July 2021 brought a period of unrest in Cuba, the likes of which had not been seen since the 1959 revolution with Fidel Castro.
On July 11, 2021 people came to the streets to protest against the country’s conditions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the pandemic began in March of 2020, Cuba had not really seen massive amounts of coronavirus cases like other countries across the globe had. Instead, they were simply faced with a massive economic downturn. This was partially due to the fact that a massive part of their economy was tourism, which was largely halted until November 2021. No longer could they get income from people visiting their countries as their borders were immediately shut down when the pandemic began. Additionally, when COVID-19 actually started to rear its ugly head and cases were on the rise in mid-2021, Cuba was faced with another issue. There were massive shortages within the healthcare system revealed and thousands of people with COVID-19 were forced to go without medical care. During this time period, massive blackouts happened across the island. There were also massive food and supply shortages as they were still facing massive economic sanctions from President Trump’s fiscal policies and embargoes.
First, it is important to note that Cuba is a unique case when it comes to the pandemic. Surprisingly, they claim to have not faced that many cases in the first year of the pandemic. While many people argue the validity of this claim, it seems to be true. In March 2020, they closed their borders and were able to keep COVID-19 out for the most part. Their success with the disease changed in the summer of 2021 when cases began to go on the rise. Thousands were hospitalized and many began to die. Although Cuba claimed to be manufacturing their own version of the vaccine, there were still many issues with the distribution and implementation of it. People were dying and their families and loved ones were getting angry.
Although a pandemic is never good for any economy, COVID-19 created even worse problems than the state already had. Not only was the entire world in an economic depression with entire industries and countries shut down, the implementation of pandemic-related restrictions made it even harder for a country that relies largely on tourism to survive. Already there were massive sanctions on imports into Cuba from the Trump Administration. The island relies on imports in order for it to run smoothly. These sanctions had crippled the economy before the pandemic even began. When the economy worsened throughout 2020, people began to call for better wages and even improved conditions. In response to these calls, the government also stated that there would be 300% to 900% increases in the price of goods that came with an increase in wages. This was not enough.
People still decided to take to the streets to demand basic necessities. With massive blackouts in the heat of summer, people lived in sweltering homes. They couldn’t afford to put dinner on the table, let alone buy goods to actually live and not just survive.
The protests in the state were the largest in decades. With over 1,200 people detained during the protests, 710 of them currently face charges. Of the accused, 55 people aged 16-18 are being prosecuted as adults. In Cuba, the age you must be in order to be tried as an adult is only 16. This act of prosecuting minors is something that the state has received a lot of condemnation for. Especially as dozens of these people being prosecuted have already been sentenced with their penalties ranging from 4 to 30 years in jail. The crime that most of these people are charged with is sedition, or the act of supporting a rebellion against Cuban authorities.
The Cuban prosecutors argued that these accusations of crimes against minors were completely unfounded and “fake news.” Many of those arrested also claim that they were not given access to a lawyer or proper legal protections. However, the prosecutors office also argues that these claims were made in order to manipulate public opinion and that these people who are being prosecuted have the full protections of the law. This has been argued against by a massive amount of human rights watch organizations and people reporting from the ground.
While one may argue that there is not much democracy to even erode in Cuba, the protests that happened last summer prove this wrong. Even though Cuba had largely been a totalitarian state since the 1950s, recent years have shown an increase in personal freedoms. People now have access to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. While industries, businesses, and news corporations are state-owned, they now have access to social media and are much more exposed to information coming from outside the state.
However, these protests bring up something deeply wrong with deeply wrong with Cuban society. Not only are protests forbidden and discouraged, those who participate are punished. The fact that so many people were not only detained, but also arrested (and with many of them being charged with sedition and facing up to 30 years in prison) shows a massive reversal in these policies. People were just now being able to expose themselves to information outside of their usual sources. Now, people who were not even part of the protests are being prosecuted for crimes they did not commit.
The proliferation of COVID-19 in Cuba during the Summer of 2021 highlighted deep issues within Cuban society. An increasing amount of blackouts revealed that there were massive infrastructure issues within the state. Increases in food and supply shortages, which were already happening before the pandemic began due to President Trump’s sanctions on the state, caused people to be unable to get supplies as simple as wheat flour.
Hi Julianna! You raise some really interesting points about the precursors to the recent protests in Cuba, as well as the antidemocratic response to these protests by the Cuban government. You mention the impact of the US embargo/Trump’s rigidity and restrictions toward trading with Cuba on a couple occasions, but focus primarily on the authoritarianism of the Cuban government. This struck me as an interesting perspective that perhaps does not take into account the impact of globalization/the United States’ ‘promotion of democracy’ throughout the world. A large part of the reason why Cuba was left astray, struggling to provide support to its citizens during the Covid-19 pandemic is that the United States restricted trade with the country so heavily. Regardless of regime-type, when a country is isolated from the global economy, its domestic economy will suffer. Of course the Cuban government should not have responded to the protests with such a violent, anti-assembly and anti-free speech crackdown. However, it would be short-sighted to assume that these human rights abuses were solely due to the Cuban government’s political interests. I believe the United States’ historic embargo on Cuba, as well as Trump’s restoration of these economic restrictions, is emblematic of the questionable relationship between the West’s promotion of democracy at the expense of the human rights of the citizens of other sovereign states. Moreover, you mention that the Cuban government has been authoritarian only since the Cuban revolution.
Though this is a common misconception by the United States government, as previously, the Cuban government was cooperative with and supportive of the United States, the Batista regime was extremely violent and authoritarian. This was one of the primary reasons for Castro’s communist revolution. It is arguable that the United States’ promotion of democracy in foreign sovereign states has, in many cases, contributed to democratic backsliding within them. Void of this context, the narrative regarding the protests in Cuba can reinforce pre-existing notions of the superiority of democracy and the otherness, primitiveness, or oppressiveness of states led by other forms of government. In fact, Cuba has been able to achieve many things that the United States, a ‘democracy’, has been unable to accomplish, such as universal healthcare, universal literacy, etc. This is not to say that the Castro regime is not authoritarian — it nearly categorically is. However, looking at this situation not from the perspective of states or citizens, but rather human beings, we can see that the promotion of democracy can be harmful and regressive, and, in some cases, embolden authoritarian crackdowns.