Are the protests in Cuba a struggle between democracy and authoritarianism?

July 13, 2021

Stephen Gowans

Readers of The Wall Street Journal might come to the conclusion that an uprising has erupted in Cuba against ‘authoritarianism’ and the Cuban Communist Party.

But a careful reading of the newspaper paints a more nuanced picture.

There is, according to the Journal, “a pattern of simmering tensions across swaths of the developing world, where people are largely unvaccinated, governments are unable to afford sustained stimulus measures and economies are falling further behind and struggling to rebound from last year’s record contraction.”

In South Africa, for example, the government has “deployed its army … to help quell violent protests” after “hundreds of angry residents ransacked shops and malls, torched cars and blocked major roads.” The police have “arrested nearly 500” protestors.

“At the end of March, 33% of South Africans were unemployed, a figure that rises to 43% when discouraged job seekers are included.” A “record wave of Covid-19 infections across the country….has overwhelmed hospitals and led to shortages of oxygen.”

In another part of the developing world, Cuba, simmering tensions have also spilled over into protests. There, hundreds of “Cubans took to the streets … protesting a lack of food and a shortage of Covid-19 vaccines.” Cubans are registering “their opposition to the economic fallout from Covid-19 … widespread shortages of food and medicine, and numerous daily blackouts from failing electric power.”

Unrest in Cuba matches unrest in South Africa, part of the simmering tension in the global south. The roots are the same.

Yet, despite Cuba’s pandemic-induced economic travails and consequent political distemper fitting a pattern across the global south—exacerbated in Cuba’s case by six decades of US economic strangulation—The Wall Street Journal cast “Cuba’s unrest” as framing the “world’s big struggle: dictators vs. democracies.”

Columnist Gerald F. Seib used the occasion of the Cuban protests to rail against authoritarian regimes, among which he includes Cuba’s government, despite the reality that Cuba has elections and assemblies. But in the US view, an electoral system is not truly democratic unless it bears a close resemblance to the United States’ own plural elite model, one of multiple parties representing the interests of business elites, which periodically vie for the votes of an electorate whose interests are largely ignored.

Bernie Sanders recently referred to the US system as one that doesn’t respond to the needs of the people. Sanders told New York Times’ columnist Maureen Dowd, ‘It’s absolutely imperative if democracy is to survive that we do everything that we can to say, ‘Yes, we hear your pain and we are going to respond to your needs.’’’

The obvious question for Sanders is: how can a system that doesn’t respond to the people’s needs be called a democracy? And how can responding democratically save democracy. If responding to the people’s needs is a new initiative, then democracy is already dead. More accurately, in the US case, it has yet to be born.

Sanders would have hewed closer to the truth had he said, “It’s absolutely imperative if democracy is to be created for the first time that we not only do everything that we can to say, ‘Yes, we hear your pain and we are going to respond to your needs’ but that we also actually respond to their needs.”

Seib opens his storehouse of demons, condemning them for the crime of autocracy on the basis of how long they’ve been in power: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (32 years); Vladimir Putin (22); Xi Jinping (9). Harvard political scientist Graham Allison calls Xi’s government a “responsive authoritarianism”—which seems to be another of way of saying it’s the democracy that Bernie Sanders says the unresponsive US plural elite system is not.

This “seems a boom time for autocrats,” Seib writes. “Yet the seething unhappiness in Cuba, Venezuela, Iran and Hong Kong [but not South Africa, Haiti, Colombia, Brazil, and Lebanon] raises the question of how long the authoritarian run can last?”

Apparently, for quite some time, if the autocrats are US allies. The Hashemite monarchy of Jordan’s “U.S.-Backed King”, as the Journal describes him—and aptly, too, considering that US taxpayers pay him more than $1.5 billion yearly—has lasted 75 years. The Khalifa family, which allows the US Fifth Fleet to use Bahrain as its home base, has ruled over the Persian Gulf country for 255 years. The House of Saud, which rules US best friend Saudi Arabia, has clung to power with US assistance for more than three-quarters of a century. And we mustn’t forget Abdel Fatah el-Sissi, Egypt’s military ruler, whom Donald Trump once called his favorite dictator. Like the authoritarian government of Jordan’s autocrat King Abdullah, the government of autocrat President el-Sissi, also receives more than $1 billion yearly from an appreciative United States, for services rendered.

In US propaganda, autocrats are not condemned as autocrats so long as they render services to the beneficiaries of the US plural elite system, i.e., Wall Street, while governments that don’t genuflect to US plural elite needs, and choose instead to respond to their own citizens’ needs, are labelled autocrats, whether they are or not.

Owing to the US campaign of strangling the Cuban economy—a campaign now in its seventh decade—Cubans have lived with a lower standard of living than their socialist economy is capable of producing (which is the point of Washington blockading the island.)

Cuba has, nevertheless, done remarkably well in the face of US-imposed adversity. In 2019, the country’s GDP per capita was $9,100 (current $US), according to the World Bank, not far off China’s $10,217. Of course, neither country is anywhere near US GDP per capita, but, having been looted by great powers, they have steep hills to climb. US sanctions, and now the pandemic—which has slashed tourism by nearly 90 percent—makes the climb all the more difficult for Cuba.

“The truth is that if one wanted to help Cuba, the first thing that should be done is to suspend the blockade of Cuba,” Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, told reporters on Monday. “That would be a truly humanitarian gesture.”

 Unfortunately, neither Wall Street nor the capitalist system at whose center it lies, are humanitarian.