Chants of “Libertad (freedom),” “We want change,” and “Down with the dictatorship” rang as protests rocked the streets of Cuba for the first time in over 60 years. Citizens protested the lack of access to food and water, skyrocketing prices of necessities such as medicine and fuel, and power outages amid rising coronavirus cases.
On July 11th, thousands of Cubans flooded the streets in San Antonio de los Baños to march against the Cuban government and the communist regime. Since then, more than 40 cities and towns have seen a surge of protests, all triggered by the Cuban government’s poor response to the COVID-19 pandemic and a shortage of basic goods and services. The protests represent one of the largest anti-government demonstrations on the island since 1994.
In response to the demonstrations, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canal deployed security forces throughout the country – detaining, beating, and pepper-spraying protestors. He has even encouraged government supporters to go out and confront protestors on national television. Authorities have reportedly detained many journalists and activists, and more than 100 people have been arrested or have gone missing. Footage of protesters being arrested or injured by security has been uploaded onto social media and spread far and wide.
Díaz-Canel’s government has also reportedly disrupted communication by halting internet service run by the state-owned telecommunications company Etecsa. Access to social media and messaging platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, and Telegram has been restricted in an attempt to stifle unrest and media coverage. This reflects the alarming willingness of the Cuban government to suppress citizens’ calls for civil liberties as well as economic and political accountability.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Cuban economy suffered greatly, with the Cuban Minister of Economy, Alejandro Gil, stating the economy shrunk by about 11%. In addition to a significant decline in the tourism industry, many families stopped receiving remittances – which are both major sources of revenue for the country. As a result, many citizens had to wait in long lines for basic necessities like food, medicine, and hygiene products. Additionally, the constant electricity cuts amid the July heat added to the tension.
While the economic crisis created by COVID-19 arguably sparked the protests, the government’s instability is also a result of the economic and political history between Cuba and the U.S. In the late 19th century, when Cuba first became an independent nation, the U.S. implemented neocolonialist policies in many Latin American countries to protect their own economic interests. The Platt Amendment, which defined U.S. and Cuban relations from 1902-1934, stated: “The government of Cuba shall never enter into any treaty or other compact with any foreign power of powers which will impair or tend to impair the independence of Cuba.” Additionally, “The United States may exercise the right to intervene for the preservation of Cuban independence, the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty.”
The Cuban economy became dominated by American economic interests. Natural resources from Cuba were exported to the U.S. for manufacturing purposes, and in turn, Cuba became economically dependent on the U.S. At this time, the Cuban government supported the U.S. in their interference, with little consideration for the Cuban people. The U.S. and the Cuban government benefited greatly while Cuba’s domestic economy became increasingly weak.
In 1959, a revolutionary movement led by Fidel Castro, overthrew the U.S. backed government and allied itself with the country’s communist party making Castro the head of the state. Throughout the following decades, the ineffective communist dictatorship failed the Cuban people, who were unable to protest the wealth and race inequalities along with the lack of economic prospects without risking violent retaliation from the authoritarian government. Quickly, relations between the U.S. and Cuba soured as Castro nationalized American owned property, and refused to cooperate with U.S. economic demands. The U.S. also grew wary of a Soviet-aligned Cuban government not far from its shores in the quickly escalating Cold War. This caused the U.S. to impose a historically long embargo on Cuba, greatly harming the Cuban economy as it banned American businesses from working in Cuba. The tensions of the Cold War also led to violence between the two countries. After the Soviet Union fell in 1991, Cuba continued its communist regime, despite their deteriorating economy after losing Soviet backing.
Even though the regime was largely supported by Cuban citizens due to Castro’s use of anti-U.S. rhetoric and propaganda, over time, Cuba’s instability and use of surveillance and police control to quell citizen protests led to a desire for the end of the authoritarian government in Cuba. When Miguel Díaz-Canel was appointed President of Cuba in 2019, many citizens found themselves lacking loyalty towards him because he was the first leader not from the Castro family.
Although President Miguel Díaz-Canel acknowledged that Cuba needed to liberalize its economy to maintain stability, the gradual changes implemented by the regime were ill-equipped to prepare the country for the disaster that would be the COVID-19 pandemic. The government still heavily controlled much of it’s private sector while the economy was already suffering due to the strict economic and political trade restrictions re-implemented by the Trump administration.
Cuba was ill-equipped to handle a global pandemic. When COVID-19 struck, all tourism (which made up 10% of Cuba's economy) collapsed, and the Cuban economy subsequently contracted. According to the World Food Programme, Cuba also imports about 70-80% of its food, and a drop in global trade and imports to the country created a scarcity of basic resources. This, on top of spreading COVID-19 infections drove people to take to the streets to make themselves heard. While Biden had planned to follow through with his pledge to loosen the U.S.-Cuba trade embargo, he claims that President Miguel Díaz-Canel’s refusal to listen to his people is currently preventing these promises from becoming a reality. But instead of just punishing Cuba’s president, these trade restrictions are hurting the people of Cuba, once again demonstrating the neo-imperialist power dynamic between the two countries. Even though discontent with the state of Cuba’s economy already existed, the effects of COVID-19 have heavily exacerbated the consequences.
The historic protest has accelerated calls for change in Cuba but has also applied pressure to the U.S. to change its stance and treatment of the country. While President Biden has openly stated his support of the protestors, he is yet to enact changes that reverse the harmful policy of his predecessor. One of President Obama’s biggest foreign policy achievements was his ability to establish diplomatic relations with the small island nation again in 2015. However, when Donald Trump became president in 2016, he slowly began reversing many of Obama’s stances on Cuba, re-implementing many sanctions that Obama had eased or lifted, and eventually redesignating Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism.”
The protests are the result of multiple issues that have come to a head in recent years, from decades of suppression from the Cuban government to the tense relations between the U.S. and Cuba steeped in a deep history of U.S. imperialism and neocolonialism. We must continue to push for change from both the U.S. and Cuban government by holding the Biden administration to its promises to ease economic sanctions and provide economic support, while supporting the protestors in their fight for greater personal freedoms and better quality of life. The Cuban government must answer the call from its people, and take accountability for its part in the crisis. We all must continue to uplift Cuban voices and support the community both in Cuba and the U.S. in their fight for change.
Editors: Rachel C., Raniyah B., Amirah A., Nava E., Roshni C., Tee N., Vishal P.