In The Bridge at Andau, a brilliant 1957 book that should be more widely read today, James Michener documents the exodus of Hungarians into Austria after their 1956 insurrection against Russian rule was crushed. There was only one escape route, which the Russians alternately closed and reopened—a result of a debate among the Communists, some of whom wanted to keep the insurrectionists inside the country so that they could be found and killed, while others wanted the discontented to leave so that those who remained would be the more easily led. The latter approach won out—and proved successful. A similar circumstance may explain why Cubans, a famously fiery people, have never overthrown their Communist oppressors in spite of the pervasive misery of life on an island where they have been subjected to dictatorship, repression, indoctrination, censorship, desperation and borderline starvation: the most discontented can flee to Miami.
Although Miami has been the traditional refuge of Cuban dissidents for centuries—an escape from the Spanish yoke, the petty dictatorships of Machado and Batista and the pre-Castro Communists—before Castro took power more than sixty years ago, the number of migrants was relatively small. Even since Castro’s takeover, many Cubans who despise the regime and have suffered deprivations have declined to leave. This is not necessarily because escape seems impossible: many Cubans visit relatives in the US, and still return home. Perhaps they stay for the same reason that some people living in hurricane zones are unwilling to leave their homes when a Category 5 storm is approaching.
Nevertheless, during the Castro regime, an estimated 10% of the population has fled to Florida and elsewhere. Thus, Miami has served as a pressure valve for the regime. In 1980, after a group of Cubans crashed through the gates of the Peruvian embassy to ask for asylum, Castro contemptuously announced that any malcontent was free to seek asylum. In response, a huge number of people swarmed the embassy, and the result was the Mariel boatlift—the emigration of around 100,000 Cuban citizens who, had they been unable to leave, might have later overthrown the government. Castro was furious at how many chose to leave.
In the late 1980s, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev informed Castro that Russia could no longer keep the island afloat economically. This inspired the so-called special period: whereas, previously, people caught fleeing the island by sea had been killed, they were now allowed to leave. Castro opened the safety valve, and the regime was saved once more.
The Cuban government also found new ways to raise money. It sent Cuban doctors to countries in need of medical personnel—in return for which the countries paid the Cuban government. It allowed exiles to return to Cuba to visit relatives—for a fee. And it began a programme to increase tourism, promoting the country’s superb beaches and offering tours of Potemkin villages. Tourism did increase, but as a side effect, Cuban discontent also increased as the locals saw visitors—whether tourists or exiles—wearing fancy clothes that they could not afford to buy and eating great food at hotels that they were forbidden to enter. And the exiles brought gifts to their relatives—televisions, medicine, clothes, DVDs, pocket calculators, rollerblades—that were otherwise unobtainable on the island.
The Cuban government’s hold on power was also reinforced by the many westerners who praised aspects of the regime—including, in the US, Michael Moore, Ted Turner, Oliver Stone and Bernie Sanders. In addition, certain leftist American journalists and, occasionally, Hollywood movies, sanitized the regime.
At the same time, acts of political or artistic defiance and human rights protests, either by individual and groups, began to increase. While some protestors, such as Yoani Sánchez and the Ladies in White, were allowed a small degree of freedom, most protesters were beaten, arrested and imprisoned, and videos critical of the regime (including many on YouTube) were censored. A disorganized and aimless mass protest in Havana in 1994 (“el Maleconazo”) was quickly put down.
This time around, however, the situation looks different. The mass protests that are currently taking place are much more of a threat to the regime than any that have come before. For one thing, they are nationwide; for another, the protestors are saying things that are openly anti-government—chanting “Freedom!” and, more significantly, “We are not afraid!” And, perhaps most significant of all, the US is no longer offering a welcome mat. President Biden’s administration has announced that Cubans will no longer be allowed into the US.
Cuba’s government has responded, once again, by bringing the forces of repression to bear and, along with foreign supporters, blaming the usual scapegoats: the United States, the US embargo, and Cuban-Americans (it has even blamed a Cuban porn star for the uprising). Ordinary Cubans no longer buy that line; apparently the only people who do are some Americans and Canadians. This time, the regime may finally be overthrown: but that will ultimately depend on the answer to just one question: will the Cuban armed forces join the protestors, and turn their guns against the government?