By HANNA BAJWA
Protests in Ottawa against the Cuban government on July 17th, 2021.
The global pandemic has brought both economic and social crises to every corner of the globe, but nowhere more than the Third World where poverty, poor infrastructure, inequality, and lack of accountability are endemic. Protests against scarcity, police brutality, and corruption since the pandemic occurred have rarely merited notice on front page news until they happened in Cuba on July 11th.
What were the Cubans protesting about and why was it so significant? The Cubans were protesting against a government that the United States has officially declared as an enemy, and has been actively trying to overturn for over sixty years. They clamoured for liberty, freedom, and change after 63 years of one-party rule. And now the USA has managed to actively promote anti-government activity in Cuba with weapons, money, and words.
The protests were among the largest since the Cuban revolution of 1959, and appeared to have broader support than the 1994 Maleconazo protest in Havana against Fidel Castro, the father of the Cuban revolution and then-leader.
President Biden had little to say during the protests that occurred in Colombia in April, other than expressing his support for Colombia’s right-wing President, yet gushed repeatedly about his support for the Cuban protests. Additionally, President Biden called on the “Cuban regime to hear their people and serve their needs at this vital moment rather than enriching themselves.” However, the declining economic situation in Cuba has been induced by a number of factors, such as reduced financial support from Venezuela, the United States embargo and sanctions, and the impact of the pandemic on the Cuban tourism industry. It is no surprise that the protests started in the poorest neighbourhoods of Cuban cities.
The President of Cuba, Miguel Diaz-Canel, solely blamed the US embargo for Cuba’s deepening woes. The US had applied the embargo on Cuba shortly after the revolution in the 1950s, along with other measures. Although the actual economic cost to Cuba from this blockade has not been calculated, it is estimated to be billions of dollars every year. The blockade leads to serious difficulties in obtaining imports, loans, exports, and more. It also represents a blatant attempt by the world’s leading power to impose its will on a smaller and weaker country. Although Obama relaxed the blockade, Trump then subsequently it, and Biden does not seem to be representing any real change. Rather, Biden has demonstrated his hypocrisy by expressing his concern for the Cuban people while continuing the blockade. The protests have led Biden to double down on the policy of tougher sanctions imposed by his predecessor, Donald Trump, dashing hopes of the revival of Barack Obama-era detente. Arguably, the protests in Cuba and their longstanding problems are a product of the US blockade.
President Diaz-Canel believes that this “nonconventional war” and the digital space that was allowed to grow in Cuba over recent years are challenging the revolution. The protests can be credited to the risks the Cuban government took by opening the nation more broadly to the Internet in 2019, making it easier to use social media. Activists have used this to their advantage, using social media to amplify their dissent. Diaz-Canel has also said agitators were trying to portray him as a “tyrant” when the real culprit in the acute food and fuel shortages, which in recent weeks reached some of the worst conditions ever seen on the island, was the US government. The Cuban government recently announced they are now increasing internet censorship, with a new decree making it illegal to write online comments that might destabilise the state.
Although the July 11 protests were quickly snuffed out as thousands of police officers were deployed and access to the internet was cut, dealing with the problems behind the demonstrations will be much harder.
So what then is the solution for the Cuban protests? Although Cuba’s allies have sent help, with Mexico and Russia providing diesel fuel and essential goods, and Venezuela continually shipping fuel to Cuba despite its dire shortages at home, this falls short of what is needed. The best way to promote space for Cubans to debate, protest, and seek solutions to their country’s crisis is for the United States to acknowledge Cuban sovereignty, cease its covert activities, end the embargo, and allow pandemic and humanitarian aid to reach Cuban people, something Cubans desperately need to overcome the pandemic and their economic emergency. As these factors are the ones that have caused the protests and unrest, removing them is the only path towards a more peaceful Cuba.
Image: Flickr (lezumbalaberenjena)