Illustration Credit: Bill Day, Cagle Cartoons
This past Sunday, the largest popular protests in decades erupted in Cuba, with thousands of demonstrators across the island taking to the streets to decry acute shortages of basic necessities (including food and medicine), rolling blackouts, and suffocating restrictions on political freedoms that persist over six decades after the Cuban Revolution. The island is currently facing its most severe and sustained economic crisis since the so-called “Special Period” of the 1990s (brought about by the collapse of the Soviet Union, historically the isolated Cuban government’s primary trading partner). While the U.S. trade embargo and other international sanctions intended to curtail foreign exchange have certainly contributed to the shortages of essential goods and rise in hunger, the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on international tourism has deprived Cuba’s communist government of a vital source of foreign hard currency that it has come to rely on in recent years.
The demonstrations, which originated in the western town of San Antonio de los Baños (located roughly 16 miles—or 26 kilometers—from Havana) and the southeastern city of Palma Soriano, initially numbered hundreds of people, but rapidly increased and spread across the country as news and videos of protests were shared through social media. (Analysts have suggested that the present ubiquity of the internet, mobile phones, and social media in Cuba distinguish the current protest wave from past periods of anti-government unrest; in recognition of this fact, the Cuban government has reportedly restricted access to social media and messaging platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook, and disrupted mobile internet service in an effort to stop the demonstrations’ further spread.) Uniformed and plainclothes security personnel have been widely deployed to quell protests, joined by so-called “rapid reaction brigades”—organized civilian militias responding to President Miguel Díaz-Canel’s exhortation that “all the revolutionaries of the country, all the communists, to take to the streets” to confront anti-government demonstrators. Over the course of the government crackdown, dozens of protestors have been injured, and at least one person—a 36-year-old man—was killed in the southern outskirts of Havana. An unspecified number of people—including protestors, independent journalists, activists, and even a popular YouTube streamer—have been subject to arrest and detention; according to Amnesty International at least 140 Cubans are believed to have been detained or disappeared in the past week.
Although he did concede that some protesters had legitimate concerns about food shortages and blackouts, Díaz-Canel blamed Trump-era U.S. sanctions (which then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described as being meant to “starve” the country), rather than government mismanagement, for such problems. However, in a nationally televised address Monday morning, Díaz-Canel argued that the demonstrations represented a U.S.-designed “soft coup” intended to “fracture” and ultimately overthrow the Cuban Communist Party, and accused protesters of being “shameful delinquents” and mercenaries paid by the U.S. government.
Considering Cuba’s historic intolerance toward political dissent against one-party communist rule, the rapid growth and spread of the protest movement is somewhat astonishing. (This week’s demonstrations represent the largest anti-government uprising since the Maleconazo—named after Havana’s Malecón promenade—an explosion of popular fury, brought about by the deprivations of the “Special Period,” which was also marked by a significant exodus of Cubans fleeing the country by sea.) Responding to the protests, United States President Joe Biden called on Cuban authorities to hear their citizens’ “clarion call for freedom” and respect their “right of peaceful protest and the right to freely determine their own future.” Cuban protesters have also received support from the Cuban and Cuban American exile community in South Florida, which organized stateside solidarity rallies in Miami and Tampa and announced plans to launch a flotilla to provide aid to demonstrators on the island. In response, the United States Coast Guard has warned Cuban American activists to abandon any such plans to take to the sea, adding that they would be monitoring any unsafe and illegal activity in the Florida strait, “including unpermitted vessel departures from Florida to Cuba.”