Thousands of people took to the streets of cities and towns throughout Cuba on Sunday, in the communist country’s first major protests in decades. Reacting to Cuba’s deepening economic malaise and sluggish vaccination drive, the demonstrators also voiced an anti-government sentiment rarely heard in a country where the state tightly and aggressively controls the terms of political discourse
Videos of the demonstrations shared on social media showed protesters chanting “Freedom,” “We are not afraid,” and “Down with communism!” Another frequent slogan was “Patria y Vida” (”homeland and life”) — a twist on the revolutionary slogan “homeland or death” — popularized in a song released in February by the reggaeton group Gente de Zona and other Cuban musicians. Demonstrations reportedly took place in Havana, Santiago, and other major cities, as well as many smaller towns.
Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel, who succeeded Raúl Castro this year as first secretary of the Communist Party, sought to depict the protests as a U.S.-sponsored attempt to destabilize Cuba. Díaz-Canel threatened the protesters with a harsh response and called on “revolutionary” Cubans to mobilize, counterdemonstrate, and perhaps engage in violence. “There are many revolutionaries in this country who are willing to give our lives, we are willing to do anything, and we will be in the streets fighting,” he said in a televised address. According to witnesses who spoke with the Washington Post, security forces used tear gas and other violent tactics against the protesters on Sunday, and an unknown number of people were arrested.
Díaz-Canel, the first non-Castro family member to lead Cuba in six decades, has struggled to maintain public support in the face of a mounting economic crisis. In January, the government devalued the peso as part of a monetary-reform program intended to unify Cuba’s longstanding, complicated dual-currency system. In recent months, the devaluation has contributed to skyrocketing inflation. That, in combination with rising food prices on the global market, has left many Cubans struggling to afford food and basic goods.
The pandemic has also taken a toll on the island nation, particularly in recent weeks. Demonstrators on Sunday were also demanding that the government speed up distribution of COVID vaccines, as the country is experiencing a rapid increase in cases and deaths. Cuba elected to make its own vaccines rather than buy them from other countries, and has developed several that the government says have shown high effectiveness in clinical trials. Cuba’s state drug regulator on Friday granted emergency approval to the domestically produced Abdala vaccine, which has reportedly shown 92.28 percent efficacy. However, a shortage of syringes has slowed distribution: The Cuban vaccines require a three-dose regimen, so more than 30 million syringes are required to vaccinate a nation’s population of around 11 million.
While shortages of food and medicine, daily blackouts, and inflation are the proximate causes of Sunday’s historic protests, they also appear to have roots in a nascent pro-democracy movement that has been building in Cuba since late last year. Last November, a group of artists and activists staged a smaller (but still historically rare) protest against repression and censorship, sparked by the imprisonment of a dissident rapper and a crackdown on freedom of expression. Officials agreed to a dialogue, but later called it off. Since then, activists have continued to push, within the limits of what Cuba’s repressive state system allows, for greater freedoms. The government has continued to crack down, however. Human Rights Watch recently accused Cuba of intimidating, prosecuting, and jailing artists and journalists who criticize the regime.
Like most protest movements over the past decade, Sunday’s demonstrations were facilitated and amplified by social media. Cuba rolled out 3G mobile internet service at the end of 2018, and while the service was too expensive for most Cubans to afford, wider access to social media gave them a conduit to air grievances to government officials directly. Activists have used social media to expand their reach across the island and beyond, and videos of Sunday’s demonstrations spread rapidly on social networks. (The government has also used social media to promulgate videos of counterdemonstrations and spin its own narrative.)
The party line in Havana, as usual, is that any discomfort or discord is merely the result of U.S. imperialism, while anyone who speaks up is a counterrevolutionary agent of the evil American empire. The government has blamed the shortages of food and medical supplies on the U.S. trade embargo, although the embargo exempts food, and Washington frequently authorizes deliveries of medicines and other humanitarian goods. In May, the Commerce Department granted Global Health Partners a license to send medical supplies to Cuba, and the humanitarian organization hopes to deliver millions of syringes to the country this month.
Nonetheless, the U.S. embargo does weaken Cuba’s economy and limit its access to foreign currency, making it harder to buy goods internationally. Díaz-Canel’s attempt to paint the demonstrations as an American plot is part of a well-worn blame game, but it is not entirely crazy to claim that the U.S. has tried to strangle Cuba economically in order to foment unrest and undermine the communist regime. After former president Barack Obama reestablished diplomatic relations with Cuba, allowing for increased direct travel and trade, the Trump administration reversed that opening, reimposing restrictions and piling on new sanctions to punish Havana for supporting Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro. These sanctions have hit hard and contributed to Cuba’s economic stagnation and decline over the past few years.
Though President Biden pledged on the campaign trail last year to restore the Obama-era rapprochement with Cuba, he has yet to fulfill that promise. On his last day in office, former president Donald Trump relabeled Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism, a designation Obama had lifted. Biden has not changed that policy, and in May he renewed a Trump-era decision classifying Cuba as a country that is failing to cooperate with U.S. anti-terrorism efforts. The administration’s engagement with Cuba is currently limited to soft-democracy promotion efforts, which can backfire when the Cuban government uncovers these initiatives and uses them to support its accusations that dissidents are U.S. pawns.
Few other countries have as much impact on U.S. politics as Cuba. With that in mind, the Biden administration doesn’t seem likely to make any major changes to its Cuba policy anytime soon. For one thing, detente is a nonstarter for some major players in Congress, including Democratic senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and a Cuban-American, with many Cuban-American constituents. Menendez opposed Obama’s policy and remains opposed to any reopening of relations with the communist regime in Havana. And considering how effectively the “socialist Biden” canard worked for Republicans in Florida last year, the president is probably not eager to give his right-wing critics more ammunition on that front.
The administration will also have to walk a fine line in responding to Sunday’s demonstrations, particularly if they prove to have staying power. Supporting the protesters too vocally could undermine them by reinforcing the regime’s narrative of an imperialist fifth column. Yet failing to back them could create domestic political problems for Biden and threaten his credibility abroad, particularly if the Cuban government’s response becomes more violent. On Monday morning, the White House released a statement from Biden in which he got behind the protesters and insisted that Americans “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.”
One way or another, Cuba is changing, and if these protests are a harbinger of a larger political crisis in the making, the U.S. will need to be ready for what comes next.