- Lioman Lima – @liomanlima
- BBC News World
Cuba experienced the largest massive protest in its recent history this Sunday.
For the first time in more than 60 years, thousands of people took to the streets in some twenty towns and cities across the island shouting “freedom” and “down with the dictatorship.”
Given the spread of the demonstrations, President Miguel Díaz-Canel appeared before national television to summon his followers to take to the streets to “confront” the protesters.
“The order of combat is given: the revolutionaries take to the streets,” said the president, who attributed the current crisis that the island is experiencing to the United States embargo and measures by the Donald Trump government.
The protests began in the city of San Antonio de los Baños, in the southwest of Havana and, since then, they have spread like a spark in a tinderbox throughout the country.
“This is for the freedom of the people, we cannot take it anymore. We are not afraid. We want a change, we do not want any more dictatorship,” a protester in San Antonio said in a telephone dialogue with BBC Mundo.
Alejandro, who participated in the protest in Pinar del Río, told BBC Mundo that the protest in his province began after seeing what was happening in San Antonio de los Baños on social media.
“We saw the protest on the networks and people started to come out. This is the day, we can’t take it anymore,” said the young man by phone.
“There is no food, there is no medicine, there is no freedom. They do not let us live. We are already tired,” he added.
BBC Mundo contacted the International Press Center, the only government institution authorized to give statements to foreign media to find out its position, but did not receive an immediate response.
The protests this Sunday, which were harshly repressed according to numerous videos and social media accounts, are an extremely unusual event on an island where the opposition to the government no is allowed.
How, then, is it possible to explain that thousands of Cubans have taken to the streets from one end of the island to the other?
At BBC Mundo we offer you three keys to understanding it.
1. The coronavirus crisis
The protests on the island this Sunday seem to be the result of an accumulated exhaustion of the population that has increased in recent months after one of the greatest economic and health crises that the island has experienced since the so-called “special period” (the crisis in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union).
The trigger for the current situation seems to be, in fact, a mixture of the severity of the situation with the coronavirus and economic measures taken by the government that have made life in Cuba increasingly difficult.
The island, which kept the pandemic under control in the first months of 2020, saw a regrowth in recent weeks that has led it to be among the places with the most cases recorded by number of population in Latin America.
On Sunday alone, the island officially reported 6,750 cases and 31 deaths, although numerous opposition groups denounce that the figures do not give an account of the real situation and that many deaths from covid-19 are attributed to other causes.
During the last week, the country has broken its daily records of infections and deaths, which has led, according to reports, to the collapse of numerous health centers.
BBC Mundo spoke in previous days with several Cubans who say that their relatives died at home without receiving medical care or in hospitals due to lack of medicines.
This is the case of Lisveilis Echenique, who said that her brother, 35, died at home because there was no place for him in hospitals, or Lenier Miguel Pérez, who says that his pregnant wife died of what he considers “medical negligence “.
Cases like the previous ones began to multiply on social networks in recent days and, during the weekend, they were filled with messages under the hashtags #SOSCuba and #SOSMatanzas to request international aid and a “humanitarian intervention” in the face of the critical situation with the coronavirus on the island.
Thousands of Cubans joined the initiative, while Several videos of collapsed hospitals went viral.
In his message on Sunday, the Cuban president considered that the current situation was the same as that of other countries and that he had arrived in Cuba late because they had managed to keep the virus under control before.
He also stressed that Cuba had produced its own vaccines against the coronavirus (although the administration of the doses is still limited in most of the provinces).
2. The economic situation
With tourism practically paralyzed – one of the engines of the Cuban economy – the coronavirus has had a profound impact on the economic and social life of the island, coupled with the emergence of a rising inflation, blackouts, shortages of food, medicine and basic goods.
At the beginning of the year, the government proposed a new package of economic reforms that, while increasing wages, triggered prices and economists such as Pavel Vidal, from the Javeriana University of Cali, estimate that they could rise between 500% and 900% in the next few months.
In the absence of foreign currency liquidity, The government promoted since last year the creation of stores for freely convertible currencies, in which they began to sell some food and basic necessities available in a currency in which the majority of the population does not receive their salaries.
The pandemic has also been synonymous with long lines for Cubans to buy goods such as oil, soaps or chicken, and power cuts have become more and more frequent for some time.
Basic medicines have become scarce both in pharmacies and hospitals and in many provinces they have begun to sell pumpkin-based bread due to the lack of wheat flour.
Cubans interviewed in the last week by BBC Mundo say that in some medical centers there are not even aspirins to reduce fever, while the island has also seen outbreaks of scabies and other infectious diseases.
Last month, the government decided to stop accepting cash dollars “temporarily”, the main currency that Cubans receive in remittances, in a measure that is seen by economists as the most restrictive imposed on the US currency since it was penalized for for the government of Fidel Castro.
The Cuban government attributes the current economic situation to the United States embargo.
In his appearance on Sunday, Díaz-Canel assured that this was “the main problem that threatens the health and development of our people.”
3. Internet access
Before this Sunday, the largest protest that had taken place in Cuba after the start of Fidel Castro’s revolution took place in August 1994 in front of the Malecón in Havana.
So many Cubans in other provinces did not even know what had happened in the capital.
Almost 30 years after the one known as “Maleconazo”, the scenario is very different: despite the fact that during the government of Fidel Castro, Internet access on the island was restricted, Raúl Castro took opening steps that led to greater connectivity on the island .
Since then, Cubans have used social networks to denounce their discomfort with the government to the point that on many occasions they have led the authorities to respond in their official media about what Cubans are commenting on on the networks.
Today, a large part of the population, mainly young people, have access to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, which are also their main channels of information regarding the official discourse of the state media.
Access to the internet has also led to the emergence of numerous independent media that report on topics that did not generally appear in the official media.
The networks have also become the channel for artists, journalists and intellectuals to claim their rights or call for protests.
Last November, another demonstration took place that was organized through social networks after the police broke into the home of some young artists who were on a hunger strike.
In fact, Social networks were also the avenue in which the news of the protest in San Antonio spread on Sunday and the way in which the initial protest was organized.
The Cuban government assures that social networks are used by “enemies of the revolution” to create “destabilization strategies” that follow CIA manuals.
And although for many the protests were somewhat predictable, what will happen now is uncertainty.
Cuba is facing an unprecedented scenario of protests and police repression. It will be necessary to see in the `next days how the government reacts … and the Cubans.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.