- In April, protests began in Colombia over the government’s handling of the economy and COVID-19.
- The government responded by branding protesters terrorists and blaming foreign powers.
- That argument is now being deployed by the authorities in Cuba. But the reaction is different.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
In Cuba, recent weeks have seen thousands of people join the largest protests in decades to voice their displeasure at the government’s handling of the economy and the pandemic.
Months earlier, thousands of people did the same in Colombia.
One is governed by an elected, center-right government that is a staunch ally of the United States; the other is a one-party state subject to an array of sanctions from Washington. While the grievances might be similar, to some it is the relationship with America that makes all the difference.
Take Sen. Marco Rubio. When it comes to Cuba, the Florida Republican has been eager to show that he is the “human rights champion” that USA Today dubbed him in 2017. On Twitter, he has shared video after video of protesters and changed his avatar to a raised fist reminiscent of the one used by Black Lives Matter activists.
“The Cuban regime has already killed protestors,” he wrote. “And they will not hesitate to murder thousands if it means staying in power.”
Rubio has also appeared on Fox News to mischaracterize the Biden administration’s response to the protests in Cuba. “I don’t know why it’s so hard for them to criticize Marxists,” he told Sean Hannity. (Earlier in the day, he had sent a letter thanking President Joe Biden “for recognizing these heroic protests as a ‘clarion call of freedom.'”)
Havana’s response, meanwhile, has been to blame the foreigners for somehow persuading thousands of Cubans to take to the streets, all while reducing the masses of protesters to examples of the most violent among them.
In that, Cuban authorities are no different from their counterparts in Colombia. Or, for that matter, Marco Rubio.
-Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) May 6, 2021
“Behind much of the violence occurring in #Colombia this week is an orchestrated effort to destabilize a democratically elected government by left wing narco guerrilla movements & their international marxist allies,” Rubio tweeted in May. In doing so, he reduced tens of thousands of protesters to pawns of terrorists and foreign provocateurs – for which there is no evidence – all the while sounding no different than any embattled regime apparatchik.
Rubio followed up by introducing a Senate resolution to express “solidarity,” not with protesters being attacked by security forces and pro-government vigilantes but with their government, which he said “must use all tools available” to “restore stability.” That which he omitted sent as clear a message as what he said.
By that point, at least four dozen people had already been killed by security forces, with hundreds more detained. Dozens have simply gone missing. This, over protests that began over a tax hike, no less, before broadening to express a general dissatisfaction with the political class and its handling of the economy.
-Joshua Collins (@InvisiblesMuros) July 13, 2021
The right is not alone in hypocrisy, to be sure. A contingent on the left has gone beyond condemning the US embargo to expressing solidarity with the government in Havana. After condemning state violence in Colombia, some members of the Democratic Socialists of America, breaking with the democratic socialists who have won elections, amplified regime propaganda that protesters are “traitors.” (Among those detained in Cuba are communists and socialists.)
Adam Isacson, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, told Insider there’s an “obvious double standard” when it comes to how some respond to state violence. In Cuba and Colombia, authorities “have both zoomed in on the tiny minority of ‘vandals’ on the margins” to “justify crackdowns.”
The playbook, whether capitalist or communist, tends to be the same in the face of popular unrest.
“When the Cuban government does that, we should all condemn it,” Isacson said. “But the condemnation comes across as weaker and less credible if the person doing the condemning was echoing the Colombian government’s stigmatizations and justifications just a few weeks ago.”
Rubio, for his part, insists there is no comparing the respective crackdowns, telling Insider it is a “pathetic and ridiculous comparison.”
“The democratically elected leaders of Colombia did not go on national television and encourage violence,” he said, or “call people to violence. They did not order the systematic arrest, torture or murder of protestors, and they did not shut off access to the internet.”
It is of course true that no two countries are exactly alike. But the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which Rubio cited this past week when discussing Cuban human-rights abuses, did find that Colombian security forces engaged in numerous abuses themselves, a report detailing allegations of sexual violence, forced disappearances, and attacks on journalists and medical workers.
“The commission confirmed that, repeatedly and in various regions of the country, the response of the state was characterized by excessive and disproportionate use of force,” IACHR President Antonia Urrejola said. It also criticized Colombian President Iván Duque’s government for criminalizing a form of protest – blocking traffic – that is popular not just in his country, but also in Florida among those who oppose the Cuban regime.
In the face of American hypocrisy, left or right, it is tempting to suggest the embrace of silence instead – for everyone to, please, just shut up. But keeping quiet is just another way of staying complicit. To stand up for justice, it is necessary to insist on it everywhere.