TORONTO — Protests this week in Cuba marked the largest in the country in 25 years as demonstrators rallied against shortages of food and medicine, as well as electricity outages and the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some have also called for political change in a country that has been under one-party rule for the past 60 years.
The protests are notable in a country where mass demonstrations have been rare, and police have reportedly made hundreds of arrests, prompting criticism from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Thursday.
“We’re deeply concerned by the violent crackdown on protests by the Cuban regime,” he said at a press conference in Montreal Thursday. “We condemn the arrests and repression by authorities of peaceful demonstration.”
WHY ARE THE PROTESTS HAPPENING?
A decades-long U.S. trade embargo on Cuba has forced the island nation to rely heavily on its tourism industry in recent years. With the pandemic essentially freezing global travel last year, Cuba’s perpetually struggling economy has been devastated, Judith Teichman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview on Friday.
“Cuba depends very much on the tourism industry, so the major source of Cuba’s foreign exchange earnings have been hit very hard and Cuba depends on its foreign exchange earnings to import food so that means that food availability has declined and it also means that prices have gone up,” she said.
The pandemic effect comes as Cuba had already been dealing with falling trade with political allies Venezuela and Cuba, with exports to Venezuela plunging as that country has dealt with its own economic crisis.
Alongside the economic effects of the pandemic, the direct human toll on the island has worsened in recent weeks, as daily COVID-19 infections hit new daily highs above 6,000 in early July, according to data from Cuba’s Ministry of Public Health. This is in spite of Cuba having developed its own vaccine, and some protestors have called for a faster pace of vaccinations.
According to Reuters, Cuba has administered just under eight million doses, which means somewhere around one-third of the population is vaccinated, assuming each person needs two doses.
Many protestors also appear to be calling directly for freedom and the end of the Communist Party that has ruled Cuba for about six decades, much of it under former president Fidel Castro.
THE GOVERNMENT RESPONSE
Predictably for a country that has long faced criticism for punishing dissent and public criticism, police reacted quickly once the protests began last Sunday, arresting hundreds. This has prompted international criticism.
President Miguel Diaz-Canel alarmed many when he called for “revolutionaries” to take to the streets where the protests were happening.
“It was interpreted as a call to arms,” Karen Dubinsky, a professor of history and global development at Queens University, said in an interview. “I was shocked actually by that response.”
According to reports and posts from Cuba, the country restricted media access and shut down certain social media apps as the protests continued.
THE U.S.-CUBA BACKSTORY
On Monday, Diaz-Canel gave a nationally-broadcast speech in which he blamed the unrest in the country on the “economic asphyxiation” of the U.S. embargo. While that may be too simplistic an explanation on its own, there’s little doubt that Cuba’s plight over the past quarter century has been heavily influenced by U.S. policy.
The U.S. ceased trade and eventually severed diplomatic ties with Cuba in the early 1960s after the Cuban revolution brought Fidel Castro to power under a communist-style government allied with the U.S.S.R. For the next 30 years, the Cuban economy relied heavily on subsidies and sugar exports to the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc nations.
Those supports ended when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, as did imports of food, fuel and other goods from those countries to Cuba, which caused an economic crisis. However, the U.S. continued to embargo Cuba in the hopes destabilizing President Fidel Castro’s regime. The UN General Assembly has passed a resolution each year since 1992 calling for an end to the trade restrictions.
Since then, Cuba has relied heavily on Venezuela and China as trading partners, and its tourism industry has flourished, with Canadians frequent visitors to the island.
“You could imagine that if Cuba was not faced with the trade and investment embargo that it would have a much more diversified source of foreign exchange earnings,” said Teichman. “Its economy probably would have been much more prosperous and it probably would be in a better position to manage the economic downturn that has come about.”
However, some critics also say the Cuban government has done little to adapt and open up its state-run economy, which has harmed its growth prospects.
THE SHORT-LIVED THAW
The closest the U.S. embargo came to ending was under President Obama, who began a process of normalizing relations between the two countries. However, under President Trump, that process was halted. The Trump administration put in place restrictions more severe than had been in place before Obama, including cracking down on the few travel opportunities that existed for Americans to visit Cuba and labelling the country a state sponsor of terrorism.
While the election of Joe Biden as president raised expectations that a thawing in the relationship would resume, Biden has done very little since taking office, likely in part due to pressure from expatriate Cubans, who make up a substantial voting lobby in Florida and would like to see the country’s communist regime fall.
“I think maybe part of the frustration that we see now is not only the economy in freefall but this moment of hope from a few years ago that then just got like warped by the Trump era,” said Dubinsky. “There was a lot of happiness that Trump didn’t win again and that Biden was going to bring things back to the Obama times, and he just hasn’t done that at all.”
In contrast to the U.S. approach to Cuba, Canada has longstanding commercial ties with Cuba across several industries, and former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had a particularly close relationship with Fidel Castro.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s statement on Thursday followed an earlier more neutral government statement from Global Affairs Canada, and he faced criticism from Conservative leader Erin O’Toole for not earlier criticizing the Cuban’ government’s actions.