The expression “carrot and stick” usually describes a two-prong strategy of rewards and punishments, soft and hard power, to achieve a particular end. In international relations it can combine a promise of economic aid and a threat of military action.
It has also been used by occupation forces to try to reduce the Resistence in the occupied nation. In Nazi-overwhelmed Czechoslovakia, the SS chief and Germanizer-in-chief, Reinhard Heydrich, organized entertaining events and picnic lunches for workers and their families, while ruthlessly suppressing any resistance. Heydrich, however, is known in History only for using the stick, as “The Butcher of Prague”, which costed him his life.
In its War against all the People the Castro regime will also be remembered for the use of the stick, since it only peddles some carrots when a crisis threatens its power. Thus, after pushing the people against the wall in the 90s with blackouts, famine, lack of transportation and epidemics, they only made changes after the protest known as the Maleconazo, on August 5, 1994, left them awestruck.
After hundreds of Habaneros spontaneously joined that demonstration, an exodus of about 35,000 Cubans in all kinds of floating crafts was encouraged along the island’s coastline; remittances from abroad were authorized; free circulation of the US dollar and limited self-employment were allowed, and the country opened its doors to international tourism.
Mind you: this is a Gatopardian use of such incentives: changing just what needs to be changed so that everything remains the same. Thus, as soon as Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez appeared on the horizon as his new goose of the golden eggs, Fidel Castro reversed the changes: the CUC replaced the dollar, and the private sector was reduced by way of harassment and repression.
Fast forward to the third quarter of 2021. On July 11, a Maleconazo-style street protest in San Antonio de los Baños triggered a chain reaction throughout the island thanks to the Internet. This time, tens of thousands of Cubans took to the streets crying “Freedom” in more than 50 locations.
The government that had kept the people in a plight of food and medicine shortages, spiraling inflation, at the mercy of COVID-19 with a collapsed health-care system and no certified vaccines, opted for a big stick, unleashing a brutal repression which resulted in thousands of arrests and more than 500 new political prisoners. Among them, veteran political opponent Félix Navarro, for whom Government prosecutors are requesting 15 years in prison. For his daughter Saylí, a Lady in White, they are recommending 11 years.
On the other hand, trying to alleviate some steam out of the boiler, they decided to spare some carrots. We have seen the headlines on this area of damage control: “Cuba allows the importation of food, medicine and toiletries”; “The government eliminates the capped prices that it imposed with Tarea Ordenamiento”; “Correos de Cuba will allow recharging Freely Convertible Currency debit cards with money orders sent from abroad”; “Cuba approves its first 32 small and medium-sized private companies.”
But don’t be fooled. For instance, the approved small and medium-sized companies, which are supposed to expand the country’s job market, cannot grow beyond certain limits, nor franchise or be associated with capital from Cubans abroad. And the money order measure only seeks from Cubans on the island to milk for the regime more hard currency ─that they are not paid with─ from their relatives abroad.
This campaign to revamp hope also includes visits to poor neighborhoods such as San Isidro, where they opened ─with great fanfare─ a laundromat with a single washing machine. Or selling three additional pounds of rice by the rationing card. Or setting free from internal exile an ousted senior official whom the naive might associate with a chance of economic reform. Or arranging for the visit of a senior Russian leader to evoke the era of the Cuban Soviet protectorate. Or announcing that they have found large deposits of gold. Spent tricks for forgetful dupes.
More recent headlines indicate that, as they set up these booby traps, the mafia military oligarchy that wields real power on the island remains ready to use once again the stick. A constitutional request from the Archipielago civil group to peacefully march for change on November 20 has been declared “illegal”, “counterrevolutionary” and “with destabilizing purposes”. But, above all, they have announced military exercises to be carried out on November 18th, 19th and 20th.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, this power elite continues to bring the sardine closer to their grill. Until a not-so-distant day, if we gauge the pressure inside the Cuban boiler by the July 11 uprising.
Shortly after learning that, amidst the deprivations endured by the people, the Ministry of Tourism’s Transtur company purchased 800 zero-miles, brand-new Korean-made cars to make them “soon available to our car rental customers throughout Cuba,” an outraged Cuban left this comment on Facebook:
“For that, there is always money (…) hospitals are full of filth, and so are the polyclinics; there are no medicines; the sick are dying; roads are in shams, bridges are full of holes, the Cubans’ houses are falling apart, neighborhoods spend weeks without water, there is no food in the stores… but you do ‘put your heart into tourism’ (…) ONE DAY. WHEN THE PEOPLE DECIDE TO BREAK THE CHAINS OF YOUR DICTATORSHIP, YOU ARE GOING TO PAY THE BILL, CANEL!!!!! “