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Patria y Vida...y Business. Why Biden's policy change is new wind for change in Cuba

A Cuban barber shaves a customer at his privately owned shop in Havana.
Desmond Boylan
BRUSHING OFF BIG BROTHER A Cuban barber shaves a customer at his privately owned shop in Havana.

COMMENTARY Re-engaging Cuba doesn't "knock the wind" out of last summer's Patria y Vida movement. If anything, it stands to pump more oxygen its way.

Of all the knocks on President Biden’s decision this week to re-loosen some of his predecessor’s re-restrictions on U.S. engagement with Cuba, this line from Wednesday’s MiamiHeraldeditorial put a new wrinkle on my old forehead:

“It knocked the wind out of the Patria y Vida movement.”

As a reader who greatly respects the Miami Herald editorial page, I respectfully but strongly disagree.

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The Patria y Vida movement erupted last July 11: the loud and unprecedented island-wide demonstrations against Cuba’s iron-fisted and ham-handed communist regime. It was fueled in part by the Latin Grammy-winning protest anthem “Patria y Vida,” or “Homeland and Life,” a passionate poke at the Cuban Revolution’s morbid motto, “Homeland or Death.”

It was an electrifying cry of long-boiling Cuban rage. But it was the Cuban regime, not the Biden Administration, that knocked the wind out of it — arresting more than a thousand protesters, convicting them of “treason” in kangaroo trials and handing them, even teenagers, monstrously long sentences.

In the aftermath, sadly, Cuba looks no closer to democratic regime change than it did on July 10 — no matter how many Miami voices insist, as they’ve done for 63 Groundhog Day years now, that the regime’s gonna fall any second if we just stick to the isolation plan.

READ MORE: Yes, cruise lines screwed up in Cuba. But engagement built up Cubans' sense of control.

So at this point I’d argue that, if anything, Biden’s Cuba policy changes stand to blow fresh wind into the Cuban opposition’s sails. That’s because, in a country as suffocatingly controlled as Cuba is, we’re reminded that the best long-term tool the dissident movement had before and has now is more economic than political. It’s about making money more than melodies. It resides in the island’s private businesses more than it marches through its potholed streets.

And that’s where the Biden plan, like the Obama plan before it, looks most focused: reviving cuentapropista or private entrepreneur energy, which has already forged a sizable Cuban cohort that's experiencing independence from the communist state. That wasn’t possible a decade ago — but it was made possible because, while the regime won’t concede political liberties, it’s had no choice but to indulge Cubans’ economic freelancing in order to prevent national starvation.

Biden is re-opening Cuban entrepreneurs' access to capital that makes them less reliant on their Big Brother state — and that can erode Big Brother's grip on them as regime hardliners die away.

In foreign policy that’s called an underbelly to exploit. But former President Trump’s retighten-the-Cuba-screws strategy was instead a domestic policy show. He slashed U.S. money and travel to the island to make Cuban-American voters think the Cuban military, which runs much of Cuba’s economy, would be bled dry and surrender to exile leaders by Election Day 2020.

Cuentapropistas don’t vote in Miami-Dade County, so they were actually the ones bruised by Trump’s Cuban door-slamming.


Biden is simply re-opening their access to U.S. remittance cash, to dollar-toting U.S. travelers who patronize cuentapropista restaurants, B&Bs and shops — and now to the direct U.S. investment in the Cuban private sector his administration greenlighted last week. It's capital that makes them less reliant on their Big Brother state. That shift in turn can gnaw away at Hermano Grande’s grip on them — especially as the regime’s octogenarian hardliners die away.

NO TENEMOS MIEDO Cubans march through Havana on Sunday protesting their communist regime in nationwide demonstrations of unprecedented size and anger.
Eliana Aponte
Cubans march through Havana on July 11 protesting their communist regime in nationwide demonstrations of unprecedented size and anger.

Yes, I understand Hermano Grande will inevitably siphon some of that money through cuentapropista taxes and remittance fees. But that's a trade-off we can deal with if we're talking about a strategy that actually has a chance of empowering ordinary Cubans — instead of an isolation illusion that’s made them wait and chafe in the Caribbean sun for six decades and counting.

In fact, as the Miami Herald editorial was going to press this week, an op-edin the independent digital Cuban daily 14ymedio — penned by a former Cuban political prisoner — was going online to argue that Cuba “needs another revolution, one that gives its entrepreneurs big wings.”

It was one more indication that Cubans consider their smart entrepreneurial ferocity to be as subversive a force as their emotional Patria y Vida anger — that each provides wind for the other.

Which is why it’s an encouraging coincidence that in the same week Biden’s giving Cuban business owners new oxygen, Cuban singer and “Patria y Vida” co-composer Yotuel has saidanother major protest song will be released, on Friday.

A big part of me hopes its Spanish title is something like “Ejecer el Negocio” – Takin’ Care of Business.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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