To truly understand what is going on in Cuba now, it is essential to know about two deeply ingrained traits of the Cuban people that have been at play in the streets of Havana, Santiago de Cuba and many other cities and towns across the island.
One is their quite impressive ability to adapt to any circumstances, no matter how dire. This is their greatest strength and also their gravest weakness because accommodating hardship means not demanding change. I’ve seen this remarkable adaptability demonstrated many times over the forty years that I’ve been visiting and reporting from Cuba. I encountered it during my first trip there in 1979 when the driver of an old DeSoto I was in showed me how he had replaced the car’s corroded fan belt with an old leather belt that he had used to hold up his pants. I saw it during a reporting trip in the 1990s when I was travelling on a desolate road to a small town in the centre of the island and one of my tires went flat. The repair shop I eventually found – set up inside the sawed-off back end of an old bus – used a cut up bicycle tyre inner tube, a flattened soda can and a discarded piston from an automobile engine, heated up in the repairman’s kitchen oven, to patch the puncture and get me back on the road.
And most recently, while working on my new book, The Cubans: Ordinary Lives in Extraordinary Times, I got to know Joseito, a young father of two little girls in a small town near Havana who made his living fixing furniture using strips of rubber that he somehow managed to trim off discarded truck tires using a razor thin machete without slicing off a finger.
Repairing what you have and repurposing what no longer serves is a classic form of adaptability. That’s how Cubans got through the awful ‘special period’ in the 1990s after the Soviet Union’s collapse. Learning to fry up grapefruit skins when there’s no other food puts one in a survival frame of mind.
You didn’t hear much complaint then, at least not in public. The system of neighbourhood spies that Fidel Castro set up after the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, called the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, made every Cuban aware that any complaint could be overheard, and reported. Even after Fidel died in 2016, I’ve seen Cubans routinely refrain from using his name and only stroking their chin silently when they want to blame some shortage on him and the government he imposed.
Old habits die hard.
That ingrained adaptability and its accompanying restraint have guided Cubans through the 62 up and down years of the revolution. So why not now?
That’s the second thing to know about the dissent manifesting itself in Cuba’s streets. Living for so long with continuous shortages of everything – sometimes even rum, cigars and sugar – Cubans have developed an understandably mortal fear of losing the little they have. Since most everything comes from the state, the state can easily take it away. And when complaining is considered counter-revolutionary, criticising the government in public could cost any one of them everything they have. Worst of all, anyone foolish enough to protest is most likely to do so alone. Time after time Cubans have described for me examples of individuals so frustrated or wronged by the system that they have taken to the street, urging neighbors to join them, only to turn around to find no one standing with them. Then, tagged a delinquent or a mercenary of the imperialists, they suffer the consequences, alone.
In a system where a criticism is considered a condemnation, and where every media outlet is controlled by the state, dissenters live in bubbles separated from each other. But the internet and social media, begrudgingly bestowed in drips and drabs by the Cuban regime over the last few years, has changed that. Cuba remains one of the least wired countries in the world, and few Cubans have the luxury of internet service in their homes. But the wifi hotspots in public parks and street corners are crowded every day and night.
These digital networks have been put to use in recent years in surprising ways. When Raúl Castro proposed revising the country’s constitution in 2019, social networks buzzed with criticism of many aspects of the document, but two of them in particular raised the ire of many. One was legalisation of gay marriage, which triggered so much opposition that the regime dropped it rather than risk defeat in the national referendum. The second was a clause making socialism irreversible, which, despite furious dissent, remained in the final draft.
As expected, the referendum passed by a wide margin in the spring of 2019, but it was clear that Cubans had started to lose their fear. A similar referendum in 1976 was approved by 98 percent of the vote. This time, only 86.5 percent of those who voted approved it. Over 2 million Cubans did not vote at all. And another million voted no or, in the privacy of the voting place, vandalised their ballot so it looked like they had done what the Communist Party demanded and voted, but their vote could not count.
Along with ordinary Cubans who use their cell phones to document building collapses or police violence, a legion of independent journalists has been doing daring reporting that is distributed digitally. Although much of it is not available in Cuba because of government censors, the ever-adaptable Cubans have found ways to get their material out of Cuba to platforms based in Spain, the US and other countries, so that Cubans, with the right know-how and equipment, can still see it, despite the government’s efforts to shut down the internet after the initial uprisings.
What we’re seeing now in Cuba is these two fundamental Cuban characteristics colliding in the streets. ‘We are not afraid,’ the Cubans are heard shouting on the videos they have posted, along with their anguished cries for food and freedom. Cubans have lost much of their fear, along with a great deal of their complacency. And that ought to make the regime afraid, very afraid, because even if this is not the start of a Cuban Spring, it is an irreversible turn towards a less accommodating, and less fearful, Cuban tomorrow.