“Freedom!” the crowds shouted. “Down with Fidel!”

It was 1994, and hundreds of Cubans poured their rage and desperation onto the oceanfront boulevard known as the Malecón.

The country was in the midst of the “special period,” the economic crisis when the collapse of the Soviet Union stripped Cuba of its primary trading partner and left the country on the brink of famine.

Some 27 years later, the country saw even larger protests, with thousands across the island taking to the streets over similar complaints: a failing economy, tightened U.S. sanctions, food shortages and blackouts that have left scores of Cubans sweltering in the heat. A spiking covid-19 outbreak has only made matters worse.

But there is one big difference: Fidel Castro — revered liberator, feared tyrant, master propagandist — is gone.

After protests erupted in Cuba against the government on July 11, demonstrations for the cause and against it have popped up in Miami and Latin America. (Alexa Juliana Ard/The Washington Post)

Moments after police quelled the 1994 protests, Castro stepped out of a Jeep onto the Malecón, according to news reports from the time, to find, almost magically, a group of supporters shouting “Viva Fidel!”

When the current president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, walked through streets of protesters this week, he was cursed at.

Díaz-Canel lacks the revolutionary pedigree of a Castro — a guerrilla fighter credited by his followers for freeing the island from the yoke of U.S. domination — nor has he yet displayed the kind of geopolitical sleight of hand that Castro relied on to wiggle out of difficult situations. While Díaz-Canel has shown no aversion to strong-arming and detaining protesters, neither does he have Castro’s decades-long record of consistent and brutal repression of political opponents.

Díaz-Canel is dealing with “a situation much more complicated than the one in 1994,” said Miguel Coyula, an architect and urban planner in Havana. “And he’s no Fidel. That’s a fundamental difference.”

A former education minister, longtime bureaucrat and Communist loyalist, Díaz-Canel became Cuba’s new head of state in 2018 after nearly six decades of Castro rule. This year, he succeeded Raúl Castro as first secretary of the Communist Party.

Diaz-Canel’s ascension coincided with a number of crippling developments. Gross domestic product shrank by 11 percent over 2020, and Economy Minister Alejandro Gil has admitted it may take years for the country to fully recover. The nation is facing an estimated 500 percent inflation rate. The economic collapse of Cuba’s once oil-rich patron, Venezuela, coupled with U.S. sanctions tightened by the Trump administration and thus far maintained by the Biden administration, has left the island struggling.

“Economically, the treasury is empty,” said Richard Feinberg, a professor at the University of California at San Diego.

Protesters and Cuba analysts alike are wondering whether this could be a tipping point toward long-awaited economic reforms in the country — or whether the protests will simply lead to further repression.

Either way, “this means a change in Cuba,” said Pavel Vidal, an economist who previously worked at Cuba’s Central Bank and now teaches at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Colombia. “We don’t know when and we don’t know how, but it’s undeniable that this will mean a change in the dynamics of economic policy and politics itself in some way.”

A post-revolutionary leader

When Díaz-Canel replaced Raúl Castro, Fidel’s brother, as head of state more than three years ago, some Cubans were cautiously optimistic that this younger generation of leaders — born after the country’s revolution — would usher in change.

But in his inaugural speech, Díaz-Canel vowed to bring “continuity to the Cuban revolution” and said there was “no room for those who aspire to a capitalist restoration.”

In one of his first decrees as president, Díaz-Canel banned artists and musicians from operating in public or private spaces without prior approval of the Ministry of Culture. To many, the law was “no more than the repression of the liberty of expression,” said Iris Ruiz, coordinator of the dissident San Isidro Movement.

In the immediate aftermath of this week’s historic protests, Ruiz said demonstrators saw a continuation of that repression. Díaz-Canel urged Cuba’s “revolutionary” citizens to take to the street. Security forces have detained at least 400 people, human rights groups say, and have targeted journalists and activists by standing watch outside their homes.

“They’re using the same playbook, but they have to apply it massively,” said Juan Pappier, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch. “The name of the game for the Cuban government has always been, ‘We will repress with the least visibility possible.’ But when you have hundreds of thousands of people in the streets, that’s challenging.”

The detentions have led to condemnations from both the U.S. government and the U.N. human rights chief.

Over the course of the week, the president’s tone began to change. While he continued to castigate the protesters and blame the unrest on the United States, he started calling for “unity” and “peace.” In a televised speech on Wednesday, he admitted for the first time some of the government’s missteps in handling power and food shortages.

“We have to gain experience from the disturbances,” he said. “We also have to carry out a critical analysis of our problems to act and overcome, and avoid their repetition.”

That same day, Prime Minister Manuel Marrero announced some measures that many Cubans had called for since the beginning of the pandemic. He said Cuban citizens would be allowed to travel abroad and bring home toiletries, food and medicine — items that have been hard to find on the island — without paying customs. The prime minister also said officials are working to improve the nation’s electricity system and its supply of medicines.

While some analysts and protesters saw these as positive signs, Vidal said the increased customs flexibility will have little impact on the average Cuban family. “The majority of families don’t have anyone who can bring them medicine or food from outside of the country,” he said.

Yoani Sánchez, a dissident blogger and journalist, sent a stronger message in response, tweeting: “Blood was not spilled on Cuban streets to import a few extra suitcases.”

Carlos Alzugaray, a former Cuban diplomat, said the government should have recognized its mistakes earlier.

“Mr. Díaz-Canel has confronted the tornado, hurricanes, Trump, so he is stressed out, I have no doubt about it,” Alzugaray said. “There is a group of ideologues surrounding Díaz-Canel who scare the hell out of him,” which he said is part of the reason economic reform has been slow.

“But I think they have to do something,” he added.

A way out of the crisis

Within the past year, the Cuban government took two significant steps: It announced the largest devaluation of the peso since the 1959 revolution, and it said it would allow private businesses to operate in most sectors.

Vidal, the economist, said he hopes the protests help loosen the state’s grip over the economy. He also emphasized the need for Cuba to join international financial institutions to integrate into the global market. But this would require negotiation with President Biden, who has so far not shown any desire to refresh relations with the country.

“There are a number of things that we would consider doing to help the people of Cuba,” Biden said Thursday in a news conference, “but it would require a different circumstance or a guarantee that they would not be taken advantage of by the government.”

While there are parallels with the protests of 1994, one difference, analysts say, is that Cuba’s current leader has few options even as the patience of the Cuban people is at an ebb.

“In some sense, Cuba hasn’t ever completely recovered,” Cuba historian and New York University professor Ada Ferrer said. “Díaz-Canel can’t ask for more sacrifice. Díaz-Canel can’t say this is just a blip … it’ll end. He’s unable, I think, to convince the public that there’s a fix.”

And he’s unable to use migration as an escape valve for opposition, Ferrer said, as Castro did with the Mariel boatlift of 1980 and the 1994 exodus to the United States.

Many of today’s protesters don’t want to leave Cuba, Ruiz, coordinator of the San Isidro Movement, said. They have seen generations of Cubans leave the island, yet life for those left behind hasn’t gotten any better, she said.

“We can’t keep going like this,” Ruiz said. “As a country, we need to advance. We need to resolve our issues. We need to get somewhere different.”

Amy B Wang and Adam Taylor contributed to this report.

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