Miguel Díaz-Canel’s Cold Response to Cuba’s Historic Wave of Protests

  • Since the 11th of July, Cuba has witnessed the largest protests in nearly thirty years reflecting growing domestic unrest that threatens to challenge Cuba’s Communist regime. 
  • Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz-Canel lacks the authority to quell Cuban discontent in light of Cuba’s worst economic crisis in decades. 
  • The US will continue to impose sanctions on Cuba forcing the regime to accelerate economic reforms.
Miguel Díaz-Canel
Miguel Diaz-Canel / Alain Jocard / AFP

Why is Díaz-Canel cold?

Answer: Large scale protests will push Miguel Díaz-Canel to accelerate reforms that could challenge his hold on power and eventually allow for greater US influence on the island. 

Thousands of people protested on the 11th of July and smaller protests followed throughout the week. During Cuba’s largest protests in nearly thirty years, Cubans were criticizing the lack of basic goods and services, especially food and medical attention amidst the Covid 19 pandemic. Some were also demanding an end to the six decade Communist regime.

Such widespread domestic discontent is expected to push the government to introduce changes. Namely, Díaz-Canel is likely to accelerate economic reforms. Although initially Cuba’s President and first secretary of the Communist Party, Miguel Díaz-Canel, shifted blame to US sanctions, he later admitted that the government has also mishandled power and food shortages. He subsequently announced new measures that answered the protesters’ demands. 

This is problematic because Díaz-Canel did not plan to quickly introduce sweeping reforms. Like his predecessor Raúl Castro, Díaz-Canel has promised to bring continuity to the Cuban revolution. In practice this has meant that Cuba’s Communist Party has been seeking a way of consolidating its power and transitioning it to a younger generation while simultaneously reforming the Cuban economy and Cuban society. However, accelerated changes could entail that reforms get out of hand and ultimately end up challenging the Communist Party’s regime. 

Indeed, recent protests have shown that it will be difficult for the Communist Party to maintain continuity. For instance, the introduction of the internet and social media to the island has made possible the organization of large scale protests that would have been unimaginable only a few years ago. Furthermore, social media could also aid in the creation of opposing political movements. Should the Communist Party’s power be diminished by the introduction of reforms, this would not only threaten Miguel Díaz-Canel’s hold on power but also Cuba’s ability to resist US influence on the island. 

What is changing Díaz-Canel’s temperature?

Answer: The protests have been triggered by an economic crisis but made possible by Díaz-Canel’s lack of authority.

The protests that took place in Cuba were triggered by the island’s severe economic crisis. The Cuban economy contracted by as much as 11% in 2020 and Cuba is witnessing a 500 percent inflation rate. The crisis was triggered by the collapse of the Venezuelan economy that had long supported that of Cuba. As a result of a lack of subsidized fuel from Venezuela, Cuba plunged into an energy crisis that has harmed its economy and meant that Cubans have had to endure frequent blackouts. Furthermore, Trump-era sanctions restricted travel to the island and limited remittances, an important source of revenue for Cuba. Finally, the Covid-19 pandemic brought about a further drop in tourism and remittances from relatives living abroad. 

Furthermore, Miguel Díaz-Canel lacks the authority of his predecessors. This has made it difficult for him to deal with domestic unrest and will make it hard for him to deter future manifestations of dissent. Indeed, mass protests twenty seven years ago were quickly ended by Cuba’s revolutionary leader. Fidel Castro commanded great respect among many Cubans which is believed to have contributed to his success in dealing with the demonstrations. When Castro traveled to Malecon in 1994 he found upon his arrival some people shouting “Viva Fidel!”. Díaz-Canel lacks Fidel Castro’s charisma but also his revolutionary legitimacy, having ascended to power by way of the Communist Party. 

What is driving Díaz-Canel?

Answer: Miguel Díaz-Canel seeks continuity and reform.

Miguel Díaz-Canel is in several ways different from his predecessors, the Castro brothers. The distinctions are mainly generational as Díaz-Canel was born a year after the Cuban revolution. He is modern and has advocated for many social reforms. For instance, he has supported gay rights and pushed for affordable internet access in Cuba. Cuba has also taken important steps to liberalize its economy in 2021, such as removing its dual currency system and has allowed private participation in more than 2000 professions. In addition, Díaz-Canel is a former electrical engineer, not a guerrilla fighter. As a result, he does not have a history of treating political opponents with the harshness of the Castros. 

However, Díaz-Canel is likely to become harsher in order to maintain political control while introducing new reforms. Indeed, hundreds of demonstrators have been arrested during the protests according to activists. At the same time, Díaz-Canel has made concessions to the protesters. He has already lifted customs on food and medicine and has promised to improve Cuba’s electricity system as well as its medical supplies. The Cuban government has also long promised to introduce rules that would allow business owners to establish small and medium sized enterprises. The Economy Minister recently announced that Cuba would finally institute them. Díaz-Canel’s response to the protests suggests that he will respond to growing Cuban discontent with increased restraint but also with reform. 

Furthermore, when it comes to foriegn affairs and above all relations with the US, Díaz-Canel shares the Castros’ views. Namely, he wants Cuba to remain an independent and sovereign state. The President welcomed the election of US President Joe Biden because he believed that it would allow for the creation of “constructive bilateral relations respecting each other’s differences”. Nonetheless, his reaction to the protests have also shown that he continues to be wary of US interference on the island. On the 12th of June in a televised address, Díaz-Canel suggested that protests were part of a US backed effort to trigger public discontent and overthrow the Cuban regime.

What does this mean for you?

Answer: The US will not remove sanctions any time soon forcing the Cuban government to continue introducing reforms.

The US is eager to see the replacement of Cuba’s Communist regime with one more amenable to it. Biden had spoken of liberalizing travel, re-establishing diplomatic ties and making it easier for Cubans in the US to send remittances to relatives on the islands. However, recent protests have changed Biden’s stance.

He is unlikely to remove Trump era measures out of fear that it would give the Cuban government a lifeline. Indeed, the US has imposed new sanctions against Cuba in order to support public pressure on the government. On the 22 of July, the US froze the assets of minister Alvaro Lopez Miera and the Special National Brigade (SNB), in response to alleged human rights abuses committed during the clampdown on the July protests. 

Nevertheless, Biden is unlikely to intervene militarily on the island. He has recently taken a tougher stance on Cuba than is customary for the Democratic Party by warning the Cuban regime against “attempting to silence the voices of the people of Cuba”. The Democratic Party has often been criticized by its voters in Florida of taking too soft of a stance towards Cuba’s Communist Party. Regardless, many states including China and Russia have cautioned against military intervention. In order to avoid tensions with rival powers, the US is unlikely to send troops to aid opposition movements on the island. 

In sum, it is difficult to predict what the future of Cuba’s Communist Party will be. US sanctions and public discontent will push Cuba’s government to continue introducing economic reforms that will liberalize Cuba’s economy. However, it is unclear whether important political reforms will also follow. According to experts on Cuba, changes in Cuba’s one-party political system could happen in the next few years only if serious domestic pressure continues.