Chronic food shortages, daily power outages and an escalating corona outbreak have brought social discontent in Cuba to a rarely seen boiling point. In several towns on the socialist-ruled island, hundreds or thousands of citizens took to the streets on Sunday to express their dissatisfaction with the regime. They shouted texts such as “freedom!”, “down with the dictatorship”, “we want vaccines” and “down with [president] Diaz-Canel”.
That popular anger manifests itself so openly is very rare in the police state of Cuba. The last great popular uprising was the so-called ‘maleconazo‘, in 1994, when thousands marched on Havana’s Malecón seafront promenade. Even then, after the loss of Soviet support, the country went through a deep economic crisis. At the time, however, that spontaneous street protest died down within hours, including after the then leader Fidel Castro appeared on the spot. The uprising was the starting signal for a mass exodus of tens of thousands of boat migrants.
On Sunday, the protest was not limited to one place. It was spread all over the island and it lasted all day. The current president Miguel Díaz-Canel, since 2018 the successor of Fidel’s brother, ex-president Raúl Castro, enjoys much less popular support than the old generation of revolutionaries. And that while the current crisis is at least as deep as it was in the early 1990s.
Also read this profile of Diaz-Canel: Cuba’s first non-revolutionary president
In centrally managed Cuba, the corona pandemic has claimed relatively few lives to date, thanks to strict government intervention. Officially, there were ‘only’ 1,537 Covid deaths, out of 11 million inhabitants. But the virus outbreak has largely brought the tourism sector to a standstill, which is indispensable for the foreign currencies on which the ailing Cuban state economy relies. He also suffered from sanctions imposed by the previous US president Trump and which his successor Biden, who took office in January, did not reverse.
Even for those who still have foreign currency, there has been hardly any food in Cuba for months. A diet of rice, beans, (imported) sugar and coffee with ground peas is daily fare for many. Meanwhile, the healthcare system is cracking under corona and on some days there is no electricity for up to 12 hours. Just like in the 1990s, many Cubans would now like to flee the island as soon as possible.
This is about the freedom of our people. We can’t take it any longer. We have no fear anymore
Selvia protester in San Antonio de los Banos
In 1994, the regime put the genie back in the bottle; 27 years later, this is much more difficult now that even Cuba – with two decades delay – has received freely accessible internet. Photos and videos were shared on social media en masse on Sunday of officers, riot police and vigilantes in civilian clothes who bludgeoned demonstrators apart or violently arrested them. The images fueled new calls to take to the streets. In several places the internet was slowed down or switched off in an apparent attempt by the authorities to quench the zest of the demonstrators.
Take to the streets, revolutionaries
During the day, the regime had to admit that something was wrong. President Díaz-Canel appeared on television around 4 p.m. and uttered threatening language at the protesters, whom he called “mercenaries” “serving the US government, the empire and its services.” “The order to march has been given: Take to the streets, revolutionaries.”
Yoani Sánchez, a well-known blogger dissident on the island, called those presidential words on Twitter „very irresponsible [..] a call to civil war.” Julie Chung, the top US diplomat for the Western Hemisphere, also expressed “great concern” about the call. During the day, some pro-government counter-demonstrations were indeed reported, but as far as is known, there was no violence between them. However, security forces intervened harshly in several places.
In recent years, social discontent in Cuba has been expressed most loudly by artists, rappers and other musicians. United in the San Isidro movement, named after a neighborhood in the old center of Havana, they criticized the socialist dictatorship. They recently attracted a lot of attention with the reggaeton song ‘Patria y Vida‘ (Fatherland and Life), a provocative variation on the time-honored revolutionary motto ‘Patria o Muerte‘ (Fatherland or Death). ‘Patria y Vida’ became Sunday sung in various places as a protest song.
Also read: Critical Cuban rappers unleash musical conflict with communist rule
The protesting Cubans immediately received support from their many compatriots in the diaspora on Sunday. Solidarity demonstrations were held in Miami, New York and Madrid, among others. Well-known Cuban influencers and musicians spoke up Twitter and Instagram express their support under the hashtag #SOSCuba.
Delta variant is advancing
The very first protest is said to have erupted in the morning in San Antonio de los Baños, a town just outside Havana. “We gathered in the church square and then marched down the main street to the administration and the police,” protester Selvia told BBC Mundo, the BBC’s Spanish-language world broadcaster. According to him, the first calls to this effect started on social media from Saturday. “This is about the freedom of our people. We can’t take it any longer. We have no fear anymore.”
After this, the protest quickly spread to larger cities such as Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Ciego de Ávila, Pinar del Río and Matanzas. The latter city, not far from the important tourist attraction Varadero, is currently considered the epicenter of the corona epidemic in Cuba. New corona measures came into effect last week, which also caused dissatisfaction.
The renowned Cuban pharmaceutical sector recently completed the development of two of its own corona vaccines. With a proven efficacy of more than 90 percent, according to the researchers involved, they would be highly effective, but they also seem to come just too late. The recent import of the Delta variant has led to a rapid spread of the virus in Cuba. On Sunday, authorities registered 6,923 new infections and 47 Covid deaths.
An epidemic, scarcity and a wave of protest: more than sixty years after the 1959 revolution, the Cuban regime is challenged by a perfect storm.