The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cubans took to the streets in 1994, too

Without the opportunity for Cubans to leave for the United States, however, the story may end differently.

Cuban residents in Chile protest with a sign reading “Freedom for Cuba” outside the Cuban Embassy in Santiago on July 16 in support of protests that took place on the island nation. (Javier Torres/AFP/Getty Images)
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The anti-government protests that began in Cuba in early July are the largest seen since the early 1990s, when thousands took to the streets, fed up with an economic crisis and demanding freedom. Circumstances have certainly changed since then. But the 1994 “Maleconazo” protest sheds light on Cubans’ frustrations, then and now, and the roles that public opinion and U.S. policy play in rebellions against the Cuban government.

The 1990s were a time of rapid change in Cuba. Compared with the 1980s, when food stores were stocked and material resources from the Soviet bloc were relatively widely available, the 1990s brought a very different experience. The collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s ally since 1961, and the socialist governments in Eastern Europe deprived Cuba of crucial trade partners. This forced the Cuban government to restructure the economy.

It declared that the country would enter a “Special Period during Peacetime” during which it began a process of reorganizing its social, economic and political systems. It created a Ministry of Tourism (MINTUR), implemented a dual-currency system, opened the market through measures such as allowing self-employment and small businesses (cuentapropismo) and established co-ops — all in hopes of jump-starting the economy.

But during this transition, Cubans struggled with shortages of food, medicine, oil and gas, and other consumer goods, which produced deep social ramifications. Many people looked to leave the island, just as Cubans had in the past.

And then, on Aug. 5, 1994, Cuban police caught rumors of an illegal boat passage out of Havana. They blocked civilians from boarding tugboats by forming a blockade around the walls of the Malecón in the capital. Thousands of Cubans soon stormed the streets in protest.

Protesters voiced demands for freedom and the overthrow of Fidel Castro’s government. Testimonials and video footage show how local police and the Blas Roca Special Brigade beat and apprehended protesters, claiming that their shouting and looting of government-owned businesses constituted “counterrevolutionary” actions that needed to be suppressed.

The images were striking. People on bicycles were met with squadrons; protest signs and rocks were met with guns and barbed wire. The protest ended that afternoon when Castro came to the scene to speak to the Cuban people. In his address, he placed blame squarely on the United States for its economic and trade embargo against Cuba, which had been in effect since the early 1960s, and for “provoking,” as he succinctly put it, continued unrest and illegal attempts by Cubans to depart the island.

To provide temporary relief from the crisis, Castro announced that the Guardafronteras, the Cuban coast guard, would once again temporarily allow Cubans to flee like they had during the Mariel boatlift in 1980. Over the next month, more than 30,000 Cuban refugees fled the island on makeshift rafts, tugboats and inner tubes in what became known as the “Balsero crisis.”

The sheer number of Cubans arriving all at once in South Florida forced the Clinton administration to reevaluate its policies toward Cuba. Since the 1960s, Cubans had generally been welcomed as refugees seeking political freedom from a communist government. The Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 allowed any Cuban who arrived on U.S. soil to pursue a pathway to legal residency in the United States.

But U.S. policies of welcoming Cubans had started to shift after the Mariel boatlift in 1980. Rumors that Castro had taken the opportunity to release criminals and “undesirables” stigmatized the marielitos and dampened U.S. enthusiasm for accepting Cuban immigrants.

By the 1990s, the anti-immigration climate in the United States had intensified, particularly after the increased arrival of Haitian refugees by boat in 1991. In this political and social climate, in 1995, the Clinton administration implemented a “wet foot, dry foot” policy for Cuba, whereby the United States would intercept and return Cubans apprehended on boats or ships, while allowing those who arrived on U.S. soil (“dry foot”) a pathway to legalization.

The Clinton administration’s clampdown on Cuban immigration did little to stop Cubans from emigrating en masse, however. And so, it was forced to make several concessions and policy adjustments, including resuming migration agreements, increasing annual visas allocated to Cubans and exempting humanitarian provisions such as food, medicine and medical supplies from the goods embargoed to Cuba.

Intentionally or not, these concessions helped Cuba emerge from the crisis. Other key factors played a role: internal economic and political reforms and the formation of new international alliances. The early ’90s economic reforms began to stabilize the GDP. The 1992 modification of the Cuban Constitution and other political reforms distanced it from the Soviet Union and invited a younger and more diverse generation of Cubans into leadership. Lastly, cementing political alliances and trade relations with other nations, notably Venezuela, made Cuba less isolated and dependent on the United States.

Tensions between Cuba and the United States reignited in 1999 when a Cuban boy named Elián González, whose mother died trying to get him safely to Florida, was sent back to the island after the protocols of the “wet foot, dry foot” policy. In the aftermath, the George W. Bush administration pursued a more restrictive policy toward Cuba, creating the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba (CAFC), which sought to “help hasten and ease Cuba’s democratic transition.”

To ease diplomatic relations between Havana and Washington, President Barack Obama visited Cuba, and promoted measures aimed at strengthening the Cuban middle class by encouraging travel and tourism. In his final weeks in office, however, he also ended the “wet foot, dry foot” policy in response to political pressure to normalize immigration policy and begin treating Cubans migrants as the United States treated migrants from other countries who flee for economic relief rather than for political reasons.

But efforts to ease diplomatic tensions ended during the Trump administration, which designated Cuba as a State Sponsor of Terrorism. Cubans seeking to flee to the United States, even at land ports of entry, were excluded, detained and deported like other migrants.

Moreover, the Trump administration’s rollback of Obama’s policies made it more difficult for Cubans in the diaspora to travel to the island or send remittances to their friends and families, which has exacerbated the economic crisis in the country and helped fuel protests.

Cubans today have demanded immediate humanitarian aid and denounced the police and the Cuban government — in particular President Miguel Díaz-Canel, who lacks the charisma of Fidel Castro and the fear that the Castro name carried with it — for creating this situation. The revolutionary slogan “Patria o Muerte” (fatherland or death) was adopted in 1961. After Cuban reggaeton artists in the United States released the song “Patria y Vida” (fatherland and life) in February 2021, Cuban protesters adopted it as the anthem for their protest and reclaimed their national slogan from the government. Men, women and children are protesting not only the dire economic situation — something exacerbated by covid-19 — but also the regime’s censorship, violence and unlawful imprisonment. After early July’s protests, the government made dozens of arrests and supported pro-government counterprotests.

Cuba no longer has one of the release valves that helped calm the protests in 1994: migration to the United States. But today’s protesters have also tapped a 21st-century asset: the ability to connect with one another over social media and incite mass demonstrations throughout the entire country, not just in the capital city. The ability to send video footage, audio and text messages has allowed Cubans to organize and appeal to the diaspora for added support in new ways. Although the government shut down Internet access temporarily to curtail the protests, to a much greater degree than in previous eras, Cubans on the island have been able to share their experiences — their pains and desires — with the world in real time, leaving no questions about what they want: libertad.