Every Thursday at 5 p.m., my grandmother would go into her bedroom in Havana, lock the door, and tune her Soviet-made radio to Radio Martí, a Miami-based station run by Cuban exiles who had fled Fidel Castro’s revolution. She always set the volume barely above a whisper. “Walls have ears,” she would say. Despite being an ordinary and compliant citizen, she, like the rest of my family, avoided controversial political topics on the phone, afraid that the lines were tapped. We acted as if the state were always staring directly at us. Its presence was everywhere.
For my mother’s generation, the following things, among others, were forbidden: listening to the Beatles, being openly gay, displaying religious beliefs, and reading certain books. As a kid in the late 1980s, I wore the same clothes as everybody else did, received an identical education, and even used the same and only toothpaste brand, Perla. Individual autonomy and freedom of choice did not exist.
Modeled after and subsidized by the Soviet Union, the Cuban government exercised unfettered control over every aspect of its citizens’ lives. The agents of state security, trained by the East German Stasi and the Russian KGB, made sure that not a leaf moved without their knowledge. Then, a couple of weeks ago, the unthinkable happened: People marched in the streets, demanding freedom. Where was Big Brother and his omniscient eye?
The recent nationwide protests in Cuba are symptomatic of a much deeper underlying condition than decades of scarcity and a systemic lack of civil liberties. The Cuban political system is cracking. The structures upholding its authority have been slowly but steadily weakening for the past three decades, and the people living beneath them have not only taken notice but are reacting in ever more public ways.
As a child growing up in Castro’s long shadow, I saw the scaffolding of the state begin to crumble. I remember being 9 years old in 1992 and seeing empty store shelves where Soviet apples used to be, and the tragic day when my little red fire truck, made in East Germany, broke. It was the last toy I had. The Soviet Union had collapsed, and Cuba, a parasitic economy that had little to offer the global market and was further suffering under the U.S. embargo, lost 85 percent of its trade, triggering a severe humanitarian crisis. Soon we were without electricity. To cope with the intense Caribbean heat, we took our mattresses to the roof. The mosquitoes made sure that sleeping under the tropical stars was not the romantic experience many may imagine.
“The good old times are coming back,” my grandfather said one day in 1994, placing his newspaper on the table. Castro had just allowed Cubans to establish small businesses, reopened tourism to Westerners (the embargo kept Americans away, except for Cuban Americans, who were allowed to visit family), and legalized the domestic use of U.S. dollars. For ordinary Cubans, the liberalization and later subsidies from Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela slightly alleviated the crisis. But for the state, the ideological and political consequences would be devastating.
As teenagers in the late ’90s, my friends and I gawked at the sight of Western tourists and Cuban Americans walking around Havana with their shiny sneakers, glimpses of a more prosperous world beyond the sea. It became harder for Castro to keep us convinced that socialism was the next logical step in human progress. As time went on, any remaining loyalty to the state was eroded by the seemingly endless stream of new stores packed with colorful products we couldn’t afford and hotels we couldn’t stay in, or even enter.
Back in the mid-’80s, my father worked as the accountant for a factory that made the Cuban version of Coca-Cola. Like every Cuban, he was a state employee, and as such, he had to demonstrate political obedience. For example, he was required to attend monthly meetings and do “voluntary” work for the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR), a neighborhood-based organization that Castro had established in 1960 for “collective revolutionary surveillance.” He also had to join the state-controlled Workers’ Central Union of Cuba. In that Cuba, social existence was impossible outside the domain of the state.
Today, nearly one-third of the workforce is employed by the private sector. My best friend, Yunior, now rents a room in his house to tourists and pays a housekeeper to clean it. Like all workers in the private sector, neither of them is required to join the state-controlled union, participate in state-led demonstrations, or provide government paperwork to keep their jobs. They are independent of the state and earn 10 times as much as a doctor. Yes, the cleaning lady too.
The early-’90s crisis triggered an exodus to Florida of nearly 35,000 people on small boats and makeshift rafts. I vividly remember my neighbors assembling rustic boats made of tables and tires tied with ropes and crowning the bow with a statuette of Our Lady of Charity, the patron of Cuba and protector of sailors. Many people did not make it. Those who reached American soil were able to stay because of the 1995 “wet foot, dry foot” policy and get permanent-resident status through the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act. Years later, in 2019, that Cold War law would open my own path to American citizenship.
For many Cubans desperate to leave the island and for Cuban Americans wishing to reunite with their relatives, these U.S. policies were joyfully received. They were convenient for Castro as well. Since taking power in 1959, the Communist leader had used migration as a political pressure-relief valve to rid the island of dissatisfied citizens, most famously in 1980, when 125,000 people left the country—many under government coercion—during the Mariel Boatlift.
Now that relief valve is closed. Days before leaving office, President Barack Obama ended the wet foot, dry foot policy. His successor reduced the U.S. embassy’s personnel and stopped issuing visas on the island. Cubans are now trapped, and instead of looking to the horizon, they are looking upward to those in power.
This month’s demonstrations were not the island’s first. Three decades ago, on August 5, 1994, a smaller group of Cubans protested in Havana, chanting “freedom” and “Down with Castro.” They were beaten and arrested—not that you would have known it from watching the coverage on state media. What we were shown back then was an edited version without the repression, highlighted by images of Castro’s arrival at the protest site, riding in a jeep and welcomed with chants of “Viva Fidel!”
That disinformation strategy is impossible today. In 2018, the Cuban government reluctantly authorized internet usage via cellphones. Three years later, the internet turned a local protest into a nationwide rebellion. Cellphone videos documented the ongoing repression and contradicted state-media manipulations. The information monopoly the government once enjoyed is gone.
After a half century in power, Fidel Castro, the embodiment of the state, got sick, stepped down as president, and died in 2016. Neither his brother Raúl nor his handpicked successor as president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, has come close to capturing the charisma, or commanding the respect, of the elder Castro. (“Díaz-Canel singao,” a slur better left untranslated, was chanted during the recent protests.)
Today there is a new generation of Cubans who grew up without the omnipresent figure of Fidel and the prying eyes of the state. To these young people, the old-fashioned socialist rhetoric that still plays on state TV is unconvincing, alien, and frankly ridiculous. Unlike my generation, they did not watch Soviet cartoons but Disney and Pixar. They know the government has little to offer them. They want a political change and they want it now. Instead of fearing walls with ears or tapped phone lines as my late grandmother did, they want to be heard. To ensure that they are, they have taken to social media to amplify their voices.
To be sure, Cuba remains under Communist control, and the government can unleash its might at will, as ongoing violent repressions and summary trials show. But its totalitarian structures are irreversibly damaged. People sense the government’s weakness and will continue testing its rusty chains. Those in power should acknowledge that their time is overdue—and that they can’t solve the country’s never-ending economic and political crises with old formulas. They must open venues for liberalization before it is too late and the worst happens: a total collapse of the state, and a civil war.
A photo caption in this article originally misidentified the origin of the tank shown in the picture.