Protestor in caravan against the U.S. embargo. La Habana, Cuba, March 28, 2021. Photo credit: Ricardo Tamayo IV

Cubans’ island-wide protests allege human rights abuses, calls for president to step down

6 mins read

Peaceful protests have been met with brutal government-sanctioned violence in Cuba. Once the “Pearl of the Antilles,” the biggest island in the Caribbean is a shell of its former self. 

For the past week, citizens have pushed back against mounting maladies in the once prominent socialist nation. The extreme circumstances follow the country’s failure to maintain suitable living conditions for residents throughout the island. Now, protestors call for the resignation of the President and First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba, Miguel Díaz-Canel. 

Suffering from a deteriorating infrastructure with issues ranging from extreme poverty to poor healthcare conditions, the problems in Cuba intensified when the government increased restrictions on information dissemination and free speech in conjunction with carrying out other human rights violations exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Beginning in early July, daily demonstrations have become increasingly contentious, as extreme measures were taken by law enforcement. Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces, the nation’s military, along with the police, have conducted mass arrests including reports of flogging protestors under the order of President Díaz-Canel. 

Cuban governmental response 

President Díaz-Canel has sidestepped accusations of gross human rights violations. Instead, he dispatched law enforcement, military personnel, and “revolutionaries” to respond to the peaceful protests, or “manipulators” with violence. Which can be seen as a divisive, manipulative tactic itself.

The president said of the protests, “This was headed by a group of manipulators who were lending themselves to the designs of those campaigns that appeared on social networks. The famous SOSMatanzas or SOSCuba, the call to the cacerolazo [a type of group protest where a cacophony of banging pots and pans are used] so that in several cities of Cuba there would be demonstrations of this type and there would be social unrest.” 

Originally used to report on the healthcare crisis in the Matanzas, a province east of Havana, Cuban youth created the popular social media campaigns #SOSMatanzas, and subsequently-renamed #SOSCuba, to garner international visibility across Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. With “insufficient hospitals, staff and supplies to fight the virus’ spread,” the small town faced soaring fatalities and other troubles. Hence, the hashtags were born and the calamities were presented on the global stage.

“We are not going to hand over sovereignty, or the independence of this nation,” the president urged.”[T]hey have to pass over our corpse if they want to overthrow the Revolution.”

Multiple  Latin America countries have also paid their two cents on the situation. While countries like Mexico side with the Regime, Peru and Chile urge the Cuban government to lend an ear to pro- democracy. In addition to the fact that civilians cannot legally carry arms, the threat of violence has historically kept the masses silent, docile, and obedient

COVID-19 Implications

In a world seemingly claiming a post-COVID-19 status, countries like Cuba are experiencing international negligence as a result of a 60-year-old trade embargo imposed by the U.S. The longest of its kind in modern history, the nation now sees a plethora of devastating issues.

Added to Cuba’s economic woes is its eroding healthcare during the global health crisis. There are approximately 11 million people in Cuba. To date, there have been a little over 250,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and just shy of 800,000 vaccinations, as reported by the World Health Organization. Despite being a Comminist regime, high income and opportunity inequality runs rampant, leaving a population consistently on the brink of poverty

The country’s communist status strains its earning potential. Cuba is not a part of the World Bank nor the International Monetary Fund, having withdrawn from each in 1960 and 1964, respectively. Also, engaging in business activities with the country requires additional, scrupulous bureaucratic processes. Basically, it is a pain to do business with the country and this decreases their economic prospects. In the face of financial uncertainty worldwide, COVID-19 did Cuba no favors in the business department.

In reference to the infrastructure, years improper or lack of maintenance has left much of the infrastructure crumbling. In 2019, a new constitution was ratified. A less authoritative approach to governance was implied and a continued focus on reform was emphasized, having promised clean drinking water and increased internet access to help efforts. Despite the aforementioned, there are frequent power outages, with the aging neoclassical buildings and pipes having long-lacked routine maintenance today. This has led to natural disaster unpreparedness and death, as well as clean water insecurity

Furthermore, additional restrictions to popular social media platforms and the internet have instituted, although protesters have taken to YouTube to livestream their demonstrations. Most have since been removed from the platform.

. . . .
La Havana, Cuba, 2020. Photo credit: Ricardo Tamayo IV

This has caused many to long-fear the consequences of political dissent or free expression of speech as the country has often been accused of harassing and denouncing objectors. Having included an increased number of regime-critical artists and journalists, like musician Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara or Spanish journalist Camila Acosta. In the past, alleged consequences for “delinquent” behavior of the Administration and security forces have ranged from intimidation and imprisonment, to torture. The government has even been accused of prisoner maltreatment. Due to their bastardization, prisoners often experience deplorable conditions. 

Moreover, Cuban medical internationalism sees industry professionals regularly being dispatched and sometimes leased to other countries for their expertise. It is one of their biggest viable exports with estimates upward of 30,000 doctors and nurses active in 67 countries. Thus, the Cuban healthcare system has earned a reputation as one of the best in the world. Yet, exacerbated by pandemic needs and coupled with state-controlled media, this may have also contributed to the current, hazardous healthcare ills. The medical system was already frail, but the pandemic saw a surge in demand of a nation infested with disease, but whose supply could not match.   

While calmly sitting at his desk, the president of the nation addressed the tensions, citing pandemic-specific shortages on resources such as food, medical supplies, fuel, and limits on exports. He shifted blame to bothered external influences that are “sponsoring terrorism,” mainly the U.S.

President Díaz-Canel explicated, “[The U.S. has] applied an unjust, criminal, and cruel blockade, now intensified in pandemic conditions and therein lies the manifest perversity, the evil of all those intentions. Blockade and restrictive actions that they have never taken against any other country, nor against those they consider their main enemies.” 

The country’s biggest exports are oil, tobacco, pharmaceuticals, and machinery. As well, the country’s residents have depended heavily on tourism and remittances, or financial support from family abroad. Popularly, and namely, involving their neighbors to the north. Yet, the effects of the pandemic on the international economic landscape only furthered the financial woes for citizens.

Leaving Cubans domestically and abroad agree with Díaz-Canel’s accusation of the U.S. being at the center of the country’s misfortune. They blame the restrictive, predatory nature of the trade embargo, which has restricted the U.S. and its business affiliates, Cuba’s business endeavors are further strained.

U.S. Response 

Demonstrations on the island are being reflected on the mainland in the U.S. Some proponents, like high school teacher, organizer, and Puentes de Amor head, Carlos Lazo, maintain that lifting the embargo is a huge part of the problem. They cite that its trading restrictions are antiquated and damaging, having contributed to the current situation.

Lazo tells The Militant, “The Cuban Americans and others who participate are a diverse group with different religious beliefs and ideologies. Some are anti-communist but they say ‘enough already’ of the embargo. Others are leftists,” Lazo added. “But everyone believes that the sanctions against Cuba should be lifted.”

Lazo and a group plan to march from Miami to Washington D.C. by July 25. Many are communists and do not mind the country remaining so.

Other supporters, such as the Cuban American Bar Association (CABA), are demanding world leaders to deliver international humanitarian aid to the people. They admonished the Cuban government’s harsh mistreatment of its citizens, asking that they be reprimanded.  

President of CABA, A. Dax Bello lamented that Cuba “has denied international humanitarian aid to its people, delayed medical treatment and care to its citizens in the midst of a pandemic, devalued its currency, and failed to provide its people with access to adequate life-sustaining nourishment.” 

Bello, a former Miami prosecutor continued with allegations by saying the “most egregious of all,” is the way Cuba’s government “has met the peaceful demonstrations of its discontented people with brutal and unrelenting force—declaring war against its own citizens.”

The CABA also advocates for a non-violent transition into democracy for the nation.  

In conjunction with the assassination of the Haitian president, international eyes are on the Biden Administration and their course of action. Following pressures to respond from organizations and officials including Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, the White House released a paragraph-long statement siding with the Cuban demonstrators

“We stand with the Cuban people and their clarion call for freedom and relief from the tragic grip of the pandemic and from the decades of repression and economic suffering to which they have been subjected by Cuba’s authoritarian regime,” The statement reads. 

Seemingly, the revolution of the past has become the catalyst for a possible one on the horizon.

Yolanda Aguilera focuses on culture, policy, and Afro-Latinidad.

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