Repression, persecution, intimidation and a timid signal of “good will” by the regime to try to alleviate the day-to-day economic pressures weighing on Cubans. This is how Miguel Díaz-Canel is responding to the July 11 protests, which took Castroist authorities by surprise and reminded the world that the island is ruled by a brutal dictatorship.
The freedom marches represented a crack in the communist power structure. However, the road to a democratic transition promises to be long. International pressure, a better organized opposition and dissent among the regime’s authorities are some of the factors pointed out by analysts consulted by the People’s Gazette for the pro-freedom and pro-democracy movement to succeed in Cuba.
How does the Cuban regime maintain power?
Unlike the former Soviet republics, the Castros kept communism alive in Cuba after the fall of the Soviet Union, which until the late 1990s was a strong supporter of the Cuban regime.
After the initial economic downturn, the Castro dictatorship looked for other sources of income, which were found mainly in tourism; in military assistance to Venezuela, which in turn provided fuel; and sending Cuban dollars abroad to family members on the island.
Furthermore, one of Havana’s main sources of income is the export of health services, through programs such as Mais Médicos – criticized by international organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, for violating the human rights of professionals sent to provide services abroad.
In the 60 years it has been in power, the dictatorship has improved its methods of social control, making it impossible for an opposition to exist. The Cuban one-party system does not allow political dissent and acts to repress movements against the regime.
The Cuban state security apparatus has a significant number of informants, ordinary citizens who monitor neighbors’ activities and report illegal actions such as shopping on the black market, disobeying Communist Party orders or participating in opposition movements.
The dictatorship also counts on the secret police for this control. The proportion of secret police agents in the Cuban population is estimated to be greater than that of the infamous Stasi, who operated in East Berlin.
“Cuba has developed, in 60 years, very powerful methods of espionage among peers”, says Carmen Beatriz Fernández, political and academic consultant and professor at the University of Navarra (Spain). “It’s a mechanism inherited from the Soviet Union and East Germany. In Cuba, you couldn’t move a fly without a government official knowing.”
This model of social control “probably will insulate the Cuban regime from any form of imminent collapse“, says Ryan C. Berg, researcher at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), a research group in Washington (USA).
Before the July 11 protests, the social control system was very effective in curbing dissent before it became a “problem”. If someone is conspiring or planning a protest, the regime’s intelligence knows long before.
However, Carmen Fernández says the regime was surprised by the July 11 protests, which the social control apparatus could not control. The protests, being spontaneous, broke that system of domination, she said.
Can protests bring about change?
The experts consulted by the People’s Gazette they are cautious in their assessment of the possibility of changing the Cuban regime following the recent protests.
Despite the discontent of the population and the boldness of those who took to the streets, it is still too early to say whether there will be political change in Cuba.
“If [os protestos] are the beginning of a regime change, I don’t know. And I don’t think anyone knows,” says Carlos Malamud, senior analyst for Latin America at the Elcano Royal Institute, a research group based in Madrid, Spain.
What is missing for the regime to fall?
For Malamud, change will depend “on the regime’s ability to maintain its ranks without major disruptions, without major internal contradictions.”
“As internal dissidences start to appear, a different situation could start,” says the expert.
Cases of dissent within Cuba’s governing structure have been rare for 60 years, and so far, there have been no major signs of dissent following the recent protests.
The press initially reported that Deputy Interior Minister Jesús Manuel Burón Tabit, who oversees police and security forces, had resigned on July 14 due to excessive use of force against protesters. But shortly thereafter the information was denied by the regime.
Although the resignation of Interior Ministry authority has been denied, there are reports of some internal dissent between younger and older generations in the armed forces, sources told the Spanish newspaper ABC. However, these cracks should not be enough to threaten the security of the regime, say CSIS researchers.
Furthermore, the chances of change will also depend on how the opposition will manage to articulate itself in a more organized movement than the current one.
The Cuban opposition, in addition to being fragmented and decentralized, is also infiltrated by the security forces and intelligence services, stresses Malamud. “This obviously makes it difficult for a more coordinated movement to be set in motion in the future.”
Rafael Cox Alomar, professor of law at Harvard University, agrees: “The political opposition in Cuba appears to be largely fragmented, with no visible strategy or leadership – indispensable elements for achieving long-term success,” Alomar told Harvard Law Today.
International pressure could also be a key factor for a democratic transition on the island. Although many Cubans living abroad are calling for US military intervention on the island, there is no political will for this to happen, as Democrat Bob Menéndez, chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has already made clear.
However, there are other forms of international pressure, advocated by Cubans in exile, that could weaken the dictatorship. They cite the cut in diplomatic relations with Cuba, the end of funding for the regime – mainly through deals with companies controlled by the military -, assistance for dissidents and those fighting for democracy, and ensuring that Cubans on the island can have access to internet and telephone services.
“Greater international pressure has to do mainly with the economic issue,” says Carmen Fernández, citing that unless a country comes to the aid of the regime, Cuba would be forced to open its economy.
The experts consulted by the People’s Gazette they believe it is very difficult for China, despite having shown support for Díaz-Canel, to act as a financier of the regime for geopolitical reasons, since the presence of the Asian giant in Latin America is much more guided by business.
With the absence of a foreign “sponsor” and possible sanctions on the regime and on dealings with the military, economic numbers in Cuba could increase popular indignation, leading authorities to choose between a negotiated transition or increased repression.
Finally, Fernández recalls that one of the factors that should most influence the future of the island is how the people around the government, who benefit from the status quo – those who attended the acts in support of the dictatorship, summoned to face the protests.
“They’re going to ask themselves: what’s going to happen to me, to my family. If the answer is imprisonment or deaths, they tend to stay on the side of the regime. That’s why it’s important that these people feel that there may be incentives for a transition.” , concluded the Spanish analyst.