For the first time in over 60 years, thousands of Cubans, in more than 20 towns and cities across the island, took to the streets to shout “freedom” and “down with the dictatorship”.
President Miguel Díaz-Canel went on live national television to call for his followers to take to the streets to “confront” the demonstrators, who he labeled ‘mercenaries’.
“The order to fight has been given; revolutionaries to the streets!” he said. Diaz-Canel has blamed Cuba’s current crisis on the usual enemy: the US. The decades-old US trade embargo on Cuba was tightened by the Trump administration, leading to acute shortages of food and medicine. The Biden administration has yet to revise US policy on Havana.
The government has responded harshly to the protests, with hundreds arrested and multiple videos posted on social media showing severe beatings by security forces.
The protests are historic, as a one-party system operates on the Caribbean island and opposition to the government, such as large-scale protests, is not allowed.
So, what triggered the unprecedented anti-regime demonstrations? Here is a five-point guide to what’s happening in Cuba.
Far from Havana
The protests began in San Antonio de los Baños in the Artemisa province and Palma de Soriano in the Santiago province. Both are small towns and relatively far from the country’s capital, Havana. They were the first to break the taboo and stage protests that are among the largest since the Cuban revolution of 1959.
There is talk of hunger on an island that has always claimed the revolution would bring bread for all
According to local journalists, who have been posting videos and photos on social networks, hundreds of Cubans took to the streets in both towns on Sunday 11 July, to shout “Freedom, freedom”. News and images of what was happening in San Antonio de los Baños and Palma Soriano quickly reached other parts of the country via social networks.
Perhaps the small size and the relative remoteness of these two towns from Havana, the centre of authoritarian power, was a determining factor for ordinary Cubans, whose weariness has long been evident, but who had yet to take the bold step of confronting the regime.
Coronavirus and its problems
The protests come as Cuba suffers its worst outbreak of the pandemic, with a third wave of infections focused on Havana. On 10 July, the island reported its highest daily COVID-19 infections and deaths: 6,923 infections and 47 deaths.
There have been complaints of under-reporting of the actual number of sick and dead in the wake of a health crisis whose severity the government refuses to acknowledge. The regime has bet heavily on the development of an Indigenous vaccine that would be the pride of Cuban healthcare.
The island kept the pandemic under control for the first few months of 2021 but is now seeing its worst wave since COVID-19 arrived in Latin America and the Caribbean. In the past week, the island has broken its daily records for infections and deaths, causing health services to collapse. There have also been instances of patients dying from COVID-19 or other diseases at home because hospitals are full.
Thousands of protestors have posted photographs of hospitals on social media networks. President Díaz-Canel stressed on 11 July that this was the first time Cuba had experienced a health crisis of this scale. He also emphasised that the country had created its own vaccine, Abdala. It has not been tested by researchers and approved for use outside Cuba.
The island is largely dependent on tourism, which has been hard hit by the pandemic, with profound effects on Cuba’s already weakened economy.
Add to this the growing inflation, the power blackouts, and the shortages of medicines and basic foodstuffs, which are causing people to queue for hours on end. There is talk of hunger on an island that has always claimed the revolution would bring bread, education and health for all.
The international Left refuses to recognise the evidence: Cuba is a dictatorship that has lasted too long
In early 2021, the government proposed a package of economic reforms, which raised wages but also caused prices to skyrocket. The year also began with Cuba formally devaluing its peso for the first time since the revolution that swept the late Fidel Castro to power and allowing the use of US dollars, which had been banned since 2004. The return to dollarisation, plus the lack of foreign currency liquidity, led the government to allow ‘dollar stores’, where basic necessities can be purchased in a currency other than the one in which the majority of the population's wages are paid.
Medicines, other than Cuban-made vaccines, are in short supply, and there are no painkillers available from pharmacies or medical centres. The situation became so serious last month that the government decided to accept dollars in cash. The remittance flow from overseas is a lifeline, the third-most lucrative source of revenue for the government but one that nevertheless puts an end to the idea of supposed socialist equality.
While Fidel Castro was in power, internet access in Cuba was almost totally restricted. It was his brother, Raúl, who paved the way for a gradual opening up by allowing some connectivity on the island.
Ever since, Cubans have used social media to denounce the regime’s missteps and abuses, and have forced the authorities to respond. Today, a large section of the population, especially young Cubans, have access to Twitter and Facebook, which, as protests in Colombia and Chile have shown, can mobilise huge support. The two social networks have become the forums of choice for Cubans who no longer believe the official pronouncements of the Soviet-style Granma newspaper. Until recently, Granma was the only source of information on the island.
In November 2020, another demonstration was organised in Cuba entirely on social networks, after the police stormed the home of young artists. On 11 July, social networks once again triggered national protests after San Antonio and Palma Soriano took the lead.
The current protests would not have been possible without the power of the internet, which the regime hastily shut down in nearly 60% of the island, even if only intermittently. The free flow of information is a threat to a regime that cannot escape its history of authoritarianism.
The vaccine developed in Cuba has not been approved by the World Health Organization and has not been subject to verifiable clinical trials. Even so, the Cuban State Centre for Medicines, Equipment and Medical Devices (Centro Estatal de Medicamentos Equipos y Dispositivos Médicos de Cuba) claims Abdala has 92% efficacy
The problem with the Cuban vaccine is that it has no international verification and that its distribution has been quite limited so far. This means that, after Haiti, the island has one of the lowest numbers of vaccinated people in the Western Hemisphere, with potentially catastrophic implications considering the rise of the delta variant of COVID-19.
Cubans are standing up, for the first time in decades, to demand their rights and the freedoms they have long been denied. Many leaders across the region have joined the European Union in calling on the US to lift the embargo on Cuba and to allow free trade. If internationally approved vaccines for COVID-19 are allowed into Cuba, it could be the first step along the path of a transition to democracy. That would seem to be the only way to deal with the scourge of Cuba’s political system.
Part of the Latin American and European Left refuses to recognise the evidence: Cuba is a dictatorship that has lasted too long. The Díaz-Canel government should now move away from its apparatchik logic, look past the shadow of the Castros, avoid the temptation to harshly put down the protests and give Cubans a second chance to be happy and free.
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