and especially in Latin America – and the great influence and prestige garnered by its main leaders (Fidel Castro and Che Guevara).

The first of these analyses is presented by the current we call “Castro-Chavismo,” heir to the positions of Stalinism. This position is based on the definition of Cuba as “the last bastion of socialism,” a “besieged fortress under assault” by US imperialism and the Cuban “gusano” bourgeoisie which fled to Miami after the revolution. The main instrument of this aggression is the commercial and financial boycott against Cuba, established since 1960. According to this position, all hardships suffered by the Cuban people are a consequence of this boycott. Meanwhile, the popular protests against these hardships (or demanding democratic freedoms), even if they originally have some just motives, end up becoming a reactionary instrument in the hands of US imperialism and the “gusano” bourgeoisie, in the perspective of overthrowing the Castro regime which “defends socialism.” Under this framework, they must be repudiated, and their repression must be supported. In numerous articles, the IWL-FI has tackled debating against this position [7].

The second position is presented by several organizations which claim to be Trotskyist, such as the Trotskyist Fraction for the Fourth International (“Fracción Trotskista por la Cuarta Internacional” FTCI), headed by the PTS of Argentina. For this current, Cuba continues to be a bureaucratized workers’ state, undergoing two processes or pressures for the restoration of capitalism. Internally, this restorationist policy is pushed by the Castroist regime itself; externally, it is driven by US imperialism and the “gusano” bourgeoisie of Miami. They are equivalent dangers or adversaries which must be simultaneously opposed. Under this framework, the protests against the Castroist regime have a “contradictory character.” On one hand, they are “just” because they express the struggle of the workers and Cuban people against one of the adversaries, as well as the consequences of the restorationist plan; however, on the other hand, they are “reactionary” because they suit the “other enemy.” Based on this perspective, they adopt a “neither-nor” position towards these protests (“we neither support, nor repudiate”) and, furthermore, they keep silent regarding the political prisoners generated by their repression. We have also debated against this position [8].

The Castroist regime restored capitalism in the 1990s

The position of the IWL-FI (and a few other organizations on the left) is based on an entirely different characterization: Castroism itself, which led the revolution in 1959, was responsible for the restoration of capitalism in the 1990s during the so-called “special period” through various key measures [9].

Although the Castro regime remained in power and continued to bear red flags, Cuba had ceased to be “a bastion of socialism,” or, according to Trotskyist terminology, a bureaucratized workers’ state. As was happening in China since 1979 with Deng Xiaoping, the measures of the “special period” destroyed the centrally planned economy and replaced it with the capitalist criterion of profit. Cuba was transformed into a capitalist state. At the same time, since the lack of democratic freedoms during the period of the bureaucratized workers’ state was maintained, the Castro regime became a capitalist dictatorship “dressed in red.”

The capitalist restoration had profound consequences on the economic and social structure of the country. On one hand, due to the “opening” and facilities granted to foreign investments, the independence achieved during the existence of the workers’ state was rapidly lost. Those who took full advantage of these “business opportunities” were European (especially the Spanish) and Canadian imperialisms, who began to control foreign tourism, a key sector of the new Cuban capitalist economy. Take for example the Spanish hotel chain Meliá.

But imperialism also began to invest and take part in other areas, such as medical services and beverages. For example, the world-famous Bacardi rum brand is now owned by “A Bermuda-based multinational company which remains almost entirely family-owned. Its current president is Facundo Bacardí, the American-born great-grandson of the founder, who considers himself more North American than Cuban” [10].

The contradiction of US imperialism

The project of the Castro regime is for these “business opportunities” (a few miles off the coast of Miami) to be thoroughly exploited by US imperialism. However, in the face of this “offer,” US imperialism is divided by interests in profound contradiction.

On one hand, there is the anti-Castroist gusano bourgeoisie residing in Miami, with strong ties and a lot of weight in the Republican Party, which names two conditions for resuming relations with Cuba (and freeing up trade and investments): the fall of the Castro regime and the guaranteed restitution of the properties expropriated by the Revolution. They are the ones who insist upon (and successfully maintain) the boycott and restrictions against Cuba.

On the other hand, as shown by the visit of then-President Barack Obama to Cuba in 2016, various sectors, mostly linked to the Democrats, but also extant within the Republican Party (including the Cuban-born Senator Marco Rubio who also participated in the visit) saw how excellent business opportunities were going to waste in a country so geographically close, in areas such as tourism, finance, agricultural production, industrial product sales, etc. In fact, some US companies were already “cheating” the legislation in force in the US and making investments “camouflaged” behind Canadian companies. Obama’s policy was to move forward in the elimination of all restrictions and facilitating the imperialist “investment flow” without questioning the Castroist regime [11].

That was the reality and dynamic in 2016. But the Republican administration of Donald Trump, in order to maintain its alliance with the anti-Castro gusano bourgeoisie, reversed the policy promoted by Obama… and everything froze to a halt. Joe Biden’s administration has essentially maintained the same policy as Trump.

A Cuban bourgeoisie emerges

A second change that has occurred is that, in light of the capitalist restoration, a new Cuban bourgeoisie is emerging in the Castroist leadership (with the high officials of the Army and the Castro family itself at the center), emanating from the seizure of control and direction exercised by the Cuban Armed Forces over the GAESA (“Grupo de Actividades Empresariales Sociedad Anónima,” or “Business Activities Group Corporation”).

GAESA controls companies “ranging from the hotel sector to retail stores selling products in foreign currencies, going through customs and ports, among many others” [12]. Thus, it also controls a high percentage of the Cuban GDP.

Today, the Castroist regime is the expression of this new Cuban bourgeoisie, which offers itself as a minor and subordinate partner to imperialist semi-colonization: already working with the Europeans and Canadians, while aspiring to work with the US.

Permanent Adjustments

In this context, the Castroist regime is forced to apply permanent adjustment plans that liquidate the gains once achieved by the revolution and, in the face of each difficulty presented by the country’s economic situation, worsen the attacks.

For example, in 2011, a plan to lay off State employees en masse began to unfold: at that time, it was estimated that it could affect 1,300,000 people [13]. For several years, the number of beneficiaries of the so-called “ration booklet” (“libreta de abastecimiento”), through which many Cubans acquired basic products at subsidized prices, has been restricted. Products that, without the “booklet,” could only be acquired on the black market at much higher prices.

The final adjustment plan was the so-called “zero day” plan (launched in January 2021) which unified the two existing currencies in the country: the non-convertible peso and the convertible peso which, until then, was exchanged 1 for 1 with the dollar (which is, in fact, the real currency used in Cuba), at an exchange rate of 24 pesos to the dollar. This was a  fierce devaluation, typical of a semi-colonial capitalist country in the face of the strangulation of foreign currency income due to the drop in foreign tourism caused by the pandemic [14]. Clearly, the ones who suffered the costs of this mega-devaluation were the Cuban working class and Cuban people.

The energy crisis

With all this context, let us now look at the country’s current energy crisis. There are two reasons for the crisis. The first is the structural aging of the power plants, which have not received investments for decades. It could be said that, ultimately, it is a consequence of the lack of foreign currency. But this is only one piece of the truth.

In 2013-2014, the Castro regime began the construction of the Mariel Special Development Zone (“Zona Especial de Desarrollo Mariel,” or ZED Mariel). The ZED Mariel is meant to receive foreign investments for production and trade, which are given complete freedom from taxes and compliance with labor obligations [15]. The work was carried out by the Brazilian company Odebrecht (with financing from the Brazilian state bank BNDES) together with Cuban companies [16]. In other words, in its infrastructure investment plans, the Cuban regime favored those which facilitated handovers to foreign capital over those which would meet the needs of the Cuban workers and people, such as the renovation of the electrical network.

The same happens with the shortage of foreign currency coming in from foreign tourism, which is essential for the oil imports necessary for Cuban power plants and replacement parts. This foreign currency income has been improving after the downturn caused by the pandemic. On this subject, the Cuban Minister of Tourism himself, Juan Carlos García Granda, declared last May: “Tourism in Cuba shows signs of recovery, as evidenced by the fact that in the first four months of the year, the number of visitors has grown, compared to the same period of last year,” due to the increased arrivals of European tourists, especially British ones [17]. In other words, more dollars, euros, and pounds sterling are entering Cuba.

However, the “lion’s share” of this increased income goes to foreign companies and some members of GAESA, such as its hotels and dollar stores. Once again, the priority of the Cuban regime is not to attend to the urgent needs of the workers and people (importing oil and replacement parts for power plants) but to guarantee the profits of imperialist companies and those of GAESA.

Some conclusions

It is thus totally understandable that, periodically, the protests by the workers and people against this increasingly unbearable reality are exploding (while the high representatives of the regime exhibit their enrichment). It is also logical that these protests manifest the demand for democratic freedoms against the dictatorial regime and its permanent repression. In the last protests, the cry of “We want light!” was accompanied by the cry of “Freedom!”

This cry is not devoid of content since, in addition to evading responsibility for the hardships experienced by Cubans on a daily basis, the dictatorial regime increases and intensifies its permanent repression of the protests [18]. This is what it did with the 11J: many of its participants and proponents had to choose between forced emigration [19] or seeing their health deteriorate in prison [20].

Therefore, we affirm that a revolutionary program for Cuba must contain, among its central elements, support for these protests and demonstrations of the workers and people, the repudiation of the repression of the dictatorial bourgeois regime of Castroism, and the demand for the freedom of political prisoners. These points are given in the framework of the need to overthrow this regime through the workers and popular struggle. These proposals must be combined with the need to fight against the adjustment plans applied by this regime, and the imperialist semi-colonization of which it is an agent, in the perspective of a new socialist revolution in Cuba. In the past, this struggle against imperialism and for socialism was led by Castroism; today, although it pains many old left-wing fighters, reality shows that it is a struggle against the Castro regime.

[1] https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-america-latina-63097483

[2] https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-america-latina-62187814

[3] See [1].

[4] See [2].

[5] See 1.

[6] See, among numerous articles and declarations: Cuba | El régimen cubano se ensaña con los presos políticos del 11J – Liga Internacional de los Trabajadores (litci.org)

[7] For example, see: La polémica con el estalinismo sobre Cuba y el 15N – Liga Internacional de los Trabajadores (litci.org)

[8] ¿Qué política debe tener el trotskismo ante el actual proceso cubano? – Liga Internacional de los Trabajadores (litci.org)

[9] On this issue, see the transcription of the debate which took place at the World Social Forum of Porto Alegre, in 2001, under the guidance of the IWL-FI and Cuban leadership: https://litci.org/es/debate-de-la-lit-ci-con-los-dirigentes-cubanos-2001/

[10] Bacardí y el origen del ron cubano – BrandStocker

[11] https://litci.org/es/sobre-la-visita-de-obama-a-cuba/

[12] GAESA: el consorcio militar que controla la economía cubana | Aprender alemán con DW

[13] Comienzan en Cuba los despidos masivos | Internacional | EL PAÍS (elpais.com)

[14] Cuba: el significado del “día cero” – Liga Internacional de los Trabajadores (litci.org)

[15] Zona Especial de Desarrollo Mariel | Una puerta abierta al mundo (zedmariel.com)

[16] Odebrecht en Mariel – Últimas noticias de Cuba, fotos y videos – Cubanos por el Mundo

[18] See Un año de las protestas del 11J en Cuba – Liga Internacional de los Trabajadores (litci.org)

[19] «Es un Mariel silencioso»: los miles de cubanos que usan Nicaragua como ruta para llegar a Estados Unidos – BBC News Mundo

[20] «Patria y vida»: Maikel Osorbo, el rapero cubano que ganó dos Grammy desde la cárcel y en un «delicado estado de salud» – BBC News Mundo

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