The third piece is brute force. During that frustrated opposition rally at a park in Havana, dump trucks pulled up, unloading scores of men who surrounded anyone who dared speak up. I recall a man raising his identity card, his voice shaking, and saying, “I am Cuban, I have a right to speak.” Before he finished the sentence, a swarm of men materialized, pummeling him to the ground. Then, plainclothes agents started appearing, grabbing individual protesters and throwing them in the back of unmarked cars that sped away. That protest didn’t last long.
Times are different now.
The iconic Castro is long gone and gone with him the charisma and stature that persuaded many Cubans to endure chronic –and ongoing — shortages of basic necessities, including freedom.
Demonstrators complained they don’t have enough to eat, but they didn’t just ask for food or housing or jobs. They asked for freedom.
It’s true that Washington has imposed harsh economic sanctions on Cuba. Former President Donald Trump tightened the sanctions, and President Joe Biden has kept them in place. But if the protests were only about the economy, the call for “Libertad” would not figure so prominently.
That leaves step three: brute force. This part of the strategy bears watching closely. If protests continue, the regime will face a tough decision about how hard to crack down. Cuba is an authoritarian regime, but it wraps itself in a mystique. The more extensive the crackdown, the harder it is to defend its image as a government of and for the people. If we see much more violence at the hand of security forces, we will know authorities are deeply worried about losing control. So far, we have seen arrests and some violence, but the scale is still limited.
The Cuban regime’s playbook has helped it stay in power for more than six decades. Maybe it will work again but, as we have all learned, history is full of unexpected turns.