TAMPA, Fla. — Over the past few days, the streets of Havana and other parts of Cuba filled with some of the largest protests since the August 1994 uprising on the island. Much as was the case in 1994, harsh economic conditions on the Communist-led island have helped fuel the protests.
But, as is the case with every country, especially this island nation, there’s a history to the situation that dates back decades.
WHAT SET OFF THE MOST RECENT PROTESTS?
It hasn’t been just one flashpoint that started the protests. In many ways, it’s been decades in the making.
Cuba has been under an economic embargo from the United States for decades. The communist Cuban government has blamed this embargo for much of the economic woes on the island. Cuba says the embargo cost the island nation $5.5 billion last year, though that figure is strongly disputed. Cuba also said the U.S. also weaponizes social media and other digital platforms to encourage people to join protests against the regime.
On the other side, critics of the Cuban government on the island and in the international community lay the blame for the country’s perpetual economic woes on the government’s communist policies. Almost all businesses remain tightly controlled and limited by the Cuban government and make economic development difficult for the island and international community members who could provide help.
The Cuban government has also been economically tethered to two nations that have collapsed. Cuba was dependent on the Soviet Union for decades for raw materials, trade, oil, and more. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it left Cuba without a strategic partner to work with in the world. This, in turn, helped spark the 1994 protests that were eventually put down when Cuban President Fidel Castro took to the streets to intervene to save his regime.
After the Soviet Union, Cuba eventually became reliant on Venezuela for oil and sent doctors and other medical personnel from the island to the South American nation. However, as Venezuela’s economy cratered, so did Cuba’s. Plus, while Cuba began to embrace tourism during the Obama administration as relations began to thaw with the U.S., former President Trump took a harder line with Cuba isolating the island again. This combined with the global stoppage of travel due to the pandemic, further crippled Cuba’s economy. A move to combine the Cuban currency also fueled sharp inflation in the Communist nation.
All the economic unrest has helped fuel the fire that is leading to the protests in the island nation. Diario Las Americas, a global newspaper with information coming in from the island, put the problems thusly, “Discontent over the shortage of food, medicine, and almost all essential products, in addition to the disproportionate increase in COVID-19 cases, have been joined by long-term blackouts.”
WHAT IS THE STATE OF THE CUBAN ECONOMY?
According to Bloomberg.com, in 2020, the Cuban economy shrank 11 percent. The sharp drop was the deepest slump the island’s economy had seen since the early 1990’s when the Soviet Union and Eastern European communist nations collapsed. The Cuban Ministry of Finance Prices said the government ended many subsidies and a decades-old currency system which led to an inflationary spiral.
Bloomberg reported some economists said inflation on the island could be more than 400 percent this year. For comparison, there is concern in the U.S. as prices of goods rose 5 percent last month.
IS COVID-19 A PROBLEM IN CUBA?
While the island nation initially fared well, relatively speaking, in the fight against COVID-19, the disease has grown at a rapid pace in 2021. According to CNBC, “the seven-day average of a new cases is up more than fourfold over the last month to 5,659 cases…from an average of 1,256 a day in mid-June.”
The Cuban government has thus far refused to accept aid from foreign nations. Food and medicine are exempted from the U.S. embargo and the U.S. has routinely provided millions in medical goods to the island nation.
WHAT ROLE HAS SOCIAL MEDIA AND THE INTERNET PLAYED IN THE PROTESTS?
According to the Associated Press, many of the protesters who took to the street learned of the demonstrations through social media platforms that have only become more widely available in the communist nation in recent years. Much of the footage that emerged from the nation of the protests also came through social media. Some of the protests were even broadcast live on Facebook and other platforms.
The government shut off internet access to the state-run mobile operator as a result. The Cuban government said the U.S. used bots to bombard Cuban phones with messages about the protests. However, no proof has been given to back up those claims.
Over the years, social media has been used to get out messages from areas around the world that are fighting against their governments. From Myanmar to Iran and now in Cuba, social media and the Internet have proven to be useful tools for revolutionaries and often are one of the first things shut off by a government during times of unrest.
HOW DID THE CUBAN GOVERNMENT RESPOND TO THE PROTESTS?
As protests broke out Sunday in the city of San Antonio de los Baños, Cuban president Miguel Diaz-Canel spoke with residents and also broadcasted a call for “revolutionaries” to take to the streets in counter-protests to support the government.
Cuba’s official government newspaper, “Granma,” said, “The streets of Cuba belong to revolutionaries and we will defend them. Enemies of the Revolution want to take advantage of our problems to apply the social unrest formula they have used in other countries; but with Cuba there are no formulas that work.”
Cuban President Diaz-Canel went further saying in an address to the island nation:
We are not going to surrender sovereignty, the independence of our people, or the freedom of this nation. There are many of us revolutionaries in this town who are willing to give our lives and this is not a slogan, it is a conviction. They will have to step over our corpses if they want to confront the Revolution, and we are ready for anything and we will be in the streets fighting. We know that incidents of this type are being orchestrated in the streets of Havana and that there are large groups of revolutionaries confronting counterrevolutionary elements. We are separating the confused revolutionaries, the inhabitants of Cuba who have specific concerns, but we are not going to allow any counterrevolutionary, any mercenary, to provoke destabilization among our people.
Critics of the Cuban government and foreign journalists said much of the response is also to imprison dissidents on the island. According to Diario Las Americas, “From noon on July 11, all the municipal seats of Santiago de Cuba were besieged by regime troops with the order to use force, especially the provincial capital and Palma Soriano.”
El Nuevo Herald in Miami reported more than 100 activists have been arrested and thousands more are under investigation, the government “has shut down, at least for the moment, the protests, confirmed journalists and activists from the island.”
Another response to the protests by the Cuban government came Thursday when the nation eliminated import taxes on food and medicine, according to El Nuevo Herald.
HOW HAS THE U.S. RESPONDED?
President Joe Biden issued a statement of support for the Cuban protesters that said:
We stand with the Cuban people and their clarion call for freedom and relief from the tragic grip of the pandemic and from the decades of repression and economic suffering to which they have been subjected by Cuba’s authoritarian regime. The Cuban people are bravely asserting fundamental and universal rights. Those rights, including the right of peaceful protest and the right to freely determine their own future, must be respected. The United States calls on the Cuban regime to hear their people and serve their needs at this vital moment rather than enriching themselves.
Past that, President Biden has not pursued much public action against Cuba, nor embraced the political and economic détente carried out by former President Barack Obama. President Donald Trump rolled the U.S’s policies back to a hardline stance with Cuba before Biden took office. Since then, the Biden administration said it was reviewing the U.S. government's Cuba policy.
The protests have presented Biden with a challenge and his opponents an opening to land blows against the popular president. The Democratic Party has struggled since the early 2000s with winning the vote of Cuban-Americans, especially in South Florida. As Cuban-Americans in South Florida moved towards the Republican Party, Democrats have struggled to win statewide races and Republicans have enjoyed both state and national electoral success in the key swing state of Florida.
As the protests have continued, Republicans have pushed the administration for a more public show of support and aid to the Cuban protesters. Florida Senators Rick Scott and Marco Rubio have been critical of the administration’s response.
“He wants to be part of this worldwide club. Well, let’s use the influence then,” Senator Scott told conservative Hugh Hewitt Thursday. “Let’s talk. Let’s talk to the European Union, to Boris Johnson. Let’s get everybody involved here to say enough is enough of these atrocities that have gone on for decades and decades and decades”
Miami Mayor Francis Suarez took it a step further this week telling Fox News the U.S. should consider airstrikes against Cuba as a response to the Cuban government’s actions towards protesters.
“What I’m suggesting is that option is one that has to be explored and cannot be simply discarded as an option that is not on the table,” Suarez said. “And there’s a variety of ways the military can do it. But that’s something that needs to be discussed and needs to be looked as a potential option in addition to a variety of other options that can be discussed.”