Luis Emilio Aybar is a voice from the left, which in Cuba means pretty far left. By any measure, he should be a stalwart defender of the island’s communist regime. After widespread public protests that two weeks ago roiled the nation, the 34-year-old published an article in the magazine La Tizza, which bills itself as “a space to think about socialism”.
After the prerequisite denunciation of the US, he wrote: “What happened on 11 July is also because we communists and revolutionaries do not fight with sufficient force and efficiency the harmful practices of the state.
“We defend unity in a way that actually harms it … We uncritically follow our leaders instead of rectifying their path. We agree to be disciplined, when what we have to do is think and act with our own heads.” In authoritarian Cuba, that sounded a lot like heresy.
Cuba has always split international opinion. Its detractors are perhaps best represented by the US senator Marco Rubio, who called the island “the only country in the world where Cubans can’t succeed”.
In turn, its supporters brook little criticism. Helen Yaffe, an author and academic from Glasgow University, recently arrived on the island, swiftly joining a government rally called by the government. Afterwards she declared on Novara Media: “No one should underestimate the resilience of the Cuban revolution.”
Within Cuba, the regime has long demanded such support, calling detractors gusanos, or worms. Yet the sight of thousands of Cubans taking to the streets to complain about a lack of food, medicines and electricity seems to have caused cracks to appear.
Silvio Rodríguez is Cuba’s best-known singer-songwriter, a 74-year-old international superstar widely recognised as living his socialist values. In non-pandemic times, he stages monthly free concerts in the poorer barrios of Havana.
Last week, however, he met the dissident playwright Yunior Garcia, who had been arrested during the protests. They discussed the unrest and the government’s heavy-handed response.
Shortly afterwards, Rodríguez called for the release of all those who had not resorted to violence. “There must be less prejudice,” he said. “[There must be] more desire to solve the mountain of pending economic and political issues.”
Carlos Fernández de Cossío has blamed the US trade embargo for the demonstrations. Photograph: Ramón Espinosa/AP
Criticism such as this has put the government on the defensive. It says the island has been subject to a wave of disinformation from the US.
Carlos Fernández de Cossío is Cuba’s point-man on the US, and second only to the foreign minister in importance at the ministry of foreign affairs. He insisted that claims that protesters had “disappeared” into jails and interrogation centres were just not true. “There are people who have been detained and there are people that have been arrested, those that have violated the law,” he said, although he would not give numbers. Independent media claim 650 people have been detained.
Asked what he thought had brought Cubans on to the streets, De Cossío replied: “Well, it wasn’t capitalism.”
The protesters had cried “libertad”, freedom, and “patria y vida”, homeland and life, the title of an anti-government song. The shortages they face are the result of Cuba running out of foreign currency, a situation hastened by the pandemic devastating an economy reliant on tourism.
De Cossío blamed the 60-year-old US trade embargo, tightened to strangulation by Donald Trump and kept in place by Joe Biden. He said there had actually been more conversations with Washington during Trump’s presidency than Biden’s. “There’s no dialogue at this moment,” he said.
Yet in his essay for La Tizza, Aybar strayed surprisingly close to another analysis, summarised by the Financial Times when it called Cuba a last “lonely outpost of Marxist central planning”.
“During 2020, half of the country’s investments were allocated to hotel construction at a time when there was a drastic decrease in international tourism and an acute shortage of investment in agriculture,” he wrote. He said 11 July needed to be a watershed. “A failure to pressure the government from the left means that the right will take the initiative”, meaning “more market, more private property, less education and public health.”
Only time will reveal whether internal reform will satisfy the population. Another increasingly robust critic from within, Cuba’s former ambassador to the EU, Carlos Alzugaray, believes it will have to. He has just published an article saying it is “essential” that the government “not make the mistake of blaming only external factors”.
He was watching the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics on television as he pointed out that, despite the efforts of critics in the US, regimes such as China, Vietnam and Cuba have proved durable, and “very difficult to overthrow”. It is his view that Cuba should follow China and Vietnam towards “a market economy with socialist orientation”.
Before he could get into that – or the government’s potential reaction to the criticism from within – the pride in Cuba’s sovereignty that has always been a far greater and more unifying force than communism on the island revealed itself.
The 69 athletes Cuba has sent to the Olympics appeared in the famous parade. Alzugaray faltered, his voice suddenly breaking with emotion.