Cubans rise in rare and historic wave of protest

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A man is arrested during a demonstration against the government of Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel in Havana on July 11.
Photo: Yamil Lage / AFP via Getty Images

Thousands of people took to the streets of Cuban towns and villages on Sunday in the communist country’s first major protests in decades. Reacting to the worsening economic malaise in Cuba and the sluggishness of the vaccination campaign, protesters also expressed anti-government sentiment rarely heard in a country where the state tightly and aggressively controls the terms of political discourse.

Videos of the protests shared on social media showed protesters chanting “freedom”, “we are not afraid” and “down with communism!” Another frequent slogan was “Patria y Vida” (“homeland and life”) – a variation of the revolutionary slogan “homeland or death” – popularized in a song released in February by the reggaeton group Gente de Zona and other musicians. Cubans. Demonstrations have reportedly taken place in Havana, Santiago and other major cities, as well as many smaller towns.

Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel, who this year succeeded Raúl Castro as first secretary of the Communist Party, has sought to portray the protests as a US-sponsored attempt to destabilize Cuba. Díaz-Canel threatened the protesters with a harsh response and called on Cubans “revolutionaries” to mobilize, counter-protest and perhaps engage in violence. “There are a lot of revolutionaries in this country who are ready to give our lives, we are ready for anything, and we will be in the streets fighting,” he said in a televised address. According to witnesses who spoke to Washington To post, security forces used tear gas and other violent tactics against protesters on Sunday, and an unknown number of people were arrested.

Díaz-Canel, the first non-Castro family member to rule Cuba in six decades, has struggled to maintain public support amid a growing economic crisis. In January, the government devalued the peso as part of a monetary reform program aimed at unifying Cuba’s complicated and long-standing dual currency system. In recent months, devaluation has contributed to the surge in inflation. This, combined with rising food prices in the world market, has left many Cubans struggling to obtain food and basic items.

The pandemic has also taken its toll on the island nation, especially in recent weeks. Protesters on Sunday also demanded that the government speed up the distribution of COVID vaccines, as the country experiences a rapid rise in cases and deaths. Cuba has chosen to make its own vaccines rather than buying them from other countries, and has developed several that the government says have shown great effectiveness in clinical trials. The Cuban state drug regulator on Friday granted emergency approval to the nationally produced Abdala vaccine, which has reportedly shown 92.28% efficacy. However, a syringe shortage has slowed distribution: Cuban vaccines require a three-dose regimen, so more than 30 million syringes are needed to immunize a population of around 11 million.

While food and medicine shortages, daily power cuts and inflation are the immediate causes of Sunday’s historic protests, they also appear to have their roots in a nascent pro-democracy movement that has been building in Cuba since the end. from last year. Last November, a group of artists and activists staged a more modest (but still historically rare) protest against repression and censorship, sparked by the jail of a dissident rapper and the crackdown on free speech . Officials agreed to a dialogue, but then canceled it. Since then, activists have continued to press, within the limits of what Cuba’s repressive state system allows, for more freedoms. However, the government continued to crack down. Human Rights Watch recently accused Cuba of intimidating, prosecuting and imprisoning artists and journalists who criticize the regime.

On Sunday, Cubans march in front of the Capitol in Havana during a demonstration against the government.
Photo: Adalberto Roque / AFP via Getty Images

Like most protest movements over the past decade, Sunday’s protests were facilitated and amplified by social media. Cuba rolled out 3G mobile internet service at the end of 2018, and although the service is too expensive for most Cubans, wider access to social media has allowed them to bring their grievances directly to government officials. Activists used social media to expand their reach across the island and beyond, and videos of Sunday’s protests quickly spread across social media. (The government has also used social media to broadcast videos of counter-protests and create its own narrative.)

The party line in Havana, as usual, is that any malaise or discord is simply the result of American imperialism, while whoever speaks is a counterrevolutionary agent of the evil American Empire. The government has blamed the shortages of food and medical supplies on the US trade embargo, although the embargo exempts the food and Washington frequently allows deliveries of medicine and other humanitarian goods. In May, the Commerce Department granted Global Health Partners a license to send medical supplies to Cuba, and the humanitarian organization hopes to deliver millions of syringes to Cuba this month.

However, the US embargo weakens the Cuban economy and limits its access to foreign currencies, making it more difficult to purchase goods abroad. Díaz-Canel’s attempt to portray the protests as an American plot is part of a well-known blame game, but it is not completely crazy to claim that the United States tried to economically strangle Cuba in order to instigate unrest and undermine the communist regime. After former President Barack Obama restored diplomatic ties with Cuba, allowing an increase in direct travel and trade, the Trump administration rescinded that opening, reimposing restrictions and stacking new sanctions to punish Havana for supporting Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. These sanctions have hit hard and contributed to Cuba’s economic stagnation and decline in recent years.

Although President Biden pledged during the election campaign last year to restore the Obama-era rapprochement with Cuba, he has yet to deliver on that promise. On the last day of his tenure, former President Donald Trump reclassified Cuba as a sponsor of terrorism, a designation Obama lifted. Biden did not change that policy, and in May he renewed a Trump-era decision classifying Cuba as a country that does not cooperate with US counterterrorism efforts. The administration’s engagement with Cuba is currently limited to efforts to promote soft democracy, which can backfire when the Cuban government finds out about these initiatives and uses them to substantiate its accusations that dissidents are American pawns. .

Few other countries have as much impact on American politics as Cuba. With that in mind, the Biden administration does not seem likely to make any major changes to its Cuban policy anytime soon. On the one hand, detente is a failure for some major players in Congress, notably Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and a Cuban-American with many Cuban-American voters. Menendez opposed Obama’s policies and remains opposed to any reopening of relations with the communist regime in Havana. And given how effectively the “socialist Biden” duck worked for Republicans in Florida last year, the president is probably not keen on giving more ammunition to his right-wing critics on this front.

The administration will also need to be cautious in responding to Sunday’s protests, especially if they prove to be long-lasting. Supporting the protesters too strongly could undermine them by reinforcing the regime’s narrative of an imperialist fifth column. Yet failing to support them could create domestic political problems for Biden and threaten his credibility abroad, especially if the Cuban government’s response becomes more violent. Monday morning, the White House issued a statement of Biden in which he supported the protesters and insisted that Americans “stand with the Cuban people and their clear call for freedom and relief from the tragic grip of the pandemic and decades of repression and economic suffering to which they were subjected by the authoritarian regime of Cuba.

One way or another, Cuba is changing, and if these protests are the harbinger of a larger political crisis in the making, the United States will need to be prepared for it.


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