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On the road to ruin

A protestor in Havana. Adalberto Roque/ AFP/Getty Images

Cuba’s communist dictatorship has “outlasted more than 10 American presidents”, says Jason Johnson in Slate, but now it faces a tougher test: its own people. Earlier this month Havana’s sunny streets thronged with thousands of protestors yelling “Libertad” – “Freedom” – and hurling stones at police. The Delta variant has ripped through the island, infuriating Cubans. The largest anti-government protest since Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution spread from a small town outside Havana to cities across. Young, mainly black Afro-Cubans dismiss the Castros’ revolution against a US-backed tyrant as ancient history. A regime that has time and again bested the mightiest nation on the planet is now facing a fight from within.

Cuba hasn’t faced down a popular protest since 1994, says Jon Lee Anderson in The New Yorker. That was “a pre-internet and pre-smartphone age”, when Fidel Castro was alive and “in command”. This feels very different. The usual black-uniformed special forces, police and stick-wielding plainclothes agents were deployed; hundreds of protestors are in dank jail cells. President Miguel Díaz-Canel – who succeeded Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother, in 2019 – briefly restricted access to the internet, but the horse had bolted. News and images of what was happening shot across Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp. A reformer at heart, the new president is “boxed in by circumstances”. He rolled back internet repression when he took power.

Yet Díaz-Canel’s “dull bureaucrats” have set Cuba on a path to ruin, says The Economist. Months of power cuts, crippling shortages and queues for barely affordable food and basic medicine have left Cubans at breaking point. The Castros, for all their atrocities, commanded respect “even among the many Cubans who abhorred them”. Díaz-Canel, a man “without a shred of charisma”, does not. The protestors’ anthem, Patria y Vida, has rung across Cuba despite being outlawed by the party: “Your time’s up, the silence is broken… we’re not scared, the deception is over.” The world is now watching President Biden, who has expressed solidarity with protestors and called Cuba a “failed state”, but hasn’t fulfilled his promise to roll back the Trump-era sanctions that left the country bankrupt. This week he slapped more sanctions on Cuba.

Biden is in a bind, says Ernesto Londoño in The New York Times. His old boss, Barack Obama, normalised relations with Cuba in 2014. American cruise ships and capital rolled in. Rihanna, the Kardashians and the Rolling Stones made their way to its sunny shores. That was nice. But in a way Trump’s sanctions – a throwaway campaign promise aimed at hawkish American-Cubans who fled to Miami to escape Castro’s regime – are getting results. Communism is crumbling. Biden may be Obama’s former Veep, but he seems happier with the “older playbook of confrontation”. And why not, says Con Coughlin in The Daily Telegraph: “Covid could topple the world’s worst regimes.” Look at virus-ravaged North Korea, Iran and now Cuba, where full-strength governments would usually snuff out protest. The clumsy responses of these failing regimes to the pandemic have only served “to expose the rot”. All they need is a nudge.

The anti-American dream

I was brought up in the 1960s to think of Fidel Castro and his romantic revolutionaries as “the great hope for mankind”, says David Aaronovitch in The Times. But in 2008 I found Cuba a quagmire. Its world-class health system was in tatters. Fully qualified doctors earnt more from tips while moonlighting as waiters than they would in months working at the hospital. A tourist bus, unaffordable for locals, took people like me off to buy a Che Guevara T-shirt, then back to the pool “to be served mojitos by an oncologist”. The revolution was always a sham, says Luc de Barochez in Le Point. Even Gabriel García Márquez, Castro’s great defender, said he’d never actually move to Cuba: “I’d miss too many things. I couldn’t live with the lack of information.”