Cuba saw its largest protests in decades over the weekend. Thousands of people demonstrated in major cities on Sunday, with signs saying “freedom” and “enough.” Police clashed with protesters and made scores of arrests.
The protests, among the most significant displays of dissent since the Cuban revolution of 1959, were an unusual public rebuke of the Communist Party that has ruled the second-most populated country in the Caribbean, after neighboring Haiti, for more than six decades.
The demonstration broke out as the government faces mounting, interlinked problems, including demand for coronavirus vaccine doses, a severely weakened economy and regular power outages.
Q: Why is Cuba’s economy struggling?
A: One key part of the problem is Cuba’s struggling economy. The government admitted last year that the country’s gross domestic product had shrunk by 11% over 2020, with Economy Minister Alejandro Gil admitting it may take years for the country to fully recover from the sharp plunge.
The pandemic is an overarching reason for the downturn. Restrictions on travel have set tourist arrivals on a precipitous decline, down 94% in the first months of 2021.
Other factors include increased U.S. sanctions on Cuba that were implemented under the Trump administration, as well as the economic collapse of Venezuela – the oil-rich Latin American ally that has served as a financial patron to Havana.
The impact has been severe, with the country struggling with a lack of hard currency and mired again in debt with foreign creditors. With the country importing roughly 70% of its food supply, there have been steep rises in costs for consumers and reports of long lines for food as well as rationing.
With a decline in subsidized fuel from Venezuela, Cubans have also had to endure increasingly regular blackouts this summer, with some rural areas going hours without power over recent weeks.
Q: How has the coronavirus hit Cuba?
A: At first, Cuba appeared relatively well-prepared for the virus.
With the aid of border closures, Cuba largely avoided the large-scale waves of covid-19 cases seen in many countries last year. Instead, the government sent many of its highly-trained medical workers to other countries to help them with their own outbreaks.
Spurning imported doses, Havana began rolling out domestically developed vaccines for the virus in May – before they had been fully tested to international standards – with the hope of achieving a geopolitical PR coup if the vaccines were as effective (and cheap) as they aimed to be.
But since early this year, Cuba has recorded a steadily increasing number of daily cases. It is one of the top hot spots for new cases in the world, with 6,923 new cases reported on Sunday amid a population of 11.3 million.
The country reported just 12,225 cases in all of 2020. So far, 1,537 people are reported to have died of covid-19.
Despite high hopes for domestically produced vaccines, the country has only fully vaccinated 15% of its population, according to international trackers. With its economic problems, Cuba will face difficulties in securing more doses of foreign-produced vaccines, and the government has focused on domestic efforts.
On social media, activists and supporters have used the hashtag #SOSCuba to call for the international community to do more to help the country.
Q: Has Cuba seen protests like this before?
A: Cuba has been an authoritarian, one-party state for 62 years. Though public outpourings of dissent are rare, and the revolutionary government still enjoys support, protests have occurred in the past.
On Aug. 5, 1994, large protests in Havana became known as the Maleconazo uprising. Predicated by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic crisis known as the “special period” in Cuba, the demonstrations saw thousands of Cubans flee the country on rafts and small ships. Around 35,000 eventually made it to the United States.
Then-leader Fidel Castro, considered the father of the Cuban revolution, eventually supported the uprising, considering those who left counterrevolutionaries.
The current protests in Cuba appear to be bigger than the Maleconazo uprising and certainly more widespread. They appear to have started in San Antonio de los Baños, a town of roughly 50,000 people, 20 miles southwest of Havana, before spreading. Activist groups have reported protests across the nation.
Social media appears to have played a significant role, with protests streamed on Facebook Live.
At Sunday’s protests, a chant of “Patria y Vida” – Homeland and Life – was frequently heard. A reference to the communist slogan “Homeland or Death,” it is also the name of a song by a group of Cuban rappers and musicians that became an anthem for government criticism when it was released in February.
Musicians, as well as writers and artists, have become a key voice against the government on social media, with a Havana-based group known as the San Isidro Movement the most prominent.
Q: What does this mean for Cuban leaders?
A: The Cuban government has tried to rally support amid the protests, calling on its backers to take to the streets for their own counter-protests, leading to concerns about the possibility of clashes. Julie Chung, acting assistant secretary for the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, tweeted that the United States was concerned about “calls to combat” in Cuba.
Relations between the United States and Cuba had improved under the Obama administration, when the U.S. president and his Cuban peers sought to end the lingering post-Cold War stand off and normalize relations. Obama eased the ban on travel to Cuba and in 2016 became the first U.S. president to visit Cuba since 1928.
But the Obama administration could not lift some parts of the restrictions on Cuba, such as a long-running trade embargo, without approval from Congress. After President Donald Trump took office in 2017, he reinstated many of the restrictions, including Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. So far, the Biden administration has shown little rush to again reverse policy.
With the recent announcement that Raúl Castro, the 90-year-old younger brother of the late Fidel, was officially retiring from a top Communist Party post, the core of Cuba’s old Revolutionary Guard is now gone.
Miguel Díaz-Canel, a handpicked successor to the Castros at the comparatively sprightly age of 61, has gradually taken the reins of the country, overseeing some limited reforms like lifting restrictions on social media and installing 3G mobile networks in late 2018.