President Joe Biden announced on Monday that the United States supports the people of Cuba calling for freedom and relief from the COVID-19 pandemic and decades of oppression. As the biggest protests against the Cuban communist government in decades took place this past Sunday, July 11th, statements obtained by CBS news confirm Biden’s declaration that, “The Cuban people are bravely asserting fundamental and universal rights. Those rights, including the right of peaceful protest and the right to freely determine their own future, must be respected.” He added that the “U.S. stands with the Cuban people and their clarion call for freedom and relief from the tragic grip of the pandemic and from decades of repression and economic suffering to which they have been subjected by Cuba’s authoritarian regime.”
Protests across the island erupted Sunday in the outskirts of Havana in the town San Antonio de Los Baños, with thousands of citizens gathering in the streets to resist the worsening economic crisis, electricity outages, and the government’s response to another surge of coronavirus cases. Video footage obtained by Reuters during the protests exhibits one demonstrator stating, “We are here because of the repression against the people. They are starving us to death. Havana is collapsing, we have no house, we have nothing, but they have money to build hotels yet they have us starving,” with another adding, “Homeland and life. Down with the dictatorship. Down with the Castros. Down with the communist dogs.”
The discontent in Cuba had been fueled following the global health crisis spawned from COVID-19 and economic restrictions that have been placed on the country. Despite thousands of protestors calling for his removal, President Miguel Díaz-Canel in his televised speech to the nation blamed the unrest on foreign influence. “We will not allow any counter-revolutionaries influenced by the United States allowing themselves to be carried away by all these strategies of ideological subversion to provoke destabilization in our country. We call upon all the revolutionaries of the country, all the communists, to take to the streets to any of the places where these provocations are going to take place.”
The 1959 uprising, which Díaz-Canel is referring to, is the event that ushered in a communist dictatorship. Protests have rarely taken place on the island since six decades ago because any opposition to the government is usually silenced. However, it is clear that these protests are different. The state of Cuba has been fractured because of the COVID-19 pandemic and its drastic overall economic deterioration. Major industries have been hit and citizens working overseas have had to return home because of lockdowns.
Despite keeping infections under control in the early stages of the pandemic, rates have soared in recent days with reportedly 750 cases last week alone. Opposition groups however claim that the figure is likely way higher than the government’s projected number. Hospitals and health centers plunged to a breaking point as there was not enough room for patients to be taken care of. BBC News spoke to Cuban citizen Lenier Miguel Perez, who told reporters that his pregnant wife had died due to medical negligence and overwhelmed hospitals.
Like many other countries, the Internet has become the main source for influencing social movements in Cuba. The island did not have much connectivity with the Internet before former President Raul Castro, who took transformative steps to change Cubans’ access. Today, most of the population (with a majority in the younger generations) have taken advantage of daily access to the internet to utilize social networking applications that connect them to a variety of sources outside the state-run media. Many of the protests this past weekend were organized and spread because of these social media applications, with journalists and citizens digitally demanding their rights to protest.
However, because of the protests, many areas of the island have since had their Internet taken offline to censor and shut off access to news. Amnesty International has reported that network data from NetBlocks confirm that social media and communications platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook, and Instagram were disrupted in Cuba the day of the demonstration. This is not the first time either, as the state has historically controlled and censored what the citizens can view online, blocking independent media and journalism.
Cuba’s economy is another factor behind the sparking of the protests. The tourism industry, which was the main driver of the island’s economy, has been completely devastated due to the global health crisis. The lack of tourism has left many without jobs to return back to and stopped the flow of foreign currencies. These elements, along with growing hyperinflation, shortages of basic necessities, and blackouts due to the government’s economic reform packages, have hit the most vulnerable populations on the island.
Pavel Vidal, an economist from the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana of Cali in Colombia, told reporters they estimate that prices could rise between 500 and 900 percent in the next few months alone. While the government did open shops where Cubans can buy food and basic necessities in foreign currencies, locals are frustrated that they are still paid in Cuban pesos, the island’s national currency. In June, the government told citizens they would temporarily put a hold on banks accepting cash deposits in dollars, which is the main currency that Cubans receive in remittances from foreign countries. Many economists referred to this move as the most severe restriction imposed on US currency since the government of the late Fidel Castro. Yet the President blamed this decision on US sanctions that restrict its ability to use the currency abroad, with Díaz-Canel telling the country in his TV address on Sunday that, “this was the main problem that threatens the health and development of our people.”
The Cuban government has also used criminal law to silence and punish those who are protesting in the country. Sunday’s protest demonstrates that citizens have reached a breaking point and no longer wish to live in fear of government repression. The protests were generally peaceful until the government ushered in authorities and deployed security forces to detain the protests, calling on the revolutionaries to stop them as well. It is unclear how many have been detained at this point, but CNN reports that over 100 people have been arrested or gone missing since Sunday. Journalists from CNN also witnessed multiple citizens being arrested forcefully and thrown in the back of a van during the protest. It has been confirmed that one person died during the clash with police on Monday, according to Radio Rebelde, a state-run media outlet.
The bottom line is that Cubans are tired of the hardships they have endured since the early 1960s. Only five years ago former President Obama stepped off Air Force One to reopen the US embassy in Havana but failed to lift the sixty-year-old embargo on Cuba. Donald Trump took a rather different policy approach, banning cruise ships, placing Cuba on a list of state sponsors of terrorism, and stamped down on the diaspora’s ability to send money back home. What was once to some extent a thriving place, now sees the majority of its institutions and infrastructure collapsing.
According to the Guardian, Cuba refuses to relinquish control of importing and exporting because they are more worried about the destabilizing effect of US capital. Without tourists, the government is not able to pay bills abroad, so there is a shortage of food entering the island. Despite creating their own vaccines, the virus is raging through the population and devastating parts of the island. No one knows what will come next. What is known is that the Cuban people, both young and old, are risking their lives by protesting against the totalitarian system.
The U.N. High Commission for Human Rights has already urged Cuba to release protesters and journalists that were arrested. In the United States, lawmakers have continued to pressure Biden despite a growing disagreement between parties. In the coming weeks, it is important that policymakers come to a consensus about steps to take to protect the people of Cuba. In any case, Biden must remain committed to supporting democracy and human rights in an area struggling to overcome totalitarian control.
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