Cuba lived this Sunday (11) a day without precedent in its recent history. Thousands of Cubans took to the streets of several cities in the country, spontaneously, to demand freedom, in what is already being considered the biggest demonstration against the Castro dictatorship in 60 years.
Screams of “Free Cuba”, “Homeland and Life” and “Enough of Lies” were sung by Cubans tired of the restriction of freedom, the scarcity of food and medicine, the blackouts, the high inflation, the increase in cases of Covid -19 and the constant internet connection cuts.
“In my 53 years, I’ve never seen anything like it,” a Santiago de Cuba resident who joined the demonstrations told Cuban news website 14yMedio. Another protester, a resident of San Antonio de los Baños, told BBC Mundo that the protest “is for the freedom of the people”. “We want a change, we don’t want more dictatorship”.
The protests began peacefully, but the communist regime’s response was violent. Hundreds of people were arrested, taken in police vehicles or unidentified by members of plainclothes security forces. There are also independent press reports of several people being beaten by police officers and regime supporters, including two Associated Press journalists.
On national television, the secretary general of the Communist Party of Cuba and leader of the country, Miguel Díaz-Canel, called on his allies to fight the protesters. “The order of combat is given: the revolutionaries to the streets”, he said this Sunday (11). And he added: “They will have to step over our corpses if they want to face the revolution. We are ready for everything”.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has received allegations of the use of force, arrests, attacks on protesters and journalists, and cuts in Internet signal. Amnesty International and the Organization of American States (OAS) also condemned state violence. Díaz-Canel shrugged off those comments, saying on Monday that the protesters “got the answer they deserved”, referring to them as “delinquents”.
The worsening economic and health conditions on the island and the increase in the arbitrary arrests of Cuban artists are some important points to understand the background of the protests.
In 2019, Cuba was already suffering from a serious economic crisis, influenced by three main factors: the drop in oil production in Venezuela; the end of the “more doctors program” in several countries – which is also related to the Venezuelan crisis; and the sanctions imposed by the US during Donald Trump’s tenure.
With the pandemic, the closure of borders drastically affected the tourism sector on the island, one of the main sources of foreign exchange in the country. This led the regime to implement an economic reform earlier this year that ended up triggering inflation, far above the wage increase. In addition to paying more for food, Cubans have to face long lines to buy basic necessities. Power cuts, a problem that has always plagued the island’s residents, have become more frequent.
This year, Cuba also registered one of the worst sugar harvests in its history. The sugarcane harvest was just 66% of the estimated 1.2 million tons for the crop, according to the state sugar group Azcuba.
The pandemic and lack of money were also reflected in the Cuban health system. The country is suffering from a worrying shortage of medicines: the island’s pharmacy and hospital pantries are virtually empty and the population is more vulnerable than ever to diseases such as diabetes, arthritis and scabies. Some people find themselves under pressure to smuggle essential drugs.
The worsening Covid-19 pandemic is also putting pressure on hospitals. Last week the country registered daily records for new cases, according to official data. As a result, there were several reports on the Internet and in the independent press of Cubans complaining about the quality of patient care, the lack of beds and respirators, especially in the province of Matanzas, on the island’s northern coast.
On a video Recently published on social media, a resident reported that his mother died of Covid-19 after he spent four days unsuccessfully trying to transfer her to a hospital. Similar denunciations were also made in the international press. The health situation in this region forced the regime to send reinforcements of doctors and nurses there.
According to the platform Our World in Data, Cuba is the American country that recorded the most cases of Covid-19 per million inhabitants this Sunday: there were 6,750 cases, although opponents claim that the official numbers are underreported. On the same day, 31 Cuban patients died from the disease.
Despite internet access restrictions imposed by the dictatorship, more Cubans are using social networks to have a different source of information than the official one and even to denounce the country’s ills. An example of this change is the great popularity of the song. “Homeland and Life”, recorded by several Cuban artists in February that questions the communist government and denounces the island’s political and economic crisis. This Sunday’s protests are also an example: the adhesion of thousands of Cubans in several cities across the country came after images of an act against the regime in San Antonio were posted on social networks.
This, however, made the Castro dictatorship increase the repression of young people, artists, activists and independent journalists, who are prevented from meeting and expressing themselves freely, and who also face police surveillance and harassment. The NGO Prisoners Defenders claims that the number of political prisoners in Cuba is the highest in 18 years. A report by the organization released on June 1 attests that there are 150 political prisoners and convicts in the country.