By Stephen Wilkinson

Cuba and the US: Two narratives and an impending disaster?

Cuba and the US: Two narratives and an impending disaster?

By Stephen Wilkinson


Now that the dust is settling on the events in Cuba over Sunday 11 and Monday 12 July, details are beginning to emerge that give us a clearer idea of what actually happened. What is interesting and concerning is the way the Cuban Press has been painstakingly unpicking the events and presenting the Cuban people with a completely alternative narrative to that which is being circulated and repeated in the United States and which, it appears the government in Washington accepts. Both cannot be right and the truth may not lay in between. What is required is a level-headed appraisal and evaluation of the effect of both stories upon their respective audiences. Unfortunately, once again, ideological bias, mistrust and, it has to be said, irrationality and hatred are the enemies of making good policy. The matter is serious, for such is the balance of forces in the debate in the United States that a military intervention in Cuba is now more likely than it has been since the Missile Crisis of 1962.

Let us survey as dispassionately and honestly as possible the reporting. Firstly, it is undeniable that there was an enormous social media storm in which seriously distorted and disingenuous stories were circulated by thousands of false twitter accounts all of which have been shown to have been created on 10 July and which had no followers.

Among the false stories that these accounts shared were the following: that former President Raúl Castro had fled the island for refuge in Venezuela; that the city of Camagüey had been taken over by the protestors who had kidnapped the First Secretary of the Communist Party there; that the Vice Minister of the Interior had resigned and that the streets of Cuba were full of dead bodies. In order to evidence the claim that hundreds of thousands were demonstrating they used pictures of Alexandria during the Arab Spring of 2011 and of a demonstration in Buenos Aires and claimed that they were of Havana.

This disinformation was circulated in Cuba during Saturday night and Sunday morning. Later, when pro government protestors took to the streets, these accounts used pictures of the crowds of pro-government protestors and falsely labelled them as anti-government protests. This led even reputable western media sources such as the UK’s The Guardian to reproduce the error. Even the United Nations used a photograph of a pro-government supporter as an example of an anti-government protestor. As late as Wednesday, 14 July, Fox News was still broadcasting footage of pro-government supporters as being anti-government and even blacked out the slogans on the placards they were carrying because they contradicted the intended narrative.

However, another narrative that has circulated and continues to be accepted as fact, is the idea that the violence that erupted in some places followed President Miguel Díaz-Canel’s call for communists to take to the streets to defend the revolution.

Now, after piecing together footage from the television broadcasts and interviews with local residents, it has been shown in the Cuban media that the first act of vandalism on Sunday 11 July occurred five hours and ten minutes before Díaz-Canel began the television appearance in which he reported that a serious situation that was occurring.

This means that at 4:20pm that day, when Díaz Canel first called on the people to defend the country in the streets against the demonstrators there had already been looting and damage going on for a long time.

The TV commentator Humberto López, on Cuban Television News, carried out a detailed analysis of the events showing the way that demonstrators were looting hard currency stores.

According to his report, the first of the units stoned was the El Renacer shop, in the municipality of Boyeros, Havana, at 10:50am, then similar acts occurred in 44 different locations. 19 of these were before four o’clock in the afternoon, ten during the half hour that Díaz-Canel was on air, and another 15 afterwards. Between 3:00pm and 4:30pm, 22 shops, in Matanzas, Mayabeque, Artemisa, Granma and Holguín provinces were stoned Some of them were looted and badly damaged.

The Cuban media is therefore saying that the idea that it was the President who encouraged the violence is false, that the demonstrations were not peaceful from the outset and they did not become violent as a consequence of the police or citizens’ actions.

Indeed, the narrative that is being conveyed in Cuba is very much that opponents outside the island instigated the violence and recruited delinquent elements to carry it out. The news and the daily discussion programme, Mesa Redonda (Round Table) are devoting a great deal of time to educating viewers on the concept of ‘non-conventional warfare’ and providing examples of other instances elsewhere in the world where social media tactics of the kind deployed against Cuba have been used. A video circulating in Cuba shows one woman in Miami shouting: “Well, what I need is for you to fall down and make a video and say it was the Police (…) And if you stoned the police officer and you record it, I will send you $100 USD (…). And if you hit a child, you see marks on him and you upload a video saying it was a policeman, I’ll give you $200″.

What should we make of this?

Firstly, of course, the looting of stores is something that happens even in developed countries when the marginalised take to the streets and riot because of their frustration. It happens in the United States and the UK. However, it is extremely rare in Cuba. Since 1959, it has only happened once before, in 1994. Then, as in this case, an underlying grievance was food insecurity caused by the dramatic fall in the GDP and the trigger was fake information emanating from the United States.

However, today, the matter is far more concerning because of the overlying issue of the pandemic and the recent rise of the Delta variant. In this context, the fact that the narrative in the United States seems to be ignoring this reality is alarming. Take for example, the press release from the White House on 19 July which said that officials met with Cuban American leaders to hear their concerns about the:

“…unprecedented demonstrations unfolding across Cuba. Administration officials underscored that the White House is monitoring the situation in Cuba closely and that addressing the moment and ongoing situation in Cuba is a top priority for the Administration. They also affirmed what the President said last week: that the demonstrations are the direct result of a failed communist government, and reminded the leaders that the President stands firmly with the people of Cuba.” (emphasis added)

Notice here the use of the present tense. As far as we know, the demonstrations are already in the past. The government has restored complete order. Secondly, rather than being a failed government, the Communist Party has asserted just how dominant it is by organising huge rallies in support of the system across the island only last weekend. The fact that the White House has so implicitly bought into a false narrative of what is happening in Cuba is alarming because logically this can only lead in one direction – towards worsening the problem.

To its credit, the Cuban government and quite a number of significant figures in civil society in Cuba have recognized the shortcomings: they have admitted there is a lack of medicines and health supplies, food and fuel, and that there were also breakdowns that affected the electricity supply, something that had been avoided throughout the pandemic. They have also been candid about the economic situation and the seriousness of it.

Thankfully, despite exhortations from the Cuban American lobby and a letter from the leadership of some dissident groups in the island, the European Union has thus far taken a more nuanced stance. Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, has recognized that all the economic limitations are in large part a consequence of the sanctions policy that Washington maintains against the island. This is to be welcomed because the gap between what is really happing in Cuba and what is being said about it in the United States is dangerous.

Pressure cooker politics

It is not a new idea to describe the US sanctions policy by using the analogy of a pressure cooker. Now the prolonged crisis of the pandemic has created such a breeding ground for discontent among sectors of the population that the cooker is danger of exploding. It is hard to escape the logic that what has been happening is because the present United States administration has not done anything to ease the pressure since it entered office.

Furthermore, it is very hard to understand why this should have happened unless the administration has made a calculated choice. No administration would deliberately foster upheavals in Cuba because the consequences can be very difficult. Previous administrations (interestingly all of them Democrat) have had Cuban refugee crises to contend with. In 1980, Jimmy Carter had to handle the Mariel Boatlift, that saw some 140,000 Cubans leave the island, and in 1994, Bill Clinton had the rafters’ crisis when some 120,000 fled. Why would the Biden administration wish to risk a similar event so early in its term?

There is the possibility that it is a mistake. It could be that the administration underestimated the seriousness of the situation in Cuba. The Delta variant is a game-changer that has heightened anxiety in a very short time. But, if that were the case, why hasn’t the President acted to help Cuba overcome it and to prevent a far more serious situation developing? Some would argue that it is because he is hung on his own petard. He has dialled up the anti-Communist rhetoric over China and this has meant that now he cannot be consistent with that policy and help the Cuban communist state, which is of course a close ally of China. Thus, the Miami lobby is emboldened and it is cleverly manipulating the situation to its advantage. It is not beyond the bounds of credibility that the social media campaign was a pirate operation by them to bounce the President into the position he is now in.

And it is serious. The pandemic is getting worse and without an easing of the sanctions, Cuba will continue to struggle to even feed itself, let alone vaccinate its population. In this scenario, the pressure will build even more and there can be no guarantee that a further upheaval will not arise. In that event, what can the Cuban government do? Well, as in 1980 and 1994 the government could permit those who wish to leave to do so. But in the context of a pandemic and rising tensions with China, how would such an act be interpreted in the United States? The politicians on the right of the Republican Party, who are most in the thrall of the Miami lobby, are already calling for a ‘humanitarian intervention’, some have even called for an invasion. What will their reaction be to an exodus of Cubans to Florida as happened in 1980 and 1994? In 1980, they accused Fidel Castro of emptying his prisons and sending all his criminals to the US. One can well imagine the reaction to thousands of Cubans arriving who may be carriers of the Delta variant.

All of this means that any action by Cuba to release the pressure by permitting an exodus could be inviting an invasion. So in effect, the Cuban people are being held hostage by the United States. If they remain, they face prolonged privation. Many Cubans, like the citizens of Numancia who were besieged by the Romans, have declared their willingness to die rather than surrender. One can foresee a huge effort to help the country avoid that. In that scenario, what of Cuba’s allies? What would the response be in Washington to the idea of China or Russia sending ships full of aid to assist the Cubans in averting famine? That may be of course and extreme outcome. But life in Cuba is nevertheless going to be very hard and the likelihood of increasing numbers of migrants is therefore very high.

The lesson here is very late in the learning. The United States has peddled false narratives about the Cuban system for so long that it is incapable of seeing the trees let alone the forest. The failings of the Cuban system should be acknowledged, but the responsibility of the United States must also be recognised. The most sensible option for the US now would be to ease off the pressure. There was a glimmer of hope on 20 July when it was reported that Biden had instructed the State Department to look at allowing remittances to the island. It is to be hoped that happens soon. The consequences of delay will be tragic for some and may turn out to be catastrophic, not just for Cuba but the region, and possibly the whole world.