The recent nationwide protests in Cuba are symptomatic of a much deeper underlying condition than decades of scarcity and a systemic lack of civil liberties. The Cuban political system is cracking. The structures upholding its authority have been slowly but steadily weakening for the past three decades, and the people living beneath them have not only taken notice but are reacting in ever more public ways.
As a child growing up in Castro’s long shadow, I saw the scaffolding of the state begin to crumble. I remember being 9 years old in 1992 and seeing empty store shelves where Soviet apples used to be, and the tragic day when my little red fire truck, made in East Germany, broke. It was the last toy I had. The Soviet Union had collapsed, and Cuba, a parasitic economy that had little to offer the global market and was further suffering under the U.S. embargo, lost 85 percent of its trade, triggering a severe humanitarian crisis. Soon we were without electricity. To cope with the intense Caribbean heat, we took our mattresses to the roof. The mosquitoes made sure that sleeping under the tropical stars was not the romantic experience many may imagine.
“The good old times are coming back,” my grandfather said one day in 1994, placing his newspaper on the table. Castro had just allowed Cubans to establish small businesses, reopened tourism to Westerners (the embargo kept Americans away, except for Cuban Americans, who were allowed to visit family), and legalized the domestic use of U.S. dollars. For ordinary Cubans, the liberalization and later subsidies from Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela slightly alleviated the crisis. But for the state, the ideological and political consequences would be devastating.