Skip to Content
Faculty experts examine historic Cuba protests and what may come next
Yamil Lage—AFP/Getty Images

Faculty experts examine historic Cuba protests and what may come next

July 21, 2021 at 3:21pm

After protesters took to the streets in Cuba and Miami chanting "patria y vida," or “homeland and life,” many have wondered what the historic demonstrations against the Cuban government may mean for the future of Cuba, the Cuban diaspora and the island nation’s relations with the United States and around the world.  

To address these and other questions, FIU faculty experts gathered this week for S.O.S. Cuba: The Significance of Protests on the Island—a virtual event attended by nearly 400 students, faculty and members of the community.

Here are a few key takeaways from the conversation, hosted by the Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs and moderated by Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute.

The protests are unlike any seen on the island in decades.

“What we witnessed on July 11 is simply unprecedented,” said Sebastian Arcos, associate director of the Cuban Research Institute.

“There is no comparison of anything similar, not even close, since 1959. These demonstrations were completely spontaneous … they spread like wildfire through the internet and social media from one town to the next all over the island, more than 40 cities and towns.”

In addition a “psychological barrier’” has been broken among the Cuban people, Arcos said.

“The belief that the population cannot demonstrate against the regime publicly and that it would be futile to do so, this barrier was broken and it was broken for good,” he said. “The genie cannot be put back in the bottle.”

“It is without a doubt a watershed moment in the history of Cuba.”

The protests were about much more than the economy, food or medicine shortages.

While there is a “deepening economic crisis compounded by a health crisis and, of course, Covid,” the demonstrations were not “grievances for economic issues or local government issues,” Arcos explained.  

“They were openly, politically radicalized against the regime,’’ he said. “The chants for freedom, down with (Cuban President) Díaz-Canel, down with Communism. The population doesn’t believe the narrative (of the Cuban government) anymore.”

Martin Palous, director of the Vacláv Havel Program for Human Rights and Diplomacy, agreed.

“This moment is not only about one concrete issue or shortage of something, it’s about the reunification of the Cuban nation,’’ he said. “People around the world are excited. They feel that there is something in the air. It’s a question of Cuban identity and Cuba’s future.” 

The “torch of freedom” has been passed to a new generation.

“What we saw in the streets of Cuba and in the streets of Miami is that there has been a generational shift,’’ Arcos added. “Younger people have taken the cause of freedom and have made it theirs. They have demonstrated that they have the passion, and they have the interest.”

The leaders of this new movement are “a cross-section of Cuba and they are younger, darker and female,” he added. “Young people and women especially have played an incredible role” in these demonstrations.  

The protests have given hope to others fighting for democracy in the region.

In Venezuela, for example, opposition leaders have praised the pro-democratic movement in Cuba, said Astrid Arraras, professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations.

“They are watching what’s happening in Cuba because it is related to their struggle in Venezuela,’’ she said. “(Venezuelan President) Juan Guaido said, 'We are united in the struggle to achieve freedom and democracy.'"

Others described the protests as a “symbol of hope” for those fighting to end the dictatorship in Venezuela.

Cubans must determine the future of Cuba – but there is a role for the international community to play.

“I’m not Cuban but I’m an engaged observer,’’ said Palous, the former ambassador of the Czech Republic to the United States and the United Nations. “The question is how can we work effectively together to help Cubans achieve their goals. This is not only about Cuba. It’s about the future of democracy in the world. We have an obligation to help, and we have a chance to help.”

“This is not only a Cuban issue or a bilateral issue with the U.S. and Cuba,’’ he added. “This is a transatlantic issue and certainly a global issue.”

The movement is not likely to end any time soon. But change on the island will take time.

“(The protests) shattered the myth that the Cuban government wanted people to believe inside of Cuba and outside of Cuba that this couldn't happen there,” said Carlos Saladrigas, an entrepreneur and president of the Cuba Study Group. “Well, it did and it was big and massive.”

“This is not the beginning of the end,’’ he added. “We are seeing a vindication of openness and communication. None of this is going to be resolved in a day. We need to think of this as a process.”

SOS Cuba was co-sponsored by the Cuban Research Institute, Vacláv Havel Program for Human Rights and Diplomacy, Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center, Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy and the Ruth K. and Shepard Broad Distinguished Lecture Series. The event can be viewed below.