Cuba is experiencing an unprecedented period of unrest. The largest protests in the country’s history have spread across the island in reaction to a deepening economic crisis and the communist nation’s dictatorial regime.
Ignited by the continuing repression of the Cuban regime, the tightening of US-backed sanctions by previous President Donald Trump – sanctions that have been in place since the early 1960s – and the devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the protests call for food and medicine, and democratic freedoms which the Cuban people have been denied for 60 years.
President Miguel Díaz-Canel, who has held the office since April 2018, refuses to acknowledge the protests, instead considering the protestors mercenaries sent by the US to destabilise the communist state.
The economic crisis has seen a period of sharp hyperinflation, which has left thousands of Cubans struggling to afford basic necessities. The price of rice on the island increased by 300% between March and July 2020. In the same period, the price of onions increased by 75%. This has left supermarket shelves empty and people struggling to sustain themselves, especially the elderly and sick.
The coronavirus pandemic has only fuelled the protests further. Despite Cuba’s successful vaccine development programme – to demonstrate their self-reliance, the country has successfully developed two vaccines independent of international assistance – coronavirus cases have risen at an alarming rate since January.
Within a population of 11 million, there have been a cumulative total of 238,491 recorded Covid-19 cases. However, at the start of the year, this figure stood at just over 12,000, demonstrating an increase of almost 2000% in just six months. For comparison, during the second wave in the UK, taking data from the six-month period between 1st November 2020 and 1st March 2021, cases increased by a relatively smaller 259%, demonstrating Mr Díaz-Canel’s serious mishandling of the pandemic.
Furthermore, the pandemic has naturally decimated Cuba’s tourism industry, which the country’s economy relies on heavily, contributing to 10.6% of the country’s GDP in 2019. Cuba’s other main export, sugar, has also experienced significant decline. The state-run company Azcuba, who holds a monopoly over the country’s sugar, claims that lack of fuel, breakdown of machinery, and humidity are the reasons for this.
All of these factors, administrative, economic and humanitarian, have collided to create the spark needed to ignite 60 years of anger. A protestor has been reported saying: “There is no food, no medicine, there is no freedom. They do not let us live.”
President Biden has come out in support of the protestors, saying “The Cuban people are bravely asserting fundamental and universal rights”.
Furthermore, activists in support of the protests are taking to social media to spread the pro-freedom and anti-authoritarian message, despite power being cut off on the island amid the growing discontent, with internet connection predicted to be severed next.
The hashtag #SOSCuba is being used to spread awareness beyond the island with infographics and by sharing links to websites where people can donate money to help.
Global Health Partners has made a fundraising effort to supply Cuba with enough syringes to administer the Abdala and Soberana coronavirus vaccines, both of which are upwards of 91% effective, to fight growing case numbers.
The country is predicted to have a shortage of 20 million syringes, which are vital since both the Abdala and Soberana vaccines require people to have three doses each in two-week intervals.
According to the Director of Biomedical Research at the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Havana, Guillen Nieto, 2.2 million Cubans had received their first jab and 1.7 million had received two jabs at the end of June. Only 900,000 have been fully vaccinated.
The Friends of Caritas Cuba are also running a fundraising campaign to support Cubans during this crisis. However, Mr Díaz-Canel’s regime and the US blockade have made it difficult for international aid to reach Cubans most in need.
The situation in Cuba is dire and needs greater international scrutiny. The roots of the issues faced by the people of Cuba are entangled within the complex relationship between the US, the dictatorial Castro family, and their legacy and there is no sure-fire way of disentangling this relationship in the name of humanitarian and economic relief without risking greater repression. However, the wider the global awareness of the tyranny to which Cubans are subject, the more inspired the protests will become, which could agitate some change from within on the island.