The Nonsense of ‘Nuance’: On Recent Events in Cuba

The both sides-ism of significant parts of the left on the recent protests in Cuba misses the crucial fact that their very meagreness suggests they have little to do with popular feeling.

17 min read

On Sunday 11th July, just 18 days after the world once again called for the end of the illegal US blockade of Cuba, something apparently far more newsworthy occurred on the Caribbean island: between a few hundred and several thousand people took to the streets to voice their dissent at the government. Instantly, the protests were picked up by nearly every major news platform and media outlet, while celebrities and politicians alike hastily uploaded videos condemning the Cuban government and supporting this seemingly universal and organic popular movement. Before long, #SOSCuba was trending worldwide, and the narrative had been established. It seemed that history was being made—that the Cuban people were rising up against the tyrannical, family-run dictatorship which so fiercely oppresses them.

But all is it not as it seems. For anybody familiar with Cuban history, this duplicitous manipulation of a challenging situation is merely the latest in a long list of attempts to undermine and destroy the Cuban Revolution.

Responding to what even reactionary news outlets conceded were ‘rare’1 anti-government protests, President Díaz-Canel took to the streets and addressed the issue head on. Accepting that some of the protestors were genuinely motivated by a desire for change, Díaz-Canel was also aware that many people were manipulating the situation with an ‘interventionist agenda’, and called on the Cuban people to ‘defend the revolution’. This they duly did; over the next few days, demonstrations of far greater numbers than the initial protests took place across the island. The following Saturday, Havana saw a mass demonstration, reportedly comprising over 100,000 Cubans, in support of the revolution and in complete opposition to calls for ‘intervention’ and ‘humanitarian corridors’.2 Cubans are well aware that these terms are synonymous with imperialism, and loudly denounced those—predominantly exiles living in the US— who called for their adoptive home to ‘help’ the island. Yet these movements, which outnumbered the relatively meagre anti-government protests that preceded them, were overlooked by much of the Western media, which had rushed to report the far less significant anti-government demonstrations. Why, and indeed how, did such a small (relative to similar events in nearly every other country in the world) movement snowball into a major news story and internet trend? What was the reason for the protests? And how does the history of US-Cuban relations help us to understand these events?

Why, and indeed how, did such a small movement snowball into a major news story and internet trend? And how does the history of US-Cuban relations help us to understand these events?

There are two fundamental reasons for the current hardships suffered by the Cuban people: 60 years of economic and cultural war by the US, and the COVID-19 pandemic. The latter has stagnated the island’s tourism industry, and has necessitated the diverting of funds towards the production of vaccines, as part of the Revolution’s longstanding and unshakable commitment to universal healthcare for all its citizens. The country’s successful production and distribution of two vaccines with high efficacy rates comes both because of and in spite of the US blockade, and stands as a beacon of hope for challenging global vaccine inequality. While the vaccination programme rolls on—the entire population of Havana should have received a first dose by the end of July—there has been a recent outbreak of cases in Matanzas, and the worsening pandemic has added to an already precarious situation which has included shortages in food and medicine. These shortages are caused not by mismanagement, but by the central impediment to Cuban development over the last six decades: the illegal US blockade.

Economic War

Since 1960, Washington has had one fundamental aim in its policy on Cuba: to topple the first successful socialist revolution in the Americas. Central to this has been the intention to cause economic hardship to the Cuban people, in the hope that, strangled, starved, and isolated, they will rise up and reclaim their nation from the grip of communism. In a 1960 internal memorandum, US Deputy Secretary of State for Inter-American affairs Lester D. Mallory explained the aims and techniques of the blockade:

every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba… a line of action which… makes the greatest inroads in denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government.3

“Hunger, desperation and overthrow of government”. The US set out its intentions clearly, and it has never wavered from this position. Over the last 60 years, economic warfare has been accompanied by invasion, terrorism, cultural warfare, and assasination attempts. The recent calls for ‘humanitarian corridors’, ‘intervention’, and even ‘airstrikes’ are predicated on a pretence of concern for the welfare of the Cuban people—a claim that is directly and firmly contradicted by US policy and practice spanning more than half a century. The US blockade itself is, unquestionably, the single most defining reason for economic hardship in Cuba.

The hypocrisy on display over humanitarian concerns is self-evident. The truth is that Cuba has a notably small history of anti-government protest, police violence, and violent dissent—not just in comparison with Latin America, but with the rest of the world, too.4 There have been immeasurably larger and more enduring protests in the Global South that have received far less coverage, such as the “biggest strike in world history” in India. In the Global North, where mass anti-government protest—like the recent and ongoing demonstrations against the repressive Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill—does receive media attention, there is no question of such protest being met with calls for intervention or rescue from an authoritarian government. So what makes Cuba any different?

It is important to recognise that the US blockade has been both a sensational failure and a (partial) success. That is to say, despite decades of expensive and incessant war, the US has not managed to topple the Cuban Revolution, and has not been able to prevent the small island from achieving impressive social indicators and making brilliant developments in medicine and science, as well as continuing to offer internationalist assistance to the Global South. The blockade has, however, brought a degree of unnecessary suffering to the Cuban people, and has greatly inhibited Cuban development through dissuading investors, punishing potential traders, and preventing the country from easily obtaining basic goods.

The Cuban government believe that this cruel policy amounts to genocide5, and although the Revolution, and indeed the Cuban people, have survived, the fact remains that every shape the punitive US economic war against Cuba has taken has caused suffering, division, and underdevelopment. Salim Lamrani has observed that, as of 2013, the blockade had cost the island over $750 billion, while over two-thirds of Cubans had ‘lived in a climate of permanent economic hostility’6. And the aggression keeps ramping up: former US President Donald Trump introduced around 240 new sanctions and measures against Cuba during his term, many of them coinciding with the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.

While many people were (rightly) sceptical that the Biden administration would offer any genuine change in policy, those sympathetic to Cuba had perhaps at the very least hoped that Trump’s tightening of the blockade would be reversed, and an Obama-like rapprochement would become policy once again. Instead, Biden’s policy towards Cuba has been to do nothing.

This has not exactly been a surprise; US interference in Cuba long precedes the 1959 revolution. In 1898, after years of Cuban struggle for independence from Spain, US forces intervened to defeat the Spanish and establish ‘a unilateral US military occupation of Cuba’.7 The result was the suppression of Cuban nationalism—which was central to the anticolonial struggle—and the imposition of US dominance on the island, both economically and politically. As Claudia Lightfoot notes,

Cuba passed smoothly from a state of colonisation to one of neo-colonisation. Within the first three years of independence, over 13,000 land speculators and investors arrived from the US and bought up an estimated 60 per cent of the land.8

By 1958, Cuba was a semi-colonial, underdeveloped country characterised by technological subjugation, a monocrop reliance on one major trading partner (the US), and chronic economic stagnation. Around 40% of the population lived in squalid conditions:9 as few as 3% of rural Cubans owned the land they worked on, and just 2% had running water10. According to Helen Yaffe:

The US government ensured that the island remained on a life-support machine, and by allocating it an annual sugar quota it consolidated Cuba’s economic dependence on the US. This was secured by political and military interference, including the return of US troops to the island from 1906 to 1909, again in 1912, and from 1917 to 1923.11

Cubans, therefore, know extremely well what US involvement means. Anti-imperialism forms a fundamental part of their history and national memory, and has done for far longer than 60 years. The events of 1959 ruptured the political-economic stranglehold of the US on Cuba; it constituted the first time in the nation’s history that genuine sovereignty was achieved. Any analysis that fails to consider the issue of Cuban sovereignty (which includes an understanding of US semi-colonial control, particularly the Platt Amendment of 1901), and what this sovereignty specifically means to the Cuban people, will not appreciate the deeply-felt historical opposition to any US involvement. It is this opposition which fuels Cubans’ continued anti-imperialism, as well as their popular commitment to building Cuban socialism. Moreover, this anti-imperialist, socialist revolution, the first of its kind on the continent, was accomplished fewer than 100 miles from the mainland US. For that (and indeed the failed Bay of Pigs invasion two years later), Washington has never forgiven Cuba.

Cubans therefore know extremely well what US involvement means. Anti-imperialism forms a fundamental part of their history and national memory, and has done for far longer than 60 years.

Cultural War

The 60 year-long punitive blockade—which, amongst many other things, prevents global financial institutions from granting Cuba credit—has also been accompanied by a long-standing cultural war. Destabilising, discrediting, and ultimately destroying the Revolution has been and remains the central motivation of US policy, and this aim has been pursued in the cultural sphere just as much as the economic. Since 1960 ‘Cubanologists’ have endeavored to spread misinformation, discredit achievements, and present the Revolution as an inorganic, asymmetrical dictatorship led by a single repressive family. This was, as Yaffe has described, a deliberate state project:

By the mid 1960s, a Centre for Cuban Studies was effectively formed by the CIA. Its objectives were to compile information for planning future actions against the Revolution and to depict the Revolution negatively for a global audience. This meant denying all positive achievements of the Revolution, deriding official Cuban sources of information and disseminating misinformation about life in Cuba.12

This cultural warfare, which permeates academic institutions, thinktanks, and political parties, is an essential context for understanding recent events. Social media has become the new battleground for misinformation; since 11th July, the scale of online manipulation has been staggering, as the state apparatuses struggle to maintain their control of the narrative in the face of emerging counter-narratives from Cubans themselves.

Videos began to emerge of Cubans who had flocked to the streets to defend their Revolution. The videos were striking in their defiance: one shows a woman leading a sizeable group of pro-government demonstrators, raising her fist and proclaiming ‘These streets belong to the Revolutionaries!’, and ‘I am Fidel!’. Amnesty International, incredibly, posted a close up photo of this very same woman to their millions of followers, with the shamefully dishonest caption: ‘Massive protests are a desperate cry to a government that does not listen’.13 The Guardian, the Financial Times, and the New York Times illustrated their reporting on Cuba’s ‘major’ anti-government protests with a photo of pro-government demonstrators, several of whom waved large 26 July flags, one of the defining symbols of revolution and Fidel Castro. Fox News were even lazier in their misinformation, juxtaposing disgusting calls for military intervention with footage of pro-government Cubans, and simply blurring out the inconveniently revolutionary words held up on banners by the people whose images they were appropriating. We might ask the question: if the numbers of protestors were truly significant, why did the media of the imperial core need to lie in this way?

The shameful manipulation of events was not limited to major news outlets. Misinformation analyst Julián Macías Tovar analysed the hashtag #SOSCuba, discovering that the first tweet containing the hashtag was related the Matanzas Covid-19 spike, and originated from an account in Spain which then tweeted out the hashtag once every 5 seconds. Another account, which tweeted thousands of times in order to accelerate the hashtag, belonged to the Fundación Libertad de Argentina, a right wing organisation that aims to promote ‘freedom’ in the form of free market economics. It seems that a small number of accounts and bots aggressively drove #SOSCuba and caused it to trend worldwide. Furthermore, thousands of accounts appeared to have been created very recently, had next to no followers, and began to incessantly post about Cuba, sharing false protest photos, videos of events ‘in Cuba’ that actually took place elsewhere, and even completely false stories of children being killed by the Cuban government. This is misinformation on a grand scale—an extension of the ongoing cultural war that is waged against Cubans.

‘Nuance’ on the Left is Useless.

Recent events have seen a wave of ‘balanced’ takes from the left in the Global North. These takes acknowledge the ongoing effects of the blockade, but insist that there is meaningful popular discontent at the failures of Cuban socialism. This may appear reasonable, but it misses an important truth: the protests are almost entirely insignificant. Despite the combined effects of the blockade and the pandemic, only a very small number of Cubans have taken to the streets against the government. England, for example, has lately seen far larger protests against lockdowns, mask-wearing, and vaccinations—but no serious person would take these as a representation of the popular will. Many self-professed ‘socialists’ and ‘anti-imperialists’ have, inexplicably, chosen to tackle the Cuban issue with a ‘nuanced’, ‘both sides’ approach. For example, US representative (and a leading political voice of the US left) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez released a statement condemning the ‘anti-democratic actions led by President Díaz-Canel’, and asserted that she ‘stand[s] in solidarity’ with the Cuban protestors.

"Balanced" takes on the left may appear reasonable but miss an important truth: the protests are almost entirely insignificant.

By at once misunderstanding the fundamentals of the Cuban Revolution and accepting the manipulation of small protests to signify meaningful popular discontent, all Ocasio-Cortez’s statement achieves is to give extra weight to the regime-change narratives of US military intervention. She and other leading figures who pay lip-service to anti-imperialism should take this opportunity to unequivocally condemn the US blockade; to acknowledge the hardships facing the Cuban people as a result of US policy, and underline the fact that the ultimate goal of all this is regime change.

These sorts of ‘nuanced’ takes constitute a claim to neutrality in a situation where one cannot be neutral. One either supports increased US aggression, or supports the people of Cuba’s demands to cease an illegal economic war. One cannot claim to oppose the blockade whilst accepting the latest narrative of its cultural arm. One cannot claim to stand in solidarity with the Cuban people whilst accepting the stories told by the US to justify its ongoing harm of Cubans.

An interesting litmus test for the left has been to look at who has taken the opportunity to offer unconditional support to Cubans in their continued anti-imperialist struggle, and who has insisted that the situation requires ‘nuance’ and that the illegal US blockade is just one of ‘two sides’ to this issue, the other being an ‘authoritarian’ government. The ‘two sides’ camp are, perhaps, cowards—but they have got one thing right. This is absolutely a question of two sides: it’s just that we have to pick one.

Either the side of the oppressor or the oppressed. Either the side of an imperialist power that has desired Cuban annexation for over a century, or a small island that simply seeks sovereignty.

Either a nation that sends bombs, or one that sends doctors.

A crucial point that has been absent from most analysis concerns the nature of Cuba’s revolutionary struggle. Revolutions are an imperfect process of constant debate, of successes and failures, of mass consultation, and of the truthful acknowledgement of all of these things. People in Cuba have a right to be frustrated at the shrinking of their economy and their precarious situation; it is unsurprising that a small number of people have taken to the streets because of this. But the expression of frustration is not the same thing as a protest against ‘authoritarianism’ (whatever that means—it would valuable to consider what is involved ideologically in the construction of ‘authoritarianism’ by media, thinktanks, and political parties, and its application to Cuba). Meagre protests do not constitute a popular desire for military intervention by a hostile superpower; to elide the two is oafish and dangerous.

The double standards applied to Cuba are pervasive even in those who claim to oppose imperialism. There exist on the island—as in every country on earth—inequalities, contradictions, and pockets of dissent; but we should at the very least place these contradictions in the context of a small country attempting to build socialism in a perpetual climate of aggression and isolation. That people like Owen Jones, who claimed several years ago—in an interview with Alistair Campbell, of all people—that Cuba is a ‘dictatorship’, cannot simply oppose the US blockade is demonstrative of the lack of genuine anti-imperialism amongst leading left figures in the imperial core. Indeed, the spectacle of Jones regurgitating US propagandist lines on Cuba perhaps also indicates the limits of leading leftists who view anti-imperialist movements simply through the prism of Western liberal democracy.

The choice between an imperialist country with a distinct lack of democracy, a vast history of state violence, racial discrimination, and staggering political dissent, and a Caribbean island attempting to construct a socialist society, and which, despite many contradictions, has committed to help oppressed peoples all over the world, should not be a difficult one. The ‘balanced’, ‘nuanced’ opinions emanating from a disappointingly large number of people on the left, as well as from self-described socialist politicians, do absolutely nothing to help the Cuban people or to oppose imperialism.

Furthermore, as Lamrani correctly highlights, “the diplomatic rhetoric used to justify US hostility towards Cuba” has changed numerous times, from Cuba’s nationalisation of US businesses to their close relationship to the Soviet Union; from the role Cuba played in ending South African apartheid to this century’s new attack lines based on the island’s supposed human rights abuses.14 Ironically, perhaps the one place on the island where human rights abuses can unequivocally be said to occur is in Guantanamo Bay, the US detention camp locatedp on occupied Cuban territory.

All that these ‘nuanced’ analyses achieve is to legitimise the latest ostensibe reason for US aggression towards Cuba. Our nuanced socialists, with their moralistic absolutes about authoritarianism, might be well-advised to consider why it is that their criticisms line up so neatly with the latest imperialist justifications; to examine the beam in their own countries’ eyes before handwringing about the mote in Cuba’s. The main enemy is, after all, at home.


The timing of the UN vote is not the only coincidental development of recent weeks. Deposed Bolivian President Evo Morales—somebody abundantly aware of the nature of US-led regime change—asserted that the real ‘sin’ committed by the Cuban state was to create a vaccine with 92% efficacy, which, he said, ‘affected capitalist interests’. Cuba can only operate under the conditions in which it exists—the Cuban people make history but not in conditions of their own choosing. End the blockade, and then let us see what Cubans can achieve. Their accomplishments have been utterly staggering; imagine what they could do without the world’s most powerful country strangling them!

The protests of 11th of July do not amount to an organic movement. This was not a people rising up against their government. What happened in Cuba was something so sparse—something to which equivalents pass almost daily, without comment, in other countries—that the scale of the reporting on it is baffling. A few scattered, meagre protests, in coordination with fake online accounts and Miami-based counter-revolutionaries, occurred in a country facing shortages due to a cruel blockade. These have since been manipulated and magnified out of all proportion, and now even people ostensibly on the left are all but ignoring huge pro-government counter protests (not to mention six decades of revolutionary struggle, and a new popular socialist constitution ratified barely two years ago 15), instead taking a small number of protestors to be expressive of the popular will of a nation of over 11 million people.

What should be newsworthy is the enormous march in Havana of revolutionary Cubans, unrelenting in both their support for the Revolution and opposition to foreign intervention. The Cuban people are facing hardships because of an intentional economic blockade, and the best—indeed, the only—way to support the Cuban people is to call for an end to that blockade.

The new Cuban constitution was determined through mass grassroots debates across of the island and beyond, with every Cuban (including those living abroad) free to comment, suggest changes, and shape the document. The goal of “progressing to a communist society”, omitted in the first draft, was reinstated through popular demand. Elsewhere, the constitution reaffirmed Cuba’s national commitment never to return to capitalism, that system of “exploitation of man by man”. As well as being written through public consultation, the constitution was then offered up for democratic approval. 87% of voters voted to accept it, with a turnout of 84%—a feat unimaginable to Western liberal ‘democracies’.16 Despite what recent news reporting may suggest, socialist commitment—through contradictions, economic hostility, failures, struggles—remains as resolute as ever in Cuba.

Despite what recent news reporting may suggest, socialist commitment - through contradictions, economic hostility, failures, struggles - remains as resolute as ever in Cuba.

Whether it be a fake account in Spain, or a prominent, worldwide news outlet, recent events in have made it clear that the cultural war against Cuba continues. The global proliferation of solidarity—from Bolivia to New York, from Ireland to Washington DC—has, unsurprisingly, been ignored.

These latest opportunistic attacks, combining fabricated stories, appropriated images, and the manipulation of a challenging internal situation, smack of desperation. It is perhaps coincidental that the UN vote against the blockade occurred so recently, but what it made clear was that, as much as the US attempts to weaken and isolate the Cuban people, it is in fact the US, in the eyes of the entire world, who are isolated in their vindictive war against the people of Cuba.

  1. See also the BBC and CNN

  2. See also ‘What’s Actually Going On in Cuba’ by Helen Yaffe, who attended the demonstration and reported as many as 200,000 Cubans were present. 

  3. See: Salim Lamrani. 2013. The Economic War against Cuba. New York: Monthly Review Press, p.73. 

  4. It is generally accepted amongst scholars of Cuba that 1994 (at the peak of the ‘Special Period’) constituted the only large scale anti-government protests on the island since the revolution. As Antoni Kapcia explains, even these protests were quelled not by police force but by Fidel Castro’s ‘charismatic authority’, (See: Kapcia, Cuba in Revolution: A History Since the Fifties, p.168.) There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that the protests of 11th July 2021 are in any way comparable; furthermore, one large-scale anti-government protest of significance in over 60 years is unthinkable in the police state that is the US, or indeed any country in the Americas. 

  5. “The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of December 9, 1948, states in Article II that “in the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts, committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group as such.” Points that follow allude to “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group” and “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part’, quoted in Lamrani, The Economic War against Cuba, p.72. 

  6. Lamrani, The Economic War against Cuba, p.74. 

  7. Kapcia, Cuba in Revolution, p.14. 

  8. Claudia Lightfoot. 2002. Havana: A Cultural and Literary Companion. Oxford: Signal Books, p.40. 

  9. Dudley Seers. [1964] 1975. Cuba: The Economic and Social Revolution. Westport: Greenwood Press, p.97. 

  10. Helen Yaffe. 2009. Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution. London: Palgrave, p.7. 

  11. Yaffe, The Economics of Revolution, p.7. 

  12. Yaffe, The Economics of Revolution, p.4. 

  13. The photo, which accompanied this story, appears to have been deleted from Amnesty’s site and social media. A screenshot of the image is available here

  14. Lamrani, The Economic War against Cuba, p.75 

  15. Helen Yaffe. 2020. We are Cuba!: How a Revolutionary People Have Survived in a Post-Soviet World. New Haven: Yale University Press, p.253. 

  16. Yaffe, We are Cuba!, p. 251. 


Aidan Ratchford (@AMRatchford)

Aidan Ratchford is in the second year of his PhD in Economic and Social History at the University of Glasgow. His research interests include imperialism and underdevelopment in Cuba, and the political theory of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.