he Cuban protests that rocked the nation in July 2021 surprised the communist government due to its sheer intensity and attendance. It was actually a watershed moment as the protests had put immense pressure on the regime.
The reasons for protests were shortage of medicines, power outages and food supplies. From the streets of Havana to Santiago, protestors chanted ‘libertad’ (freedom) and ‘We want change’ while holding placards that read, ‘Down with the dictatorship,’, ‘Down with Communism’, and ‘Freedom for the people of Cuba’. Some of the demonstrators sang Patria y Vida (“Fatherland and Life”), a rap and reggaeton hit. It’s title plays on a slogan – ‘Fatherland or Death’, which dates back to the 1950s, when the late Fidel Castro’s revolutionaries overthrew the government.
Protests had begun in San Antonio de los Baños, a small town, south of Havana. These demonstrations generated ‘a chain reaction’ that eventually spread to some thirty other communities.
The impact of the protests was such on the Cuban bishops that they claimed to hear ‘God’s voice’ in the cries of the protestors.
Amid the protests, the food stores had been vandalised, and police cars had been turned over. It is because many Cubans think that they haven’t experienced any kind of socialism for a while, but rather a form of neo-liberal state capitalism, which wasn’t promised during the revolution.
Michael Bustamante, an assistant professor of Latin American history at Florida International University believes that what is remarkable about the protests is that they were decentralised in the way they unfolded. But, the situation seems to be slipping out of hands. Exiled rights group Cubalex, which has established a spreadsheet of those detained believes that more than five hundred Cubans appear to have been detained during the protests or afterwards.
To defend itself, the government has repeatedly blamed the U.S. government’s decades-old economic embargo, as a catalyst for the conditions that have led to the historic protests. It called its tight sanctions on Cuba, which have been in place in various forms since 1962, a policy of ‘economic suffocation’, through severe restriction to the flow of goods to the island, and forbidding US companies from dealing with Cuba, by various laws, costing the Cuban economy $130 billion over six decades.
The Cuban government has even accused independent media outlets largely based in the Miami area of provoking the unprecedented, spontaneous protests that spread across Cuba in July 2021. One of the sites it singled out, was of ADN Cuba, which published a photograph of Diaz-Canel that was altered to look like a police mugshot: ‘genocide,’ it said underneath.
As per an article written by Daniel Trotta in Reuters: ‘around a dozen Cuba-focused news and magazines have their websites blocked in Cuba, but Cubans can access them anyway using virtual private network (VPN) services, and share them on social media sites generally available in Cuba. Some relentlessly berate the government while others, though still critical, strive for more fact-based journalism like the pioneering outlet 14yMedio.
‘The independent site El Toque, which also has a number of Cuba-based staff, published an article debunking false anti-government reports and out-of-context photos circulating on the internet that grossly inflated the size of the demonstrations.’
Common Cubans, however, believe that things like embargo have nothing to do with the spiking crises, and that the Cuban government is very apt in portraying itself as a victim internationally. The regime, infact, has a brutal record of human rights abuses. Freedom of speech and assembly are heavily curtailed, and in response to the protests, the regime has restricted Internet access. On the Heritage Index of Economic Freedom, only two countries rank lower: Venezuela and North Korea. These facts don’t represent the values of democratic socialism at all.
Infact, Cuba’s ongoing turmoil reminds us that we can’t compartmentalise human freedom. Many intellectuals still remain obstinate. Sadly, Cuba’s political and economic tyrannies are symptoms of the same malady.
In its history, the Castro regime was faced with similar outpouring of demands for democracy in 2002 and 2003, although the attendance was not as overwhelming as 2021. More than 25,000 Cubans had signed the Varela Project citizen petition, created by opposition leader Oswaldo Payá, calling for free speech, a free press, freedom of association, freedom of belief, private enterprise, free elections and freedom for political prisoners. The response then, too, was an attempt to crush the popular demands.
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Many watchers have drawn comparisons between Cuba’s 2021 protests and demonstrations that erupted in Venezuela and Nicaragua, close allies of the Caribbean island. There were international reactions coming from rights groups, United Nations, including Mexico, Peru and Chile as well: these countries requested the government to allow ‘pro democracy protests’. US President Joe Biden had also released a statement expressing his support for the protestors, as Americans largely always had a hate relationship with communist nations. Although, as the government is relying on anti U.S rhetoric, there seems to be a little imminent danger for the regime. The communist regime has already survived the fall of its Soviet sponsor, the death of Fidel Castro, and the handover of power from his younger brother Raul to Díaz-Canel, who is not a Castro, and was born after the revolution took power. However, incumbent President Miguel Diaz-Canel has also taken some blame on himself for the current crises.
During the retaliation, many Cuban protestors were beaten with sticks. The Cuban government had been using so called rapid reaction brigades, government organised bands of civilian recruits, to counter protestors.
The regime was also of an opinion that the protestors had done many provocations that were uncalled for. One of those examples was when many had tried to reach a police station with an aim of attacking its officials and damaging infrastructure, according to Cuban News Agency. When security forces stopped them, they vandalised homes, set containers on fire, and damaged the suburbs electricity wiring, attacking officials with stones and other objects.
Arturo López-Levy, a former analyst with Cuba’s Interior Ministry and assistant professor at Holy Names University, said he does not expect any major political changes in the short term. But, he added that the protests have put pressure on the government ‘to make economic changes, and to liberalise the politics within the one-party system.’
Cuban infrastructure and present agricultural output also tells a harrowing story. After more than sixty years of revolution, and US sanctions, Cuban buildings are collapsing and crumbling. In 2021, the island produced the lowest amount of sugar. It was the island’s most prized export, since 1908. Cuba’s sugar monopoly, Azcuba, said the shortfall was to blame on a number of factors, including a lack of fuel and the breakdown of machinery which made bringing in the harvest difficult, as well as natural factors such as humidity in the fields. As a result, the government’s reserves of foreign currency are depleted, meaning it cannot buy in imported goods to supplement shortages, as it would normally do.
As per an article in Washington Post by Maria Luisa Paul, Cuban regime has even discriminated against black people, since the collapse of its ally the Soviet Union, which reflects historical animosities, prior to these protests. The black people have had lesser access to remittances than white families whose relatives have immigrated in greater numbers since Fidel Castro took power in 1959. And they are the ones who are lowly paid, and are underrepresented in the more lucrative sectors of society, such as tourism.
‘Though the protests brought Cubans of all races to the streets, the plight of Black citizens has become one focal point, igniting a broader global conversation about race relations and discrimination on the island,’ she wrote.
In black peoples history, they helped craft the island’s 1940 constitution and organising some two hundred Afro Cuban associations, after the war. When Castro took power, he promised to eliminate inequality and end discrimination. Although literacy campaigns helped improve diversity in many professions, racial inequalities never disappeared. Discussion of ongoing discrimination, meanwhile, was pushed aside.
But, leaving the divisions aside, it is for the first time, Cubans, particularly younger generations, of all races, are seeking a change inside Cuba, thereby putting a direct level of pressure on the government, not seen before in communist Cuba. It comes at a time when there are no Castros in power.
To curb the protests, many analysts believe that the Cuban government will try to speed up economic reforms, such as more foreign investment, that had been promised by then President Raúl Castro but not fully implemented.
Earlier in February 2021, Cuba had even announced some domestic reforms that would allow private businesses to operate in most sectors of the national economy. Under the new reforms, the number of authorised industries had grown from 127 to over 2,000, with only a minority of industries continuing to be dominated by the state. The government wanted small businesses to expand, allowing private players to move beyond tourism and small farms. But, the recent protests in Cuba overwhelmed everything. Despite these ideas, the government has to look for alternative measures to make people happy. One of the measures has been to allow travellers arriving in Cuba to bring in food, medicine and other essentials without paying import duties, as a way to ease the shortages of on the island.
Naveed Qazi is an author of six books, and editor of Globe Upfront. For feedback, he can be mailed at email@example.com.