Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 407, 14 July 2021

Cuba: Anti-government protests, triggered by COVID economy and structural issues
Lokendra Sharma

In the news
On 11 July, thousands of Cubans marched in Havana and Santiago against the communist government led by President Diaz-Canel. The protestors called on Diaz-Canel to step down and also chanted "freedom." Protests were largely peaceful, with some instances of violence and police detentions. On the same day, in a broadcasted address, Diaz-Canel asked: "all the revolutionaries in the country, all the Communists, to hit the streets wherever there is an effort to produce these provocations." Further, the Cuban government blamed the US for fomenting protests in the country.

On 12 July, US President Biden made a statement backing the protestors. He said: "The Cuban people are demanding their freedom from an authoritarian regime." He added that the US "stands firmly with the people of Cuba as they assert their universal rights" and also called on the Cuban government "to refrain from violence in their attempt to silence the voices of the people of Cuba." On the same day, Mexico and Russia issued statements warning against any outside interference in the internal affairs of Cuba, indirectly targeting the role of the US. 

On 13 July, a Reuters report, citing an exiled human rights group Cubalex, said: "At least 100 protesters, activists, and independent journalists had been detained nationwide since Sunday."

Issues at large
First, the demands by protestors. The protests come in the backdrop of the rising cases of COVID-19 and a shrinking economy particularly affected by the declining tourism sector. Protestors are demanding an end to hunger, better economic opportunities, and a more reliable electricity supply. People are also unhappy with the government's handling of the pandemic and medicine shortages. 

Second, a new leader and a new generation. The protests are the largest in nearly three decades; the last such protest took place in 1994 when the country was reeling under severe economic distress after Soviet Union's collapse. The leadership was recently passed on to Diaz-Canel from the Castro brothers — Fidel and Raul — who ruled for nearly six decades. These protests are the first test of Diaz-Canel's leadership. It will be much more challenging for him because of three reasons: widespread use of the Internet and social media platforms by the country's disillusioned youth which render propaganda ineffective; Diaz-Canel lacking the charisma and popular appeal which Castro brothers enjoyed; lastly, though importantly, the receding of revolutionary ideology with a generational shift.     

Third, the economic issues. Cuba has been subjected to a severe economic embargo by the US for the last six decades. Former US President Trump had imposed even more sanctions amidst the pandemic and reinstated some sanctions which were earlier lifted by the Obama administration. In part due to the US embargo, along with other factors like the pandemic and domestic policy issues, the Cuban economy shrank by 11 per cent in 2020.    
 
In perspective
Due to the three-fold challenges of social media and lack of charisma and receding ideology, Diaz-Canel would only find it difficult to respond in a heavy-handed, repressive manner similar to what the Castro brothers did in the past. Therefore, rather than calling for counter-revolutionaries to mount a resistance, Diaz-Canel should pay heed to genuine demands for change and reform, of both political and economic nature. Failure to do so would only keep the Cuban society perpetually at the edge. 

While the US has certainly played an interventionist role historically not just in Cuba but in the wider Caribbean and Latin American region, Diaz-Canel's attempts of putting all blame on the US for fomenting the protests is unhelpful. The US, on its part, should move beyond its hypocritical rhetoric and end the most enduring and inhuman embargo on Cuba.

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