Since taking office in 2018, Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz-Canel has aspired to be the Fidel Castro of the 1980s, abandoning the more recent reform approach taken by the younger Raúl Castro and doubling down on the worst of the regime’s autocratic traditions – with few innovations.
What Díaz-Canel likely did not expect was that applying Fidel Castro’s recipe in the 21st century would backfire – like it did this month and will continue to.
Cuba’s society, after all, is markedly different today. The new generation has gained little, if anything, from the revolution. It is also far more globalized, more appreciative of ties with foreigners, more internet-connected, and, perhaps most important, less fearful.
July’s protests, the largest in decades, raised the question of what causes uprisings in authoritarian contexts. Did they occur because the regime relaxed a bit, offering new opportunities for disaffected groups to mobilize? Or because the regime hardened political restrictions, causing civil society to protest in a desperate gasp for air?
Cuba’s case confirms the latter thesis resoundingly. The protests occurred not because the regime was giving citizens greater spaces, but precisely because it was taking them away. It would be a mistake for Cuban leaders to believe that further restrictions will solve the unrest.
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