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The military junta that rules Cuba has just received a great shock. For the first time since Fidel Castro created a totalitarian communist dictatorship six decades ago, thousands of Cubans have taken to the streets from one end of the island to the other, chanting “liberty,” “down with the dictatorship,” and “down with communism.” They chant rhythmically and with fervor, much like participants in a religious procession. Before Cuba's ruling dictatorship shut off the Internet, they could also be seen and heard on YouTube and social media shouting a challenge to their rulers: “We are not afraid.” That chant doesn’t sound like a prayer at all. It’s a taunt, a war cry, a rebel yell. And it is coming mostly from young Cubans, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the so-called revolution. 

This sudden eruption of dissent was caused by a perfect storm of calamities, all of which have revealed the Big Lie of the revolution. Lately, life in Cuba has become more unbearable than ever for just about every Cuban. The crisis is due to a long string of blunders and catastrophes, linked like beads on a rosary from hell: The loss of revenue from Venezuela, a collapsed economy, gargantuan foreign debt, a disastrous sugar harvest, uncontrolled inflation, a plague that is intensifying in Cuba rather than abating, a crumbling health care system, medication shortages, food shortages, water shortages, electricity blackouts, and increased repression, to name but a few. Never mind the sanctions by the United States or the so-called embargo that Cuba’s military junta and many of the world’s news outlets are blaming for the current crisis. These are inconsequential factors, a decoy skillfully manipulated by the oligarchs in order to distract from their own ineptitude and the congenital defects of the communism they embraced. These protesters know the ultimate cause of their distress is their lack of freedom in all spheres of life, which is nothing new.

They also know what they are up against. They know that their country’s repressive regime does not tolerate dissent of any sort. And they have had some brave predecessors, all of whom have been crushed, such as the Ladies in White (Damas de Blanco). Beginning in 2003, these women gathered every Sunday at churches and processed down the streets after Mass. In total silence, with flowers in their hands, they called attention to the plight of Cuba’s prisoners of conscience, many of whom were their relatives. Even though they attracted international attention and were awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2005, they were constantly harassed, beaten, imprisoned, or kept under house arrest. Ever since President Obama’s visit to Cuba in 2016, the Ladies have been permanently prevented from staging their silent processions. 

This week's young protestors might have also heard of the men and women who staged a protest march in Havana on August 5, 1994, on the city’s long seafront boulevard, the Malecón. That event came to be known as the “Maleconazo,” thanks to the useful Spanish suffix “azo,” which signifies a blow when added to any noun. The Maleconazo was a relatively small outburst, as protests go, but it was nonetheless a significant symbolic blow struck against the personal rule of Castro during the “special period” of severe shortages caused by the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the loss of its mammoth subsidies. Until that day, Cubans had been too afraid to express their dissatisfaction collectively in the open. Those who dared to take part were immediately pounced upon, hauled away, and forever branded as ungrateful wretches.   

What this week’s outburst of discontent will lead to is impossible to predict. Police in costly riot gear—surely a luxury for a bankrupt nation—have already shot some protesters. The list of those who have disappeared or been arrested grows longer, and the Internet remains turned off for everyone on the island. The vice minister of the interior has suddenly resigned due to “health reasons.” No one knows what will happen next. There is no playbook, no plan at the moment other than to demand radical change.  

While the size and intensity of the protest is unprecedented in Cuba, much larger events of this sort have taken place elsewhere, often with dire results. Venezuela comes to mind immediately, where Cuban advisers have made it possible for dictators Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro to increase repression despite huge and violently-suppressed protests that involved millions of Venezuelans in multiple cities. Then there is China. Consider what happened in Hong Kong recently. And who could ever forget Tiananmen Square in Beijing between April and June of 1989, especially the tragic final act in which thousands were slaughtered?

As I watched the protests in Cuba this week, an image came to mind: Tank Man, also known as the Unknown Rebel. Anyone who saw him facing a long line of tanks on Tiananmen Square back in 1989, as events were unfolding, or has seen him subsequently in videos or photos, will find it hard to forget him. He reifies everything loathed by repressive regimes: individuality, dissent, fearlessness, free will, and countless other virtues that challenge herd mentalities and the brute force with which they are maintained. Today, suddenly, Cuba is full of Tank Men and Tank Women, even Tank Children. 

As someone who once lived in communist Cuba, I was astounded the first time I read George Orwell's 1984. His fictional dystopia was so like the one I had escaped from; it seemed he had perfectly described Castro’s Cuba a dozen years before it came into existence. In the novel, Orwell remarks upon the potential longevity of ruthless totalitarian regimes. Such regimes can rule forever, one of the novel’s characters says, as long as the ruling class's self-confidence and willingness to govern through repression remains unshaken. Ultimately, Orwell asserts, “the determining factor is the mental attitude of the ruling class itself.” Is it too much to hope that these protesters might be shaking the resolve of Cuba’s ruling class? One can only hope and pray that there is a sliver of a chance that the dissidents could beat the odds stacked against them.

Carlos Eire is T. L. Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University.

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