As the streets of Cuba are filled with some of the largest anti-government protests in the country’s history, we’re seeing a predictable, reckless response from US policymakers. That would be the exact same one we see anytime one of the Washington foreign policy Blob’s many official enemies face unrest: calls for the US government to intervene and, hopefully, help topple the government in power.
“The White House must move swiftly,” was the demand from Democratic representative Val Demings, currently trying to poach Marco Rubio’s Senate seat, later insisting that “US policy must support the protesters, their safety, and their right to self-determination.” Right-wing Florida officials like Miami mayor Francis Suarez and Representative Carlos Gimenez called for “the international community, led by the United States, to intervene” and to “LEAD on promoting a free and democratic #Cuba.” Four other Florida mayors wrote to President Joe Biden asking that the US government “intervenes to help the Cuban people break the chains that have kept them in shackles for so many years.”
Most of these calls are, by necessity, vague. After all, whatever legitimate grievances Cubans have with their government would likely be eclipsed by the news of a Washington-led regime change operation coming to their shores. But make no mistake: all of this is the typical wink-and-a-nod vernacular of Washington regime change.
Let’s set aside the fact that, at least for now, all the reporting shows the protests are overwhelmingly motivated by the very issues — food and medicine shortages, high prices, and other economic stresses — that have been exacerbated by the decades-long US blockade against Cuba, and Donald Trump’s added turning of the screws over his term, which Joe Biden has kept in place. In reality, Washington is already intervening and has been for decades. If US officials actually cared about Cuban lives, they could lift the crippling blockade that was explicitly designed to bring about the kind of unrest we’re seeing now.
Let us also note the irony of US officials, particularly on the Right, backing regime change in a country because it’s experiencing mass protests, part of which are driven by unhappiness with its government’s pandemic response. If this was a consistently applied standard, then the EU and Canada should have invaded the United States to remove Trump during last year’s massive George Floyd–inspired protests, which were motivated both by widespread repression of ordinary Americans by police forces and by the presence of a leader widely labeled authoritarian. Meanwhile, it’s precisely the US right that can take the most credit for the world’s worst pandemic death toll, and that is continuing to spread lies about the virus and vaccine.
Unfortunately, even with all this, it’s still easy for well-meaning people to be seduced by humanitarian appeals into supporting the regime change operations plotted in Washington. For those, a simple history lesson is in order.
The operative example, as ever, is Iraq. After promising a swift victory against its dictatorship, a friendly welcome by a grateful populace, and a seamless transition to democracy, the country was instead plunged into a civil war, US soldiers served as targets of attacks for years, and its fragile young democracy was undermined in favor of a budding authoritarian by the very same Joe Biden who’s now exhorting the Cuban people’s “clarion call for freedom.”
Even a more arms-length strategy to topple the Cuban government would likely end in disaster. Just look at Libya, where the Obama administration intervened as part of a NATO force to ostensibly protect Libyan protesters from a bloodbath. The United States got more and more involved, until it eventually helped kill Muammar Gaddafi, producing another civil war, a refugee crisis, the emergence of open-air slave markets in the country, and the mass movement of weapons across North Africa and the Middle East.
As Iraq and Libya should have taught us, toppling a government or an autocrat tends to leave a power vacuum, which a variety of competing interests, groups, and individuals try to fill — and, in the ensuing chaos, their differences aren’t always resolved peacefully. Then you’ve got the fact that, just because Cubans may be unhappy with their government doesn’t mean they want the capitalist feeding frenzy that inevitably follows, let alone to have foreign troops squatting in their country and running their lives. The US blockade doesn’t mean Cubans aren’t aware of what US intervention meant for these other countries — one of the benefits of a nearly 100 percent literacy rate.
It’s also worth remembering that no one here who’s laying the groundwork for US involvement in Cuba actually cares about the people themselves. Exhibit A is the appalling blockade that every one of these figures, including Biden, backs, which was hindering Cuban development for decades long before COVID.
For exhibit B, look back a few years at the US response to another country ruled by an authoritarian government that saw mass protests suddenly erupt: Egypt. When the Arab Spring–inspired protests plunged dictator Hosni Mubarak’s government into crisis in 2011, Biden wasn’t found anywhere near the side of “the people,” instead insisting that Mubarak not step down — even as his police were murdering hundreds of his own people — and absurdly denying that he was a dictator.
Egypt eventually devolved back into a possibly even more brutal dictatorship under Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, not that it mattered much in Washington. For imprisoning, torturing, and disappearing hundreds of pro-democracy protesters, Sisi was rewarded with renewed billions of dollars’ worth of military aid from Barack Obama and Trump, who is now rubbing his hands at the sight of hungry Cubans rioting. As you read this, Biden is trying to send Sisi yet another billion dollars of weapons, despite his ongoing oppression of Egyptians, and despite him already having imprisoned, horrifically tortured, and even killed US citizens. Just recently, Biden’s administration stepped in to get an Egyptian official off the hook for the abuse carried out against yet another US citizen.
As for Cuba, the surest bet for progress will come not through US-led regime change but through the lifting of the US blockade, the normalization of relations, and the end of the sixty-two-year-old war against the country more broadly.
That would mean significant progress for 11 million people in Cuba. But it would be a disaster for the Marco Rubios of the world and their dreams of violent regime change.