Cuban-Born Scholar Carlos Eire on Protests: ‘This Moment Is Unprecedented’
The Yale University history professor and award-winning author gives insights into the Cuban protests that sparked government crackdown and revived a U.S.-based debate over the causes of Cuba’s imploding economy.
Carlos Eire, the T. Lawrason Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University, has far more than a mere academic interest in the dramatic political developments now underway in Cuba.
Born in Havana, he left his homeland in 1962, when he was transported with 1,400 other children to the United States through “Operation Pedro Pan.” He is the author of two memoirs tracing his early life amid the tumultuous events of the Cuban Revolution, Waiting for Snow in Havana (2003), which won the National Book Award in Nonfiction, and Learning to Die in Miami (2010), which probes the experience of Cuba’s many exiles.
Eire spoke July 15 with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond about the protests in Cuba that sparked government repression and revived a U.S.-based debate over the actual causes of the island’s imploding economy.
Nationwide protests in Cuba led to the arrest of more than 170 activists and demonstrators, suggesting that many Cubans have reached a tipping point and are prepared to brave the threat of political repression.
According to the reports I have seen, the number of protesters arrested, and others who have been disappeared, is now over 5,000.
YouTube videos and photos suggest that about 90% of the protesters are young people. They are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the so-called revolution. Their parents and grandparents had been promised all sorts of stuff that never materialized.
Right now, life has never been more difficult because of a perfect storm of circumstances. And young people, who have their entire lives ahead of them, face a horizon that is utterly bleak.
Cuba’s economy has collapsed. Its main source of income has been tourism, and the [COVID] plague has taken that away. Its second source is remittances from exiles.
Also, Venezuela, which once supported Cuba with lots of free oil, has already collapsed, and Cubans must now deal with constant electricity blackouts because they don’t have oil to run their power stations. They owe billions of dollars to European nations that they can’t pay.
They had the worse sugar harvest in all of Cuban history. There is no food or medicine, and there are housing shortages.
Cuban President Díaz-Canel urged the government’s supporters to confront anti-government protesters. Did that stir up memories of the early days of the revolution?
I listened to about 20 seconds of his speech, and I knew what he would say, so I turned it off. They never tire of repeating the same rhetoric. They will never admit failure and will blame everything on their enemy.
This is like Orwell’s 1984: There has to be an enemy because the enemy makes repression necessary.
You arrived in the U.S. from Cuba at the age of 11, through the “Pedro Pan” airlift. Since then, you have witnessed key moments in the history of Cuba and in U.S.-Cuban relations. How significant is this moment?
This moment is unprecedented, and previous protests don’t even come close.
In 1994, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had bankrolled Cuba since 1960, the “sugar daddy” disappeared, and a group of protesters took over the sea-front boulevard in Havana, asking for freedom.
The Maleconazo uprising was broken up, and the protestors were sent to prison. There was zero internet access in Cuba at that time, so most Cubans didn’t find out about it.
In 2003, another group, Las Damas de Blanco, the Ladies in White, wives and other female relatives of jailed dissidents and the disappeared, many of them Catholic, began to meet for Mass on Sunday at a Havana church. Then they would march carrying flowers and praying silently.
When President Obama visited Cuba in 2016, the government shut them down, arresting their leaders and members. Their founder, Laura Inés Pollán Toledo, died of cardiac arrest after she was taken into custody.
Many of the Ladies in White are Black, and their current leader, Berta Soler, who is fearless, has not been able to leave her house; patrol cars are parked outside.
President Biden has said that the U.S. stands with the Cuban people. Has the administration taken any concrete steps on behalf of protesters?
The U.S. State Department’s acting assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, Julia Chung, has been in favor of tightening up sanctions against Cuba, but I don’t know if they are allowing her to do anything more.
Some say any U.S. move would merely bolster the regime’s ongoing attacks on “U.S. imperialism”; the head of the Communist Party’s ideological department has called the protests a type of “nonconventional warfare” waged by the U.S. to provoke the Cuban security forces into acts of repression.” Is anybody listening to such rhetoric?
There are more people listening and believing this kind of rhetoric outside of Cuba than in Cuba.
I was once disinvited to a university conference, and the reason why was that I represented the oppression of the Cuban people by the Cuban-American exile community. According to this argument, the embargo is in place because U.S. politicians need the Cuban-American vote, and immigrants don’t like the fact that their stuff was taken away from them.
This is how some have tried to explain why 20% of the world’s Cubans are in exile: “They are greedy materialists; they don’t want to share.” It isn’t about the denial of basic freedoms.
A July 13 statement released by the Catholic bishops of Cuba did not include an outright condemnation of the government’s response to the protests, but the Cuban-American bishops’ statement was much stronger. Should the U.S. bishops be tag-teaming their Cuban brethren?
The previous Cardinal Jaime Ortega of Havana was totally compromised. He was a broken man who had spent time in a prison camp. While Cardinal Ortega made statements supporting the regime, his successor has been neutral.
A bishop of one diocese and a few priests have complained about the repression in a mild way, and I understand why that is the case: as the Church is now allowed to survive [and they want to protect that development.]
What the Cuban-American bishops say is important. And they don’t have to fear the Cuban government. They are free to comment and should support these young people risking their lives to bring real change.
I would like to mention something else that is not well understood: Many people are not aware that any child in Cuba who receives religious instruction is barred from higher education. I know this because my mother’s sister, who stayed in Cuba, used to teach catechism and had to report to every neighborhood Communist Party office the names of the children who came for catechism. Education for these children ended at age 16.
When St. Pope John Paul II came to Cuba, my aunt’s catechism class went from three children to having so many she couldn’t fit them all in the house. But when the parents found out what would happen to their children, her class returned to just three pupils. And today, the young men who have gone to seminary have received their religious instruction at home.
Young Cuban protesters used social media and mobile internet services to organize demonstrations, and then the government shut the internet down. Have you been monitoring these developments?
The internet has helped demonstrators organize. What’s also important is independent reporting about what is going on in Cuba. There are websites pieced together by independent journalists who don’t get paid. This is not how they make their living. They did not attend journalism school. Their reporting is a labor of love.
One news report this week was about a dissident leader who was visited in his home by the police. They beat him with metal pipes and shot him in front of his children. The article provided the details, along with a photo of a large puddle of blood on the floor.
Another report was about protesters insulting one of the early leaders of the Cuban revolution, an elderly general who still has a position in the government. The protesters called him a murderer.
Reports are coming from Radio Televisión Martí, which is backed by the U.S., Diario de Cuba, based in Spain, and CiberCuba. Another website, Translating Cuba, publishes articles by independent Cuban journalists that have been translated into English.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis suggested that internet companies could help facilitate communications for protesters.
That would be impossible. These internet companies go with the flow of the country where they are based. They are not going to be engaged in any political maneuvering of any sort. I doubt that any outside internet provider could do anything.
It’s striking that just as Cuba and Venezuela, a once oil-rich country that embraced an authoritarian socialist model, have both imploded, socialism is gaining traction in the U.S. In fact, some Senate Democrats blame the collapse of Cuba’s economy on the U.S. embargo.
The recent uprisings in Venezuela were massive, and the world should have taken notice. But no. The fact is: The U.S. and European media lean left. So Cuba often gets a pass, and Venezuela gets a pass when it comes to repression.
I can’t tell you how many people still say, “To make an omelet you have to break a few eggs.”
According to this view, there are places in the world — the Third and Second World — that are incapable of having a full democracy, so they have to have this. They need this.
The same has been said about Russia and China: They have an authoritarian mentality, and this is the best they can do. I don’t think that attitude will change.