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Cubans Took to the Streets in 1994, Too

The anti-government protests that began in Cuba in early July are the largest seen since the early 1990s, when thousands took to the streets, fed up with an economic crisis and demanding freedom. Circumstances have certainly changed since then. But the 1994 “Maleconazo” protest sheds light on Cubans’ frustrations, then and now, and the roles that public opinion and U.S. policy play in rebellions against the Cuban government.

The 1990s were a time of rapid change in Cuba. Compared with the 1980s, when food stores were stocked and material resources from the Soviet bloc were relatively widely available, the 1990s brought a very different experience. The collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s ally since 1961, and the socialist governments in Eastern Europe deprived Cuba of crucial trade partners. This forced the Cuban government to restructure the economy.

It declared that the country would enter a “Special Period during Peacetime” during which it began a process of reorganizing its social, economic and political systems. It created a Ministry of Tourism (MINTUR), implemented a dual-currency system, opened the market through measures such as allowing self-employment and small businesses (cuentapropismo) and established co-ops — all in hopes of jump-starting the economy.

But during this transition, Cubans struggled with shortages of food, medicine, oil and gas, and other consumer goods, which produced deep social ramifications. Many people looked to leave the island, just as Cubans had in the past.

And then, on Aug. 5, 1994, Cuban police caught rumors of an illegal boat passage out of Havana. They blocked civilians from boarding tugboats by forming a blockade around the walls of the Malecón in the capital. Thousands of Cubans soon stormed the streets in protest.

Protesters voiced demands for freedom and the overthrow of Fidel Castro’s government. Testimonials and video footage show how local police and the Blas Roca Special Brigade beat and apprehended protesters, claiming that their shouting and looting of government-owned businesses constituted “counterrevolutionary” actions that needed to be suppressed.

To provide temporary relief from the crisis, Castro announced that the Guardafronteras, the Cuban coast guard, would once again temporarily allow Cubans to flee like they had during the Mariel boatlift in 1980. Over the next month, more than 30,000 Cuban refugees fled the island on makeshift rafts, tugboats and inner tubes in what became known as the “Balsero crisis.”

The sheer number of Cubans arriving all at once in South Florida forced the Clinton administration to reevaluate its policies toward Cuba. Since the 1960s, Cubans had generally been welcomed as refugees seeking political freedom from a communist government. The Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 allowed any Cuban who arrived on U.S. soil to pursue a pathway to legal residency in the United States.

But U.S. policies of welcoming Cubans had started to shift after the Mariel boatlift in 1980. Rumors that Castro had taken the opportunity to release criminals and “undesirables” stigmatized the marielitos and dampened U.S. enthusiasm for accepting Cuban immigrants.

By the 1990s, the anti-immigration climate in the United States had intensified, particularly after the increased arrival of Haitian refugees by boat in 1991. In this political and social climate, in 1995, the Clinton administration implemented a “wet foot, dry foot” policy for Cuba, whereby the United States would intercept and return Cubans apprehended on boats or ships, while allowing those who arrived on U.S. soil (“dry foot”) a pathway to legalization.

Read entire article at Made By History at the Washington Post