Unrest is growing on the island nation of Cuba after more than a year of pandemic-related shortages, exacerbated by a lack of tourism revenue from overseas, has led to shortages of food and spiked consumer prices on what is left to purchase.
In an extremely rare scene on Sunday, thousands of Cubans marched along Havana’s famed seaside Malecon promenade and elsewhere to protest food shortages and high prices in one of the largest anti-government demonstrations since Cuba was taken over by the communist revolutionary Fidel Castro in 1959.
Groups of young people marched in Sunday’s protest in the capital city of Havana, disrupting traffic for several hours until police moved in.
The march was broken up after several protesters threw rocks, according to an Associated Press report.
The protesters, chanting the slogans “Freedom,” “Enough” and “Unite,” were allowed to demonstrate for some time while police monitored their actions from behind. At one point, a motorcyclist even pulled out a US flag, but it was taken from him by others right away.
Demonstrations in Cuba protest food shortages, astronomical prices
One middle-aged protester told the Associated Press “We are fed up with the queues, the shortages. That’s why I’m here.” The man refused to identify himself, he said, for fear of arrest.
Cuba is experiencing its worst economic crisis in decades, coupled with a new spike in coronavirus cases, as it suffers the consequences of stronger US sanctions imposed during the Trump administration along with the crippling effects of a downturn in tourism due to the pandemic.
The New York Times quoted Cuban activist Carolina Barrero as saying “It is the most massive popular demonstration to protest the government that we have experienced in Cuba since ’59.”
“What has happened is enormous”
According to Barrero, the rarely-seen demonstrations all over the country in the last week, culminating in the outpouring of public resentment on Sunday, were “spontaneous, frontal and forceful.”
“What has happened is enormous,” she opined..
These most recent protests in the Caribbean nation were set off by a desperate economic crisis fueled by several factors which have combined to seemingly take Cuba to a tipping point.
The tourism dollars normally spent by Europeans and others on the island are no longer flowing in, due to the pandemic. The stricter economic sanctions imposed during the previous American administration have also caused reverberations, adding to the misery as many are also out of work because so many restaurants and hotels are still shuttered due to the pandemic.
Now, Cubans must spend hours each and every day in line just to buy the basics for human sustenance.
These nearly intolerable conditions have occasioned an increase in migration by both land and sea, according to figures from the United States Coast Guard.
Just since last October, Coast Guard officers have intercepted more than 512 Cubans on the open seas; this is more than ten times the number of Cubans who tried to leave the island nation during 2020.
Just on Saturday, the Coast Guard was forced to suspend a search for nine Cuban migrants whose vessel was reported to have overturned off Key West, Florida, located at the shortest distance between the two countries.
According to the Cuban government, its seemingly eternal economic problems are due to the draconian effects of the American trade embargo, which disallows major access to financing as well as desperately-needed imported goods.
Now, of course, the economic effects of these sanctions have been exacerbated by the multifarious ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic, which have battered even the hardiest of the world’s economies over the past sixteen months.
The nation is experiencing a spike in coronavirus infections to the point that in Matanzas, east of Havana, coronavirus patients and their families are now posting YouTube videos showing extremely irate Cubans people who are literally screaming out their frustration concerning the lack of medicine and physicians.
According to the Times, the website for the Cuban Ministry of Health admits that there have been approximately 32,000 coronavirus cases in the country of 11 million. The Ministry said that there were an astonishing 6,923 new daily cases and 47 deaths just yesterday — establishing a new record for infections after setting the prior record on Friday.
Cuban health officials state that at this point, only approximately 15 percent of the country’s population is fully vaccinated against the virus.
The newest unrest in the Communist country, which has historically clamped down hard on any demonstrations whatsoever, gained momentum after many well-known figures in the artistic world in Cuba began to Tweet out their frustrations over the status quo using the hashtag #SOSCuba.
Mia Khalifa, who is a former adult film actress and who has almost four million followers, joined in the extremely unusual dissent by tweeting insults directed at Miguel Diaz-Canel, the president of the country. In yet another unheard-of development, his office even responded to criticism by the Puerto Rican singer Residente.
The post, however, was removed subsequently. The President rose to power three years ago, in a stunning development that marked the first time anyone other than a member of the Castro family had been allowed to assume the post.
Fidel Castro’s brother Raúl, who had already voluntarily handed over the reins, even stepped down as the leader of the isolated island nation’s Communist Party in 2021.
After Díaz-Canel assumed power, an increase in access to the internet appeared to fuel a wave of public discontent against him, which was spearheaded by artists in particular.
Bruno Rodríguez, the foreign minister of Cuba, Tweeted that Díaz-Canel had made a personal appearance in San Antonio de los Baños, where he continued to insist that “salaried” protesters were acting as provocateurs, trying to cause a reaction on the part of the authorities.
Demonstrations had been held in that city as well, where people were protesting the power outages that occur routinely there. The President entered several homes, where he even took questions from residents.
Cuban President blames Cuban-Americans for stirring up trouble
After he took part in these conversations, however, he accused Cuban-Americans of stirring up trouble.
“As if pandemic outbreaks had not existed all over the world, the Cuban-American mafia, paying very well on social networks to influencers and Youtubers, has created a whole campaign … and has called for demonstrations across the country,” Diaz-Canel complained to reporters.
A Cuban government Twitter account quoted the president as saying “Celebrating what they orchestrated today in San Antonio de los Baños only uncovers the worst nature of people.”
For his part, an official in the Biden administration tweeted his own support for the latest Cuban demonstrations which broke out on Sunday.
Julie Chung, the US’ acting assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, Tweeted “Peaceful protests are growing in #Cuba as the Cuban people exercise their right to peaceful assembly to express concern about rising COVID cases/deaths & medicine shortages. We commend the numerous efforts of the Cuban people mobilizing donations to help neighbors in need.”
Carlos F. de Cossio, the Cuban director general tasked with overseeing US affairs, dismissed Chung’s remarks when he Tweeted “US State Department and its officials, involved to their necks in promoting social and political instability in #Cuba, should avoid expressing hypocritical concern for a situation they have been betting on. Cuba is and will continue to be a peaceful country, contrary to the US.”
Sunday’s demonstrations in Havana included thousands of people in and around Galeano Avenue. Marchers continued their protest despite several charges by police officers and the throwing of tear gas at them by the authorities.
In addition, people who were seen watching the events unfold from many balconies along the central avenue in the Centro Habana neighborhood applauded the protesters who passed by. Other individuals joined in the march along with the initial protestors.
As a great number of people were seen trying to take cellphone videos of the proceedings in order to broadcast live or to simply document the unrest, Cuban authorities subsequently shut down internet service on Sunday afternoon.
Some protesters were seen pulling up cobblestones from the street and and throwing them at the police after approximately 2 1/2 hours of the demonstration and march. It was only then that officers began to take people into custody, causing the others to disperse.
Journalists from the Associated Press who were on the scene counted at least 20 protestors who were taken away in police cars or by unknown individuals who were wearing civilian clothes.
The Rev. Jorge Luis Gil, Catholic priest, protested to reporters while standing at a street corner in Centro Habana, saying “The people came out to express themselves freely, and they are repressing and beating them.”
At that point, a counter demonstration sprung up, when approximately 300 individuals who had government ties suddenly arrived on the scene carrying a large Cuban flag. They then shouted slogans showing their support for the late President Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution.
Some people from that group subsequently physically assaulted an AP videojournalist, completely disabling his camera, while another AP photojournalist was injured by the police in the melee.