Explainer: Shortages in Cuba Led to Unrest, Questions About Future US Role

July 19, 2021 by Dan McCue
Protests outside the White House calling for U.S. action in Cuba after days of unrest in the island nation. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON – The chants, loud and impassioned, could be heard every time someone opened the White House press room door.

With a balmy, near tropical heat, settled over the nation’s capital, the sprinklers outside seemed to spray with added urgency to keep the lawn green outside America’s most famous address.

Meanwhile, a few hundred yards away, at the edge of Lafayette Park, dozens of protesters hurled anti-government slogans at Cuba’s communist regime. 

Some shouted “patria y vida” — “fatherland and life” — the title of a protest song that recently emerged from Miami, Florida’s Cuban-expat community — while others called for “libertad” or “freedom.”

The ongoing protests here are but a reflection of the unrest that has gripped Cuba since July 11, when apparently spontaneous demonstrations rippled across the island nation to protest shortages of food and medicine.

Since then analysts have struggled to get their arms around what are in all probability, the biggest protests in Cuba since Fidel Castro and his fellow communist revolutionaries seized power in 1959.

This time, however, the protests across the island appear to be wholly uncoordinated and no visible leader has emerged to become the focus or symbol of change.

Making this all the more remarkable is the dithering response of the Cuban government, which for decades had waged repressive crackdowns on dissent.

True, the country’s president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, issued an urgent call to arms in an emergency broadcast on the first day of the protests.

“The streets belong to the revolutionaries. I am ordering you to combat,” he announced.

But if reporters coming out of Cuba are to be believed, no one took the long-time party bureaucrat up on his offer to fight for the regime. And accounts of a public appearance Díaz-Canel made in the town of San Antonio de los Baños described him as rattled by how poorly his words appeared to resonate with the people.

In the U.S., Sen. Marco Rubio, himself a Cuban-American, tweeted, “We have NEVER seen a day like today in #Cuba … 62 years of misery, repression and lies boiling over into organic, grassroots protests in over 32 cities.”

Indeed, the communist government on the island is now facing a challenge to its authority for the first time without a Castro in charge. 

Protesters on the edge of Lafayette Park. (Photo by Dan McCue)

Fidel himself confronted demonstrators during the last major protest in 1994, but he died in 2016 after a long illness. His brother Raúl retired as de facto ruler in April and turned 90 just a few weeks ago.

At the White House, spokeswoman Jen Psaki was asked repeatedly about the uprising.

“First I would say Communism is a failed ideology, and we certainly believe that,” she said. “It has failed the people of Cuba.

“They deserve freedom. They deserve a government that supports them, whether that is making sure they have health and medical supplies, access to vaccines, or whether they have economic opportunity and prosperity,” Psaki continued. “Instead, this has been a government — an authoritarian communist regime — that has repressed its people and has failed the people of Cuba. Hence, we’re seeing them in the streets.”

Even as Cuban security forces continued to arrest protestors, dissidents inside and outside the country expressed hope the protests would lead to lasting change.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Carlos Maamud, senior Latin America researcher at the Royal Elcano Institute in Madrid, said the protests have made clear that the “deference and the fear of the Castros has ended.”

But he also cautioned that there is no clear sign yet of how the situation will eventually resolve itself.

Within hours of the initial demonstrations, protesters in many Cuban communities had dispersed, and Internet connections were cut across the island, preventing dissidents from organizing.

By mid-week, some of that Internet service had been restored, but connectivity has been erratic, and restrictions have been placed on social media and messaging platforms.

“The opposition is divided, fragmented and very penetrated by the security services . . . we will see in the next few weeks what the opposition’s ability to mobilize is,” he said.

Human RIghts Watch reports that more than 400 people have been detained since the protests began, though the organization believes this estimate is on the conservative side.

“The whereabouts of many [of the detained] remain unknown,” it says on its website. “Police and intelligence officers have also appeared at the homes of journalists and activists, ordering them to stay there.”

“Faced with the most massive demonstrations in the country in decades, the Cuban government has deployed its repressive machinery at full speed,” said Juan Pappier, lead Cuba researcher at Human Rights Watch, via Twitter.

But even  if Cuba’s government does manage to tamp down on the current wave of protests, it is unclear how long it can maintain control with an economy in tatters.

Among the issues at the heart of the current protests are:

  • An inefficient, state-controlled agricultural sector that has never been able to produce enough to feed a population of just over 11 million;
  • A tourism industry — one of Cuba’s big money earners — that has virtually collapsed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic;
  • A public health system that lacks medicines and equipment, a situation exacerbated by the fact COVID-19 cases have soared since the island began reopening tourism with Russia earlier this year;
  • Sanctions imposed by the Trump administration that have restricted remittances through the Cuban military-run agency handling payments. As a result, Cuba’s gross domestic product has shrunk nearly 13% over the past 18 months;

Making matters worse, Díaz-Canel implemented economic reforms at the start of 2021, devaluing the peso from parity with the dollar. As the value of the peso has plummeted, inflation has soared, and economists fear prices could rise 500% this year. 

In television appearances toward the end of last week, Díaz-Canel tried another tactic — blaming the United States for Cuba’s woes.

But in the end it may well be the U.S. and its Western allies who are best positioned to deal with the Cuban crisis.

That’s because, to begin with, Cuba doesn’t have many friends on the world stage. It is not a member of the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund and historic allies like China, Russia or Venezuela are either resistant to or simply can’t bail out the country at this time.

So far, President Joe Biden has surprised some by keeping the tighter Trump-era embargo restrictions in place.

He’s also stepped up his criticism of Cuba and its government, calling it a “failed state” which was repressing its citizens.

Asked about the U.S. stance on Cuba in the wake of the protests, Psaki said last week that President Biden, “is certainly advocating for and speaking out” in favor of the demonstrators.

“He has made clear that he stands with the Cuban people and their call for freedom from both the pandemic and from decades of repression and economic suffering to which they’ve been subjected by Cuba’s authoritarian regime,” she said.

Psaki also noted that the administration is conducting “an ongoing review of our own policies.”

“As we look at those policies, one of the big factors is ensuring we are not doing anything to pad the pockets of a corrupt authoritarian regime,” she said. “That is certainly a factor as we’re looking closely at how we can help in a humanitarian way, how we can help support the voices of the Cuban people.”

Psaki said she had no “timeline” for when a new policy on Cuba will be announced.

“[But] I will note that we certainly look at the policy through the prism of how we can most help the Cuban people — the people who have been out in the streets looking to have their voices heard in these protests,” she concluded.

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