TThe violent protests that broke out in Cuba in early July were the first serious social unrest since the Maleconazo of 1994, 27 years ago. Both periods were characterized by deep economic crises. I lived in Havana in the mid-1990s and witnessed the conditions that triggered the uprising: empty food markets, stores and pharmacy shelves, regular power outages, production and transportation paralysis. Such were the consequences of the collapse of the socialist bloc, which accounted for about 90% of the island’s trade.
Betting on the collapse of Cuban socialism, the United States passed the Torricelli Act of 1992 and the Helms-Burton Act of 1996 to hinder the island’s commercial and financial relations with the rest of the world. Meanwhile, more sophisticated and multifaceted “regime change” programs were developed, from Clinton’s people-to-people programs to the Bush Commission for a Free Cuba. From the mid-1990s to 2015, the United States Congress allocated about $ 284 million to promote (capitalist) democracy.
The story of how, against all odds, the Cuban revolution survived the last three decades is the central theme of my book. In some fields, such as biotechnology and medical internationalism, it flourished. However, since 2019, conditions reminiscent of the “special period” have returned to Cuba, as a direct result of US sanctions. The Trump administration implemented 243 new coercive measures against Cuba, blocking its access to international trade, finance and investment at a time when foreign capital had been given a fundamental role in the island’s development strategy. The inevitable and expected result has been shortages of food, fuel, basic goods and medical supplies. Thus, while Cuba has Covid-19 vaccines, they cannot buy enough syringes to administer them, or medical ventilators for their ICU units.
Strict sanitary restrictions, imposed by Cuban authorities in response to the pandemic, have impeded the ability of Cubans to “sort out“ (solve problems through alternative channels) and socialize. Covid cases continue to rise, generating anxiety among Cubans, despite the fact that infection and death rates remain low relative to the region. In all Cuban homes, people take turns getting up at dawn to join the queues for basic goods. No one should be surprised that there is frustration and discontent.
Critics of Cuba blame the government for the daily difficulties Cubans face and dismiss US sanctions as an excuse. This is like blaming a person for not swimming well when chained to the ground. The US blockade of Cuba is real. It is the longest and most extensive system of unilateral sanctions applied against any country in modern history. It affects all aspects of Cuban life.
At the UN general assembly on June 23, a total of 184 countries supported the motion of Cuba for the end of the US blockade. It was the 29th year that Cuba won the vote. The representative of the United States, Rodney Hunter, affirmed that the sanctions were “a legitimate way to achieve foreign policy, national security and other national and international objectives.” He also described them as “a set of tools in our broader effort toward Cuba.”
Another key tool in recent years has been social media. In 2018, Trump established an Internet task force to promote “the free and unregulated flow of information” to Cuba, just as the country expanded facilities that allow Cubans to access the Internet through their phones. During this summer, the social media campaign, which sees Miami influencers and YouTubers encouraging Cubans on the island to take to the streets, increased. As spontaneous and authentic as it may seem, behind this is US funding and coordination.
On July 11, I was in Havana, watching the Euro Cup final in a Cuban home when the broadcast was interrupted by an announcement from the president, Miguel Díaz-Canel. He had been in San Antonio de los Baños, on the outskirts of the capital, where a protest had turned into a riot, with shops looted, police cars overturned and stones thrown. Simultaneous protests had taken place in dozens of places on the island. In Matanzas, where Covid-19 cases have skyrocketed, there was great destruction. Díaz-Canel ended the broadcast by calling on the revolutionaries to take to the streets. Thousands of Cubans responded to his call.
Meanwhile, the mayor of Miami asked Biden to consider air strikes against Cuba, while there were half-plans for a Florida naval flotilla. International media portrayed massive opposition to an incompetent government, violently repressed peaceful protests, and a regime in crisis. This narrative has featured exaggerations and manipulations. Images have been shared in the press and on social media claiming to show anti-government protests that have, in fact, been the opposite. Photos of protests in Egypt and sports celebrations in Argentina have been attributed to the Cuban protests on July 11.
From the United States, where violent protests and police killings occur with tragic regularity, and where a right-wing insurrection attempted to reverse the outcome of the 2020 elections, new President Joe Biden described Cuba as a “failed state.” On July 30, it had already imposed new sanctions, despite campaign promises to roll back those sanctions.
Since the July 11 protests, I have traveled all over Havana for my work. The only significant protests I’ve seen in the capital have been those in support of the government, including a 200,000-strong demonstration in Havana on July 17. The Cubans with whom I speak to reject violence and interference from the United States. They trust that Cubans know how to swim, but they need the chains of the US blockade to be cut.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism