It is no secret that the people of Cuba are passing through even more trying times these days, buffeted as they are by the United States’ economic blockade and the unrelenting COVID-19 pandemic. The daily hardships of life, which Cubans have been accustomed to for quite some time, were accentuated by a combination of circumstances. The situation created by the pandemic and earlier, the drastic reduction of oil supplies from Venezuela, took a toll on the economy. In the second week of July, a small protest against the government took place in a town near the capital, Havana. Through the auspices of social media, facilitated to a great extent by the U.S. government and the influential anti-Cuba lobby in Florida, the protest spread to Havana and other cities in the island.
The Western media described the protests as the biggest witnessed in the country since the so-called Maleconazo protests in 1994. In actual fact, the crowds of protesters numbered in their hundreds and not thousands as reported by the Western media. The 1994 protests were fuelled by shortages of food and medicine following the disintegration of the socialist bloc and additional U.S. sanctions. Washington was under the misconception that the Cuban revolution would crumble like the socialist governments in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The protests this time were triggered to a large extent by the economic downturn in the country as a result of the enhanced sanctions the outgoing Trump administration had imposed, coupled with the adverse impact of the pandemic. A total of 243 anti-Cuban measures were enacted by the Trump administration before it left office. President Donald Trump had reimposed travel restrictions and severely limited remittances to the island. And to add insult to injury, Cuba was deemed a “state sponsor of terrorism”. The Democrats, since taking over office, have not taken any steps to rectify the damage done by the Republicans to U.S.-Cuba relations.
Sections of the social media in Cuba, propped up by U.S. intelligence agencies and support from exile groups based in Florida, played a major role in the instigation of the riots. The rising cost of food and shortages of medicine are a reality acknowledged by the authorities in the island nation and had alienated a small minority of the population. Cuba’s President, Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez, who personally addressed a crowd of protesters in the town of San Antonio de Los Banos, said that the people had the right to stage peaceful protests but warned that the government would not allow the sovereignty of the country to be compromised.
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The protests turned violent in Havana and some other parts of the country. Shops were looted and the police force was targeted; one death was reported. President Diaz-Canel acknowledged that most of the protesters were not counter-revolutionary but were merely “dissatisfied people”. At the same time, he condemned the “destabilisation” plot against the country being hatched in the U.S. He said that those encouraging the demonstrations did not have the well-being of the Cuban people in mind but wanted to fulfil their neoliberal agenda of privatising Cuba’s highly regarded education and health sectors.
In another speech delivered a day after the protests, President Diaz-Canel said: “We will not surrender our sovereignty, the people’s independence or the freedom of the people. There are many among us revolutionaries who are willing to put our lives on the line.” He accused the U.S. government of trying to “economically asphyxiate” Cuba. Rogelio Polanco Fuentes, head of the Cuban Communist Party’s ideological department, said that protests were orchestrated from the U.S. and were part of the “non-conventional warfare” being staged in the decades-old efforts to bring about regime change in Cuba. Fuentes said: “It involves tactics of so-called non-violent struggle that generate chaos and instability in countries, to provoke security forces into acts of repression.”
Washington provides $20 million annually in assistance to anti-government groups in Cuba. In the budget for this year, the Biden administration will be providing an additional $20 million “for the construction of democracy, human rights and civil rights programs” in Cuba. In a televised address to the nation, President Diaz-Canel said the recent protests were a form of “systemic provocation” by dissidents doing the bidding of their patrons in Washington and Miami. He said that the Biden administration in recent months had sought to weaken and destabilise the country’s economy as part of a policy designed to provoke “a massive social implosion”.
Though the protests did not last for more than a day, the fiercely anti-communist Cuban exile community based in the U.S., with their headquarters in Miami, had something to talk about after more than three decades. Rick DeSantis, Governor of Florida and a right-wing Republican, openly called for regime change. Francis Suarez, Mayor of Dade County, Miami, called on the Biden administration to intervene militarily. Right-wing Cuban and Venezuelan votes had helped Trump win in the State of Florida in 2016 and 2020. President Biden wants to woo back the estranged right-wing Latino vote in Florida to the Democrats in 2024.
Biden was quick to issue a statement expressing support for the people of Cuba and their “cry for freedom and relief from the tragic consequences of the pandemic and the decades of repression and economic suffering to which they have been subjected by Cuba’s authoritarian regime”. He urged the “regime in Havana” to “hear the Cuban people” and “serve their vital needs at this vital moment”. The Cuban President described the words of Biden as “very hypocritical and cynical”, coming as it did from a head of a state which had violated the human rights of the Cuban people for over 60 years and further tightened the blockade after the pandemic struck the country.
The U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, also chimed in, alleging that the Cuban government had failed to provide the people with their basic needs, including food and medicine. Cuba, by the way, despite the difficulties it is facing, has one of the highest rates of vaccination in the region. Cuba is the first country in Latin America to produce its own vaccines to combat the pandemic. More than 20 per cent of the people have already been vaccinated. People in Cuba are not dying in droves owing to the lack of oxygen or hospital beds.
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Blinken said that the Cuban people should be “allowed to determine their own future”. Robert Menendez, a Democrat and Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that “this could be a time to change history”. The statements by the U.S. President and his subordinates of course glossed over the six-decades-long U.S. blockade of the Cuban economy that has caused all the major problems for ordinary Cubans. The U.S. sanctions policy against Cuba was specifically aimed at creating shortages in food, fuel and medicine.
Jose Pertierra, a specialist on Cuban-U.S. relations, told the Mexican paper La Journada that the U.S. decision to further tighten the blockade at a time when the Cuban people were facing hardships triggered by the pandemic and the virtual closure of the tourism sector has created “a perfect storm” in the country. The explicit purpose of the U.S. blockade from the beginning, he said, was to “cause despair among the people”.
Reacting to Biden’s statement, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said that it would be a good idea for the U.S. President to first pay heed to the deep-seated anger of the Cuban people against the blockade and the requests by prominent U.S. citizens for the expeditious lifting of the new sanctions imposed by the previous administration. Every year, the United Nations General Assembly passes a resolution condemning the U.S. economic blockade of Cuba. Once again, this year, the General Assembly overwhelmingly condemned U.S. policy towards Cuba. Only Israel, unsurprisingly, supported the U.S. policy on Cuba.
On the campaign trail, Biden had pledged to undo the Trump administration’s measures aimed at undermining the deals that Barack Obama had made with Cuba. The Biden administration so far has not made any moves to repair ties with Havana. The two countries had restored diplomatic ties and were on talking terms after the historic visit of President Barack Obama to Cuba in 2014. Biden, who was Obama’s Vice President, seems to be keener on reverting to the path taken by earlier Democratic Presidents like John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton. Republican Presidents have been the most uncompromising in their stance on Cuba.
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Not all U.S. politicians spoke in unison on the current situation in Cuba. Veteran Democratic Congressman Jim McGovern, while urging the Cuban government to respect the rights of people to protest peacefully, said that the U.S. government had to end its economic sanctions “which has been a miserable failure and has caused great suffering for the Cuban people”.
His colleague Gregory Meeks, who heads the Foreign Relations Committee, also urged the Biden administration to “help alleviate the suffering of the Cuban people by rescinding the Trump-era sanctions and offering additional vaccines and humanitarian assistance to the Cuban people”. Senator Bernie Sanders, the torchbearer of the progressive Democrats, said that “it was long past the time to end the unilateral American embargo on Cuba which has not helped, only hurt, the people of Cuba”.
History of U.S. blockade against Cuba
The U.S. economic blockade on Cuba was first implemented by Washington after its disastrous attempt at regime change in 1962. The Kennedy administration had launched the doomed Bay of Pigs invasion using mercenaries trained by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In 1963, following the Cuban missile crisis, Washington banned U.S. citizens from travelling to Cuba, and the U.S. Congress passed a law which penalised third countries from doing business with Cuba.
Successive U.S. Presidents have reinforced the blockade. The U.S. sanctions started having a serious impact only after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Comecon, the common market of socialist countries that included Cuba. The country was suddenly cut off from its traditional trading partners.
In 1996, President Bill Clinton calculated that it was an opportune time to pile the pressure on Cuba by adding on even more punitive sanctions. The Cuban Democracy Act and the Helms Burton Act passed during the first term of the Clinton presidency prohibited the supply of food and medical supplies to Cuba. More stringent penalties were announced for those countries daring to breach the U.S. blockade. Since the early days of the revolution, Cuba has been kept out of international banking networks. The moves by Washington coincided with the “special period” between 1992 and 1996, during which Cubans unitedly made sacrifices to preserve the revolution.
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The economic situation grew even more difficult after the COVID-19 pandemic struck early last year and had an impact on the tourism sector. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Socialist bloc, Cuba’s main trading partners since the 1959 socialist revolution, the Cuban government focussed on the hitherto untapped tourism sector to shore up the economy. The sector had since become a source of scarce hard currency for the government and had been steadily growing in the last 30 years. The pandemic has now dealt a heavy blow to the tourism industry. Many Cubans dependent on the tourism sector found themselves suddenly unemployed.
Response from Latin America
Most of Cuba’s neighbours, and the international community in general, have shown their solidarity with Cuba as it passes through difficult times again. Mexico’s President, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, once again emphasised in a statement that the current problems Cuba faces are mainly owing to the U.S. blockade. He pointed out that the international community voices its objections to the blockade every year in international forums. The Mexican President said that Cuba could never be “isolated” by the actions of the U.S. He said: “No one should be surrounded; they must be fully free, one should not act in this way because it violates human rights and is contrary to the principles of human brotherhood.” President Obrador also strongly defended the Cuban revolution.
Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the former President of Brazil, and a serious contender in next year’s presidential election, denounced Washington’s efforts to destabilise the Cuban government. He tweeted: “Cuba has already suffered 60 years from a US Economic blockade, even more so with the pandemic, it is inhumane. People demonstrate. But you did not see any soldier in Cuba with his knee on a black man’s neck, killing him.” Lula was alluding to the killing of George Floyd, a black American, by a U.S. police officer last year. He pointed out that Cuba had the most educated population in the American continent and added: “If Cuba did not have the blockade, it would have been like the Netherlands. It has intellectually prepared, highly educated people. But Cuba has not even been able to buy respirators because of the inhuman U.S. blockade.”