This week, Jarrett Stepman, a contributor to The Daily Signal will break down why Cubans have had enough, why protestors are waving American flags, and what Americans can learn from these protests.
Michelle Cordero: From The Heritage Foundation, I'm Michelle Cordero and this is Heritage Explains.
Cordero: Massive protests erupted in Cuba last weekend, thousands took to the streets. Cuba has had protests before, but this time it's different.
Clip: The stunning news. You thought it would have happened maybe 40 years ago, maybe 50, but it's happening now and there's unrest in the streets of Cuba. And it came out because, okay, we know the Coronavirus is an issue. We know that economically it put the whole world on its back, but people of Cuba want their freedom and they finally feel bold enough to protest in the streets in front of this brutal regime.
Cordero: The reports claim that more than 100 people have been arrested or are missing, and at least one person has died, but it's actually hard to really know what's going on just 90 miles from our shore when Cuban authorities have blocked most social media sites to stop the flow of information. Today on Heritage Explains, Jarrett Stepman a contributor to The Daily Signal will break down why Cubans have had enough, why protesters are waving American flags and what Americans can learn from these protests. Our conversation after this short break.
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Cordero: Hey Jarrett, thanks so much for joining us today.
Jarrett Stepman: Thank you so much for having me.
Cordero: Okay. In our introduction, we just heard a little bit about what's going on in Cuba. Can you tell us why Cubans are protesting right now?
Yeah, absolutely. Cubans are protesting right now because of over a half century of misrule and tyranny. That's the bottom line with what we're seeing in the last few days. It's not just a crisis of what's happened over the last year, a lot of the economic and medical crisis that the country has been hit by, but a longstanding failure of a regime to meet the basic needs of its people and to stomp on, essentially, any dissent from what that regime has represented since that time. I think it's an incredible outpouring of genuine feelings for liberty and feelings that people have hit the end of the rope, they've hit the end of the line because of all the depredations that they've suffered under the rule of the Castro's for again, since 1959.
Cordero: Yeah. Americans have been hearing about this for a long time. Have there been protests like this in the past?
Stepman: There've been protests within Cuba in the past, but I think the scale that we're seeing this time, I think the word unprecedented really does fit the situation. This were spontaneous protests that broke out across the country. Of course the government immediately went into shut down the internet to try to shut them down, to stamp them out. I would say it's an incredible act of bravery on the part of those who are out in the streets who have gone out because this is a regime that has shown no reluctance to use violence to stomp on anybody who protests and has any narrative that goes against the regime. The Cuban government has been known not only to suppress descent in their own country, but have exported paramilitaries and essentially what they call revolutionaries to other socialist leaning countries to stomp out all descent. It's an incredible act of bravery, I think a spontaneous one and a very genuine one from the people of Cuba.
Cordero: So the government and the media has been quick to say that this protest has been Coronavirus related. What's going on with their Coronavirus treatment.
Stepman: It's really interesting that the Cuban healthcare system, of course the much vaunted human healthcare system that the socialist medicine that they have there is entirely breaking down. And it's not just because of this crisis. I think one thing that's quite interesting is that not only are they unable to provide vaccines for their people, but they're unable to provide other very basic healthcare needs for the people of Cuba. They are currently exporting doctors around the globe, not because their system is so great but because they're trying to make money for the regime that is deeply buried in debt while their own people can't get even basic treatment. They currently have a scabies outbreak that's very bad, very easily treatable but because their healthcare system is frankly so broken they can't give their people these basic treatments. It's not COVID that is breaking things down, it is a dysfunctional rotten system that is unable to handle even the crisis that we've had over the year with COVID has simply brought these things to the surface, these things that have been going on for a very long time within the country.
Cordero: And it's not just medicine and treatment that's scarce, but shopping is difficult in Cuba too. We know that. Can you try and explain to our listeners a little bit what that's like?
Stepman: Yeah. Shopping in Cuba is not like in the United States. You basically are limited to what the government allows and puts into stores. You have a limited, essentially, ration system there. Oftentimes when you go into a store they're missing very basic items. I think it's funny, Americans thought that we had this incredible toilet paper shortage in the early days of the COVID pandemic, mostly through panic buying. These shortages are very common in Cuba, not just during COVID. They had a panic in 2014 where they couldn't get toilet paper there, one in 2009. Basic food items and basic supplies simply disappear off the shelves and don't come back sometimes even for years. And of course, look, many Americans have seen pictures of the Cuban automobiles that look like they're something from the 1950s, these are people that deal with a significant amount of poverty and deprivation that most Americans, frankly, just can't understand.
Cordero: Yeah. In an op-ed that you link to in your op-ed, it was interesting, a woman talked about how they go shopping and they don't go and look for what they need they simply take what's there. And that could be random house cleaning items or a can of tuna fish. They just grab what's there.
Stepman: They really do. Again, it's such a different thing for how Americans, when we go to stores, it does remind me of the final days of the Soviet Union. When there would be guests from the Soviet Union come to the United States would marvel at our grocery stores for just regular people, for just the average person had access to better things and a higher variety of things than even the elite in those societies. And it shows the differences between those systems, something, I think again, many Americans take for granted. These are things that we just expect in the United States and I think we should expect in a place like Cuba, these are rare things that don't exist and haven't existed for generations of people.
Cordero: Yeah. It makes me think right now I'm thinking about the cheese aisle in Trader Joe's, which is just a spectacle. Okay. Some of the Cubans are waving American flags, correct, why is that?
Stepman: I think it's an incredible thing, especially we talk about American politics in the last year, the idea that the American flag is somehow maybe becoming a symbol of oppression, it's a triggering thing for many on the left. But how the American flag really is I think a universal symbol of liberty for people across the globe. We saw this when the Hong Kong protests broke out against the Chinese regime, very brave people waving the American flag. They knew what the flag stood for, it stood for hope, it stood for liberty, a better future. These things that I think at one time, Americans, I think almost universally understood. I think there are people around the globe, many of whom have never tasted the liberty that Americans have, the blessings, the prosperity that we have under the constitution, they have that hope for themselves.
Stepman: They believe in that in the way that many Americans don't. And I think it's an interesting thing, especially at how it's positioned against totalitarian and authoritarian governments. And that is what America stands for, we are a stumbling block and a rebuke to tyrants around the globe. America still ultimately stands for those things. And I think it's very heartening that the people in Cuba, who've really seen tyranny firsthand, a real genuine tyranny and totalitarian government have a better understanding of that because they've seen what it's like to be on the other side of that, to be under something that, again, most Americans, certainly those who were born here have never experienced, have never witnessed or suffered in their own lives.
Cordero: Yeah. You wrote something in your most recent op-ed that I want to highlight because I think it's so important. You wrote, "The American media and most elite institutions obsess over celebrity athletes protests of the national Anthem. They promote our country's racial awakening and reckoning with our past. And the mobs literally tear down our history if governments don't do it for them. America and the west's imperfections are used to sully, diminish and obscure our triumphs. However, for the people suffering under truly repressive regimes, the American flag is the universal symbol of freedom." Wow.
Stepman: It's just simply the case. I think it's unfortunate that again, many, especially younger Americans don't understand this. They see the flaws that certainly exist in our country and still exist, not just in our past, but in America of today to see the whole system being wrong or broken or incompatible with genuine liberty. And that's just not the case at all.
Stepman: I think Americans now, especially today see our imperfections and they think that makes us exceptionally bad. These are things that simply make us an exceptional way that all people are flawed. But the things that really stand out about America are ones that, especially those who live under the greatest deprivation and the greatest tyranny understand full well. They see that and I think what America stands for, I think it's still embraced by the majority of Americans, but I think it's interesting to see people around the globe reject this idea that we should be ashamed of the American flag and ashamed of the things that it stands for. It stands for very many good things. Things that I think would make the world a better place, not just on our shores, but for people across the globe.
Cordero: Okay. So let's talk about some of those examples of people on the left who have been ashamed or who embraced the Cuban dictatorship. Can we talk a little bit about how Bernie Sanders has embraced Cuba?
Stepman: It really is quite incredible. This is a guy, Senator Sanders, who actively promoted the Cuban regime, especially in the 1980s has become a little more sheepish lately, but still maintains that the Castro's did some good things for the country. They like to tout the literacy program, the vaunted literacy program that existed. I think it's very interesting given that Cuba had very high levels of literacy before the Castro's took over, before communism took over the country. And again, what does literacy really count for when the government restricts the things that you can read, the things that you can think about, the things that you can even discuss? Literacy is simply a way for you to spout communist slogans and embrace the party line. That's not a beneficial system, one of prosperity.
Stepman: And I do think it's very interesting as we see these protests erupt, people like Senator Sanders saying very little about what's going on. They're saying very little about this outpouring of this desire of freedom for those people. I think it's very telling for their worldview and the incredible blind spot they have to actual totalitarian dictatorship. Again, with all the criticisms that we hear of the United States this is something that's happening today, it's happening in 2021, it's something that these people suffer through right now. I think it's sad that we don't hear more criticism of what is effectively an evil regime that stands just really just off of the shores of the United States, the Land of Freedom.
Cordero: Yeah. It's unlikely that we'll see Colin Kaepernick come out and say anything about this. You write that for many on the left, it's simply a lack of education about the cruelties of the totalitarianism and communism. What can we do about that?
Stepman: I think education is incredibly important. I think one thing that heartened me recently was Governor Ron DeSantos of Florida, they recently passed a piece of legislation there that would teach K-12 students, elementary school students and high school students about totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, including communist ones. They're creating a repository of information and personal stories from those who have suffered under these regimes to teach younger people about the differences between their country and others. There are many Cuban Americans who live in Florida who have memory of escaping what the Castro's brought to their once home country. I think these stories of their suffering is incredibly important, it allows people to have some comparison. When you hear about things about the United States and our history, oftentimes people have absolutely nothing to compare it to whatsoever, they're left with this historical blind spot.
Stepman: But in the broader context of what happens around the world, I think the real benefits of the American system stand out. And so I think education and bringing that to younger people who, look, oftentimes don't even know who the Castro's are. They have no understanding of what communism or socialism is. They've heard some stories about how socialism is like Sweden or something. And I think that's a really terrible misinformation, I think it's intentional in some quarters. But I think that information needs to be out there for younger people who, many of whom don't remember the Cold War, they don't remember what the real difference is between a communist and a free system like ours is. That information really is key and those personal stories from people who actually have experiences with it are also highly invaluable to our present and our future.
Cordero: Jarrett, in conclusion, do you think Cuba can change?
Stepman: I very much think Cuba can change. I wouldn't hazard to guess of whether or not these protests will lead to the fall of communism there, but I do believe a system that is based on, I'll be very honest frankly, evil, as the communist one is there in Cuba will eventually fall. It will eventually fade and crumble and I think there are people there in Cuba who have seen enough of this tyranny and who wish for something different. And I absolutely believe, look at how successful many Cuban-Americans are here in the United States, there's no reason they can't replicate many of those things in their own home country. I think there's a reason to hope for Cuba's future, whether it happens today, tomorrow, or it happens 50 years from now, hopefully freedom will come sooner rather than later. But I am very hopeful for their future success.
Cordero: Thank you so much for taking the time today to talk with us about this unprecedented protest.
Stepman: Oh, you're quite welcome. Thank you.
Cordero: And that's it for this week's episode. I'd love to hear what you think about Heritage Explains. What are we doing right, what do you want to hear more of, what do you want to hear less about? Shoot me an email at email@example.com and let us know what you're thinking. Tim is up next week. We'll see you then.