The Briefing: Dissident artists tried behind closed doors.
- The artists and their works
- Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara: a performance artist known for wearing the Cuban flag
- Charged for: improper display of the flag
- Maykel Castillo Osorbo: a rapper known for the protest song Patria y Vida or "Homeland and life"
- Charged for: disrespect of the nation (Patria o muerte or "Homeland or death" is a national slogan)
- San Isidro Movement: a group of dissident artists including Alcantara and Osorbo
- Why they protest
- Decree 349: last year's government edict which required all public artistic expression be approved by the government
- 500%: the estimated inflation rate last summer, at peak of protests
- "Dictatorship": Alcantara's word to describe the Cuban government
- "One state - one party": the government's reason for outlawing opposition
- Where fingers are pointed
The Big Question: Who’s really to blame?
There’s no serious doubt that President Trump’s revival of American embargoes and sanctions has taken a tremendous toll on the Cuban economy. Some estimates place its impact on the Cuban economy around $685 million per year, a considerable setback in a country with a GDP of only $100 billion. President Biden has shown very limited interest in reviving the Obama-era détente with the country, preferring to focus on symbolic rather than economic reforms.
Declining oil production in Venezuela has also certainly had an impact on the country. Historically, half of Cuba’s oil has come from its fellow socialist nation, but Venezuelan production declined by about 50% between 2020 and 2021. It has remained at 2021 levels into this year. Diesel is frequently used for power generation in Cuba, and shortages are surely behind some of the many blackouts which have infuriated the Cuban public.
Regardless, there’s a degree to which the protestors have a point; the government can’t simply foist responsibility for every failure onto other countries. In fact, there’s quite a funny logic at play in which the ruling Communist Party insists that development and prosperity is possible without capitalism, yet complains that they are stifled by lack of access to capitalist goods and services from the US. Even worse, the government has also blamed the US for the San Isidro Movement, claiming it’s some kind of “soft coup” attempt.
Now, it’s worth noting that President Díaz-Canel actually ended up admitting some responsibility for the outrage which drove the country’s largest protests in 25 years, saying, “We also have to carry out a critical analysis of our problems in order to act and overcome.” But this only came after more than 700 arrests, and it certainly hasn’t stopped these private trials.
However, it’s not as if democratically-elected leaders are always eager to take responsibility for failures. Donald Trump blamed China and the World Health Organization for the pandemic, while Joe Biden says high gas prices are the fault of Vladimir Putin and price-gouging corporations. So how does democracy cope with policy failure and discontentment any better?
The Theory: The importance of opposition.
Perhaps the seminal text of modern democratic theory and democratization is Robert Dahl’s Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition, and it yields some useful lessons on this topic. For Dahl, “democracy” is a regime in which the government is fully responsive to the preferences of its citizens. However, just about all so-called democratic regimes are in a sort of grey area, more responsive than other regimes but not fully so. This grey area is known as “polyarchy.”
By essentially scoring how democratic a regime is on its responsiveness to citizen preferences, Dahl has boiled democracy down to that single simple concept. In turn, this allows him to very succinctly explain the importance or necessity of all kinds of political features which one might think of as extraneous: freedom of the press, association, and political competition, for example.
The core of governmental responsiveness, though, is plurality and competition: the presence of multiple choices, whether of media outlets, civil society associations, political parties, or politicians. Without access to a variety of options, citizens can’t form or express their own preferences. Imagine you can vote, but only for one party with which you don’t agree. You cannot use elections to signify your preferences.
In a one-party regime, there is no institutionalized mechanism that facilitates government responsiveness, which means that answering citizens’ grievances becomes at best a matter of chance. As long as competition is not tolerated, governments are not as likely to be responsive to citizen complaints and desires as otherwise. Where unable to express their preferences electorally, citizens take to the streets. And where that too is illegal, suppression of dissent will be commonplace.
The Takeaway: Built different.
It’s true that neither dictators nor democratically-elected leaders like to take responsibility when things have gone wrong. In either case, political figures are liable to lie, slander, and mislead as much as they can get away with before admitting mea culpa.
However, while scapegoats in either case are commonplace, they tend to look very different. In Cuba, as in other dictatorships, fingers are ever pointed at “enemies of the state”—outsiders, foreigners, agitators, terrorists, and separatists. Such actors, whether foreign governments or citizen artists, therefore cannot be tolerated. They must be imprisoned, exiled, or killed, because they threaten the very fabric of the nation.
In democracies, however, pointing the finger at nefarious outside actors can only get you so far. Citizens aren’t satisfied by such explanations, and when they get mad they have the power to put someone else in charge. Trump’s COVID mismanagement cost him a second term, and inflation under Biden is likely to cost him control of Congress. While installing new leaders doesn’t guarantee an immediate righting of the ship, they come into power on the condition that they respond to voters’ grievances. It may not be perfect, but for citizens it’s a good deal better than being thrown in prison for complaining.
Without political competition, scapegoating comes at the cost of the public and its freedom, as it has in Cuba with Osorbo and Alcantara, not to mention the more than 700 others from last summer. While the Cuban government isn’t all-powerful, they ought to take more responsibility and punish citizens less. Until, however, better institutions align leaders’ incentives to respond to their citizens’ calls for change, that’s not likely to happen any time soon.Subscribe to Spectacles