July 12, 2021
Protests against the communist Cuban government began on Sunday in the town of San Antonio de los Baños. The demonstrations, which are the largest anti-government protests the island has seen since the Malecón protests in 1994, have now spread across the country. Over 100 people have been detained, but protesters continue to take to the streets chanting “freedom” and “down with dictatorship!” The demonstrators are protesting food and medicine shortages and demanding an increase in COVID-19 vaccinations. Only 15% of Cuba’s population of 11 million is vaccinated and the country is reporting 7,000 new cases per day, the highest figures the island has seen since the start of the pandemic.
Cuba’s economy has been struggling as a result of the pandemic, United States sanctions and a devastating reduction in sugar yields. Cuba’s economy shrank 11% in the past year and the country is facing its worst economic crisis since the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Travel restrictions imposed during the pandemic have devastated Cuba’s tourism industry, which is responsible for 10% of the country’s GDP. The government has exhausted its foreign currency reserves, leading to a shortage of commodities that normally could be imported. Food lines have increased drastically and hours-long power shortages have become a daily occurrence.
Even purchasing food poses a significant problem for most Cubans: the government-run shops that sell food and other necessities are only accepting foreign currencies, whereas locals are largely paid in Cuban pesos, the national currency. Making matters worse, last month banks were barred by the government from receiving cash deposits in the form of dollars, the main currency through which remittances from abroad are received.
In addition, Cubans are struggling from a lack of doctors and medical supplies. Beds and oxygen tanks, crucial for treating COVID patients, are becoming increasingly scarce as cases continue to rise. Basic medicines are nearly impossible to come by, including those used to treat high blood pressure and scabies. The chronic shortage is driving people to use herbal remedies and purchase medicines on the black market out of desperation.
While the medical and economic crises served as the catalyst for the protests, the movement has evolved into a broader call for freedom and the downfall of dictatorship. This weekend’s protests come at a time when longstanding dissatisfaction with the government has reached a boiling point. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Cuban communist state has used the COVID-19 crisis to further limit civil and political freedoms. The government instigated harsh crackdowns against dissident artists and intellectuals as well as expanding the number of ‘regulados,’ the list of Cuban citizens forbidden from leaving the country due to their dissident activities. Detentions, interrogations and raids against human rights activists and independent journalists have also increased.
While governmental security forces repressed Sunday’s protesters, social media and the ensuing international coverage have served as deterrents to more brutal practices. Demonstrators live-streamed the events that took place on Sunday, making it difficult for the government to deny the widespread dissatisfaction. Social media has also enabled the demonstrators to document abuses committed by security forces, which include the use of tear gas and batons to break up demonstrations. When Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodríguez uploaded a video of pro-government demonstrations, government critics were quick to share footage of their own protests in response.
The scope of the protests has elicited a government response: in a televised emergency nationwide address, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel called for government loyalists to “defend the revolution,” which resulted in an eruption of simultaneous pro-government counter-demonstrations. The president claims that the recent wave of anti-government protests is the result of an attempt by the U.S. to destabilize Cuba and blames the economic crisis on the long-standing American trade embargo.
On Monday, President Biden released a statement of support for the anti-government protestors and appealed to the Cuban government to listen to their demands. However, the Biden administration has yet to respond to President Díaz-Canel’s claims that the U.S. is responsible for Cuba’s struggling economy. As of July 2021, the U.S. government has not reversed the 200+ sanctions placed on Cuba by the previous administration.
The scale of these protests signal that Cubans will not tolerate the dire economic situation, the shortages of basic supplies, and the government’s mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis. One protestor captured the widespread feeling of extreme discontent, telling the BBC, “This is the day. We can’t take it anymore. There is no food, there is no medicine, there is no freedom. They do not let us live. We are already tired.”