Democracy is meant to be a direct reflection of the will of the people. Though this will is hard to define, “the people” are often able to communicate their will through protest. Protest serves as a tool of dissent; a way for citizens to express their disapproval of policy. But protest is not exclusive to democracies. Protest has been used frequently by citizens in authoritarian regimes, though it is often met with violent and oppressive responses from non-democratic governments. In authoritarian governments, political elites face a balancing act when it comes to suppressing protests. As the cost of suppressing protest and the popular will rises, elites must decide whether to compromise their political power. As a result, a unified public can heavily influence the trajectory of democratic development.
Last July’s protests in Cuba were the largest demonstration of public dissent in the country since the Communist government took power. In response to power outages, shortages, and COVID-19 restrictions, thousands took to the street to voice their dissent. The authoritarian government responded brutally, with violence and suppression of the protestors. Months later, many of these protestors, including minors, are being put through trials with extreme sentences. The outcomes of these trials are unjustifiable by most human rights standards, but they are still conducted with some evidence and through legal channels. The intensity of Cuba’s crackdown against protestors reflects the increasing pressure that the public is putting on the authoritarian state.
What is different about these mass trials in comparison to Cuba’s response to protest in the past? These trials target not only activists, but those with relatively little political engagement outside of the protests. The Cuban government is sending a clear message to its citizens: If you protest, not only will you be met with violence and unlawful jailing, you will be brutally prosecuted. The use of prosecution on top of violent suppression at the time of protest, though not uncommon for Cuba, is particularly concerning in this instance. This use of legal channels for authoritarian measures is a common tactic in “stealth authoritarianism.” While the trials have been far from subtle and have received international and domestic backlash, it is harder to prove that trials are undemocratic than it is to prove that violence against protestors is authoritarian. Legal channels reduce accountability for the authoritarian government and increase the costs of challenging the regime.
At the same time, the Cuban people are raising the costs of authoritarian action for the government. Last July’s protests showed a unified people. Many who had never before been involved in politics came to make their voices heard. But the Cuban government is not backing down. The employment of both overt and subtle authoritarian tactics is highly concerning.
Perhaps, however, this heightened response against civilians is a reflection of fear among the political elite. These unprecedented mass trials are a sign that Cuban political elites feel the need to protect their power. The protests clearly shook their confidence in their own political control. If the public remains unified and able to protest, the Cuban government will face increasingly high costs, both domestically and abroad. The political elites are responding with brutality right now, but will have to re-evaluate their position going forward. Public dissent and protest is a powerful force, and the Cuban government is beginning to feel the heat.