The Long, Simmering Discontent that Forced Cubans into the Streets

A new generation in Cuba, witness to decades of rising racial and economic inequality, demand food, services, and a freer life. Three Weatherhead Center scholars describe the layers of repression that led to the current state of unrest in Cuba.

Painting of a Cuban supermarket sign obscured by map of Cuba and a drawing of a hand pulling a rope around map of Cuba

By Erin Goodman

Understanding what has led to recent protests in Cuba, and what role the United States should play moving forward, is complex and fraught. Amid the backdrop of the global pandemic and difficulties administering vaccines, recent economic measures implemented by the Cuban government have also increased tensions on the island. These include the unification of two currencies and the creation of stores where the prices of food and basic goods are not affordable to the majority of the population; hyperinflation and increased scarcities have put growing inequality into stark relief. 

Compounding the six-decade US trade embargo, the Trump administration imposed additional sanctions and limits on amounts and channels for people living abroad to send remittances to their friends and family in Cuba. Furthermore, after US diplomats and CIA agents experienced health symptoms in what became known as Havana Syndrome, a drastic reduction of consular services dashed many Cubans’ hopes of joining family members in the United States. Many Cubans had hoped that President Biden would continue the Obama administration’s rapprochement toward normalized relations, but thus far he has increasingly favored more sanctions.

Over the course of the past year, artists and musicians have played a critical role in amplifying discontent about these economic and health disasters as well as protesting increased censorship and repression of artists, activists, and journalists. Prominent Afro-Cuban musicians collaborated to compose the song “Patria y Vida” (“Homeland and Life”), a play on the Revolutionary slogan, “Homeland or Death,” which has become an emblem of the current protests both on and off the island. Internationally acclaimed performance artist Tania Bruguera has helped bring visibility to censorship and surveillance. (Harvard’s Committee on Theater, Dance, and Music recently announced that Bruguera will join the Harvard community this fall as a senior lecturer.)

There have been few public displays of discontent in Cuba since the 1959 Revolution, and they have usually led to an exodus of so-called counterrevolutionaries. These include the 1980 Peruvian embassy takeover, resulting in over 100,000 people leaving the country during the Mariel Boatlift, and the 1994 Maleconazo protest that took place during the Special Period of immense scarcity in Cuba after the fall of the Soviet Union, followed by the Cuban Rafter Crisis.

Cubans packed onto boat during the Mariel Boat Lift

In response to the recent July 11 protests that originated in the city of San Antonio de los Baños and quickly spread across the island, President Díaz-Canel ordered “revolucionarios” to the streets, to prepare for “combat.” In recent weeks, there has been both domestic and international pressure to release the hundreds of protesters who allegedly disappeared during and following the protests, and to demand the right to protest peacefully. At the same time, policy makers and the Cuban-American community in the United States have been divided about whether the US should intervene, and what, if any, policy changes might lead to improved conditions on the ground. Understanding and parsing out internal and external factors that have led to this moment is crucial for US-Cuba relations moving forward.

We asked three Weatherhead Center affiliates for their take on the factors that have fomented the current unrest.

Alejandro de la Fuente

Alejandro de la FuenteFaculty Associate, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. Robert Woods Bliss Professor of Latin-American History and Economics, Department of History; Professor of African and African American Studies, Department of African and African American Studies; Director, Afro-Latin American Research Institute, Harvard University.

The popular anger that surfaced in Cuba on July 11 has deep structural roots. Analysts who look for causes in the shortcomings of Cuban socialism and “the Revolution,” do not realize that the Cuba of 2021 is not the country that once seized the imagination of the global Left, a paradigm of egalitarianism and social justice. In today’s Cuba, the state partners with foreign capital to develop a tourist-oriented economy. The executives of state-related entrepreneurial groups, controlled by the military, occupy prominent positions in the government and the Communist Party. They monopolize key resources, stifle competition, prevent the emergence of independent economic actors, and maintain control over labor. Like any other entrepreneurial group, they seek to maximize profits. The traditional state-owned, centrally planned economy continues to exist, but that is not where the action is.
This model, which emerged out of the desperate economic reforms of the 1990s after Soviet subsidies dried up, has produced numerous losers. First and foremost, Afrodescendants. The dollarization of the internal market transformed remittances, which state-related corporations capture through their monopolistic stores, into the country’s second source of foreign income. It also created a deep schism between those with access to those resources and those without. Afrodescendants are overrepresented among the latter, so income inequality according to race has increased exponentially. The tourist economy has exacerbated this gap. The development of this sector has been informed by racialized notions of adequacy, beauty, and competence that (re)produce white supremacist, discriminatory practices that keep people of African descent out of its most attractive jobs.
Second, small domestic entrepreneurs. The limited private sector that has emerged in the shadows of the tourist economy (family-owned restaurants and inns) coexists rather uneasily with government corporations that see them as competitors that eat into their earnings, a threat to their power. The government’s constant persecution against “illegal economic activities” and successful private entrepreneurs is integral to the logic of the system. The history of the Cuban private sector is littered with stories of arbitrary state repression, closures, and confiscations.
Third, the poor. Poverty has expanded dramatically in the last few decades, as salaries in the traditional state economy lag and the social safety net declines. Some economists place the number of people living below the poverty line at about 50 percent. In a trend that echoes neoliberal adjustment policies elsewhere in Latin America, budgetary allocations to programs of social assistance declined 80 percent between 2005 and 2019.
Finally, the youth. Those who speak about “the Revolution” forget that nearly half of Cubans are under thirty-five years of age. They know only the Cuba of state capitalist corporations, inequality, prostitution, tourism, racism, and police repression. Through their phones, young people connect to a world that is out of reach, and they long to emigrate from a country that offers them no future or hope.
Losers speak. One of the best-known novels of the last few decades is graphically titled Todos se van (Everybody Leaves), by Wendy Guerra. Since the 1990s, rap musicians, visual artists, filmmakers, writers, scholars, and intellectuals of all sorts have denounced and called attention to the negative social effects of Cuba’s state capitalist turn. In fact, the arts became the only relatively safe space for voicing dissent and criticism. This space, however, has also collapsed. As critical artists and intellectuals used the long-delayed expansion of internet connectivity to magnify their impact, repression increased. The government reacted by criminalizing independent artistic activity (Decree 349, 2018) and independent digital news outlets (Decree 370, 2019).

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An economic model that concentrates income in the hands of well-connected corporations; growing inequality and exclusion; rising frustrations; reduced spaces for dissent; migration no longer an option—these are the ingredients of a social explosion. Attuned to the global flows of investment capital and to tourists’ needs, government authorities are increasingly isolated from—and deaf to—the needs of ordinary Cubans. In 2020, despite severe economic decline, amidst shortages, inflation, and a pandemic, investments in hotel construction expanded. On July 11, 2021, Cubans responded. The government replied with more repression. The losers are now in jail.

Gabriela Soto Laveaga

Gabriela Soto LaveagaFaculty Associate, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. Professor of the History of Science and Antonio Madero Professor for the Study of Mexico, Department of the History of Science, Harvard University.

Health and revolution have long been intertwined in Cuba. It is no coincidence that recent demands for economic transformation and social change are happening with a pandemic as a backdrop. While the pandemic did not cause the protests, it ripped an already frayed safety net and allowed many to peer behind the curtain. 

To speak about modern Cuba is to speak about medicine, pharmaceuticals, and, especially, Cuban doctors. No longer primarily associated with either sugar, tobacco, or political ideology, in recent decades many middle- and low-income countries have associated Cuba with pharmaceuticals and the doctors the government sends abroad. This medical diplomacy framed much of Castro’s international outreach and brought goodwill and much-needed goods to the island in exchange for health providers. From Brazil to Venezuela to South Africa, and across the eastern Cape, white-coated Cubans tended to the neediest and often the poorest. Indeed, Cuban doctors were often found on the front lines of outbreaks. 

The historical roots of Cuba’s medical transformation are anchored solidly in the Cuban Revolution. Before the Revolution only the wealthy could afford care, and after a globally based search for different medical models, Castro created a single, integrated healthcare system. Before the Revolution more than 50 percent of physicians lived in Havana and the country had only one rural hospital, despite the fact that the majority of Cubans lived in rural areas. More distressing, infant mortality was incredibly high (at 100/1,000 live births). After the Revolution the regime held that healthcare is a right, available to all and free of charge and the responsibility of the state. Additionally, medicine in Cuba would be preventive including educating citizens about diabetes, sexually transmitted diseases, etc. 

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The embargo undermined health since it blocked the import of needed medications and medical equipment. In the early 1980s Cuba invested heavily in domestic pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, becoming a regional biopharma leader

Curiously, during the dark days of the 1990s economic crisis, Cuba’s basic health indicators continued to increase. The Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina (ELAM) welcomed and trained physicians from across the world, including the United States. Doctors as export commodities, however, did not always follow the party line. In 2017, for example, in what was called a “rare act of collective defiance” by the world press, Cuban doctors stationed in Brazil rebelled against what they called a form of slave labor and demanded a greater share of the millions paid to the Cuban government for their services overseas. 

During the pandemic, the country’s long-standing commitment to medical research and development led to an initial successful pandemic response. Moreover, Cuban doctors continued to fan across the world, tending to areas where there are few physicians. But the embargo also shaped the pandemic response, as exemplified by the country’s recent syringe shortage, vital to the administration of the Cuban vaccines, the aptly named Abdala (after a literary work by the national hero, José Martí) and Soberana (Sovereign). 

By late spring and early summer 2021, though there were significant spikes, it was still faring better than many countries. These recent protests coincided with a surge in coronavirus cases, particularly of the Delta variant, in the city of Matanzas. As the virus continues to shake up societies and reveal inequities across the world, it remains to be seen how protests in Cuba—and not the virus—will shape the image of a health-driven, medicine-forward nation.

Killian Clarke

Killian Clarke2020–2021 Raphael Morrison Dorman Memorial Postdoctoral Fellow, Weatherhead Scholars Program, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. Assistant Professor, Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University. 

The protests in Cuba over the last few weeks have represented a remarkable display of popular opposition to Cuba’s revolutionary regime. Such outbursts of anti-government protest have been rare since Cuba’s regime came to power more than half a century ago, in part due to highly effective government repression and in part due to the persistent resonance of the regime’s revolutionary ideology and founding myths.
These myths and symbols have been on full display in the government’s response to the crisis. On July 12, the day after the protests broke out, President Díaz-Canel addressed the nation, calling for true “revolucionarios” to rally in response. He also tried to tie the demonstrations to US interference and labeled its participants counterrevolutionaries intent on “fracturing” the Revolution. In this sense, he pulled directly from a playbook that many revolutionary regimes have deployed when faced with challenges from below. From the Bolsheviks in Russia to the Khomeinists in Iran to Egypt after 2011, revolutionary leaders often use the term “counterrevolutionary” as a pejorative epithet for any group that opposes their rule or their vision for change. Though, in the immediate aftermath of its founding, Cuba’s regime did face several genuine counterrevolutionary rebellions and campaigns—the CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961 being the most prominent—the reality is that there has not been a meaningful counterrevolutionary movement or threat in Cuba for at least several decades.

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[click the arrows on the image to see entire slideshow of Cuban protest photos]

In fact, what is interesting about the protests in Cuba this summer is that their demands have often invoked the Revolution’s own founding myths and promises. The shocking deterioration of Cubans’ everyday living conditions, combined with the public health crisis caused by COVID-19, have raised serious questions about the regime’s capacity to provide for its citizens and deliver on the foundational promises of the Revolution. So, who, then, are the real “revolucionarios” in Cuba? Perhaps reflecting the ambiguity of this question, in subsequent addresses President Díaz-Canel has softened some of his most polarizing language, recognizing that there was indeed a legitimate basis to the grievances of those in the streets.
In the longer term, these protests may be a sign that Cuba’s government cannot lean quite as heavily on the ideology of the Revolution for legitimacy. Though revolutionary regimes like Cuba’s have been found to be remarkably durable (in part because they have such powerful founding narratives), these regimes often begin to face new challenges when their original leaders pass on and a new generation takes over—as has recently happened in Cuba. Of course, as long as the United States retains its cruel and counterproductive embargo, the Cuban government will be able to point to the enemy abroad, which contributes to the potency and resonance of its ideology. But this strategy has failed to neutralize the antigovernment anger this summer. Ultimately, if the regime cannot come up with a sustainable strategy for providing basic public health and economic security to its citizens, such bouts of popular protest and public opposition may become increasingly common.  

—Erin Goodman, Director, Weatherhead Scholars Program, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs


  1. Cuban Island / La Isla de Cuba. Charcoal, acrylic painting on canvas print. (69 x 100 cm). 2015. Courtesy of Sandra Ramos. Credit: Sandra Ramos
  2. Official music video for “Patria y Vida” by Yotuel, Gente De Zona, Descemer Bueno, Maykel Osorbo, El Funky. Credit: Yotuel, YouTube
  3. The “El Dorado” arriving with Cuban refugees during the Mariel Boatlift, Key West, Florida, 1980. Credit: McDonald, Dale M., 1949–2007. Florida Memory, State Library and Archives of Florida 
  4. Doctors and nurses of Cuba's Henry Reeve International Medical Brigade pose with a portrait of late Cuban leader Fidel Castro as they are bid farewell before traveling to hard-hit Italy to help in the fight against the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, at the Central Unit of Medical Cooperation in Havana, on March 21, 2020. Credit: YAMIL LAGE/AFP via Getty Images
  5. Getty Images slideshow of Cuban protest photos, July 2021. Thousands of Cubans participated in rare protests last month against the communist government, chanting “Down with the dictatorship” and “We want liberty.” 
    1. People take part in a demonstration against the government of Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel in Havana, on July 11, 2021. Credit: YAMIL LAGE/AFP via Getty Images
    2. Police cars are seen overturned in the street in the framework of a demonstration against Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel in Havana, on July 11, 2021. Credit: YAMIL LAGE/AFP via Getty Images
    3. A man is arrested during a demonstration against the government of Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel in Havana, on July 11, 2021. Credit: YAMIL LAGE/AFP via Getty Images
    4. Riot police walk the streets after a demonstration against the government of President Miguel Diaz-Canel in Arroyo Naranjo Municipality, Havana on July 12, 2021. Cuba on Monday blamed a "policy of economic suffocation" of the United States for unprecedented anti-government protests, as President Joe Biden backed calls to end "decades of repression" on the communist island. Credit: YAMIL LAGE/AFP via Getty Images
    5. Cubans participate in an act of revolutionary reaffirmation to support the government of President Miguel Diaz-Canel in Havana, on July 17, 2021. Former Cuban President Raul Castro and his successor, Miguel Diaz-Canel, led an "act of revolutionary reaffirmation" in front of thousands of supporters in Havana on July 17, six days after the historic protests that shook the country. Credit: YAMIL LAGE/AFP via Getty Images