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Can Democracy come to Cuba? Impoverished, frustrated Cubans face an uphill battle

A man waves a Cuban flag in the street near of Versailles, a Cuban restaurant in the Little Havana neighborhood, at a demonstration in support of the protests in Cuba on July 11, 2021 in Miami, Florida. Thousands took to the streets across Cuba to protest pandemic restrictions, the pace of Covid-19 vaccinations and the Cuban government. Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

One chant coming from protesters in Cuba loomed large for José Buscaglia, a global studies professor at Northeastern, as he watched coverage of an unprecedented anti-government outpouring of anger at the communist country’s strict totalitarian regime on Sunday.

Jose Buscaglia, Professor and Chair, Department of Cultures, Societies, and Global Studies, College of Social Sciences and Humanities, says the unprecedented protests signal change, but many forces are working against Democracy in Cuba. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“One of the things that they were shouting in the streets is, ‘We’re no longer afraid,’” says Buscaglia, who has focused his studies in the Caribbean as professor of cultures, societies and global studies at Northeastern. Protesters knew the government would likely retaliate as they did Monday and Tuesday, but they marched anyway.

“In a country notorious for their draconian methods of eliminating opposition and the terrible ways that they torture people, for people to be out in the streets in those numbers, and yelling ‘We’re no longer afraid,’ that’s a very important turn of events,” he says.

The unheard-of open dissent in the territory is the result of a pandemic-based “economic meltdown,” says Buscaglia, that‘s left residents without essentials such as food and electricity. The movement is also propelled by a younger generation demanding basic civil liberties.

“It’s mostly led by young, very poor people asking for freedoms and basic rights that are currently not allowed, like the right to assemble and the right to free speech,” he says.

The protests sparked swift backlash this week as the Cuban police arrested more than 100 people and the government restricted internet access. President Miguel Díaz-Canel, meanwhile, blamed the country’s struggles on strict sanctions from the United States and blasted influencers on social media for live-streaming the events.

For Buscaglia, the protests indicate that the communist regime’s longstanding iron grip appears to be slipping now that Communist revolutionaries Fidel and Raul Castro have left the political stage.

“Cuban authorities under the Castro brothers have been systematically oppressing people for generations,” says Buscaglia. “But now Fidel Castro is no longer there. He was the one who could rally the troops and the old military folk would not hesitate to support him.”

The troubled country is still a long way from a Berlin Wall-style democratic uprising, said Buscaglia. Raul Castro, 90, still wields power with the military even though he stepped down as Communist Party head at the beginning of the year.

Demonstrators in the U.S. expressed solidarity with the protesters by gathering in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami and blocking a busy intersection Tuesday while politicians on both sides of the aisle also expressed support.

President Biden vowed Monday that “the U.S. stands firmly with the people of Cuba as they assert their universal rights,” but he hasn’t indicated he’ll roll back former President Trump’s strict sanctions against the country. The sanctions, which require Cuba to pay cash upfront for even basic supplies, have exacerbated food and medicine shortages.

State Department spokesman Ned Price says officials are reviewing ways “to support the Cuban people, to support their humanitarian needs.”

The U.S. exported more than $175 million worth of goods to Cuba in 2020, including food and medicine, says Price. But Buscaglia believes Biden is unlikely to make major changes when dealing with a country that has long been a political powder keg.

“I think the young people who are marching in the streets in Cuba and asking for freedom are facing a really tough situation because they have very few friends,” says Buscaglia. “They certainly have no friends in the Cuban government, and I don’t think they have any friends in the United States.”

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