What’s Changed in Cuba in the Year Since the Protests?

Facing one of the worst economic crisis in decades, anti-government protesters marched in Havana, Cuba, on July 11, 2021. Photo: The Associated Press

On July 11, it will be a year since massive demonstrations throughout Cuba sent shocking images worldwide that showed the discontent of many of the island’s citizens with the government. 

Thousands of Cuban residents took to the streets chanting “Libertad,” asking for freedom but also for food, medicine, and the basic staples of many societies. 

The Cuban government acted swiftly, arresting and jailing hundreds of protesters. Many received long prison sentences without benefit of due legal process, according to news reports. A new penal code was passed by Cuban lawmakers in May which strengthened penalties for crimes, including “other acts against the security of the State.” 

Cuba continues to undergo a severe economic crisis marked by food shortages and daily blackouts. The number of Cubans leaving the island has skyrocketed and surpassed 145,000, higher than the Mariel boatlift of 1980, which brought immigrants to the shores of the United States.  

University of Miami experts on Cuba shared their views about what is happening in the country a year after the protests. They include Michael Bustamante, associate professor of history and Emilio Bacardi Moreau Chair in Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, and John Twichell, lecturer and director of Latin American Studies. 

Have conditions changed since the July 11, 2021, protest? 

Bustamante: A year ago, Cuba was at its worst moment of the pandemic, with the country’s vaccine rollout lagging the pace of the Delta variant wave (in part because of shortages of supplies like syringes). Since then, Cuba has achieved some of the highest levels of vaccination in the hemisphere, case numbers have gone down, and mask requirements have been lifted. So, from a health perspective, things are better than they were a year ago. 

But, of course, the protests were also driven by deep economic and political grievances. And in those areas, I see no appreciable change. On the economic front, the recovery of tourism since the country reopened borders in November has been slow, inflation and shortages remain serious, and agricultural production remains low. 

On the political front, the protests of July have been followed over the past year with an ongoing judicial crackdown (arrests and trials for charges like “sedition”) and new measures to criminalize dissent. 

Twichell: In economic terms, conditions have worsened since July 11, 2021. Prior to the onset of the pandemic in early 2020, tourism was Cuba’s largest export and greatest contributor to Cuba’s GDP, and by extension, the Cuban Communist Party’s (CCP) revenue stream. For years, the CCP had been overwhelmingly pursuing public investment in the tourism sector (mainly through joint ventures with non-U.S. foreign investors to construct hotels), increasingly so after the normalization of relations with the U.S. in 2016. 

Cuba now imports approximately 70 percent of its food supply. The energy sector looks no better, with the island heavily reliant on different varieties of fuel imports to power its electrical grid. Due to its own economic constraints, Venezuela’s cutback in oil exports to Cuba has placed the country in a precarious position in terms of energy security, exacerbated by the reimplementation of the U.S. economic embargo and sanctions by the Trump administration in 2017. 

For these and other reasons, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, Cuba is experiencing perhaps its worst economic crisis in recent history, especially because tourism has not rebounded to anywhere close to its 2017 peak. 

In political terms, the CCP and Cuban president Miguel Diaz-Canel have been backed into a political corner by the economic crisis, which is challenging the ideological bases of communism under a command economy. 

Up to now, the CCP has been able to figure out policies, domestic and foreign, to provide basic necessities—energy, food, education, health care, medicine, and more—to its people, who in turn were loyal to the CCP regime. With this model now in question, the Cuban people, especially the youth, are questioning its legitimacy culminating in the July 2021 demonstrations that have had lasting political implications for the CCP. 

The main implication lies in the dilemma Diaz-Canel faces, calling for a choice between political liberalization and oppression, with the latter appearing to have been the tack taken, as illustrated by the harsh detentions, criminal prosecutions without due process, and terms of imprisonment imposed upon so many of the protesters. 

The government has imprisoned hundreds of young people who took part in the protests and even imposed a new legal code that gave them long prison sentences. What kind of message are they sending? 

Twichell: It is outright political repression intended to send a message to others in society that dissent will not be tolerated by the CCP. From the international community’s perspective, such imprisonments without due process constitute human rights violations and are a violation of the Organization of American States (OAS) Charter. 

One of the main players of “Patria y Vida,” the song that became the emblem of Cuban discontent with the government, has been sentenced to nine years in prison. Is there any hope for the youth of the island? 

Twichell: Maykel “Osorbo” Castillo—the rap artist and co-producer of “Patria y Vida” the song that inspired the July 11, 2021, demonstrations—is Black, raised in a poor family, and very much “la gente cubana.” The nine-year prison sentence, handed down without due process and intended to make an example of Castillo to advance its repressive position, is a dangerous calculation by the CCP at a time when it knows it cannot control the internet, and by association the youth, in Cuba. 

The internet still remains the principal mechanism for dissent, is what brought about the somewhat spontaneous demonstrations, and continues to drive the sentiments of the Cuban people, the youth especially, today. 

Bustamante: The recent trials of Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and Maykel Castillo—both of whom appear in the “Patria y Vida” video—are among the hundreds that have taken place since last July, albeit two of the most closely watched. 

Cuban youth do not think with one mind. Not all were “Patria y Vida” fans. One of the paradoxes of this moment is that Cuba is also experimenting as it has never before with private sector reform, and there are young Cubans who see new opportunities and hope for a better future in that space, despite present economic difficulties. 

But make no mistake: this is a dark moment in which many young people see little hope other than to migrate due to a combination of economic crisis and declining political horizons. 

How have the repercussions of the protests and discontent influenced migration by Cubans? 

Twichell: The aforementioned economic, political, and social factors have not improved and have therefore increasingly become migration push factors for the Cuban people. This, combined with the Nicaraguan government’s recent decision not to require entry visas for Cuban nationals, has increased the flow of Cubans to Central America where many then seek to migrate to the U.S. Moreover, with the Cuban Adjustment Act still in place, which allows Cuban immigrants in the U.S. to apply for permanent resident status after spending one year and one day in the country, the incentive still very much remains for Cubans to migrate to the U.S., especially in these times of national crisis in Cuba. 

Bustamante: Migration is not mono-causal. Just as a perfect storm of conditions (material, political, and diplomatic) contributed to the protests a year ago, a similar constellation of factors has led to the largest out-migration of Cubans in 40-plus years—with more than 140,000 crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in the current fiscal year. There are cases of migrants who participated in the protests and have fled, fearing they could be charged. 

But broadly speaking, the migration is driven by a combination of economic crisis, political disenchantment, and pent-up demand. Even before the pandemic, and until recently, the U.S. consulate in Havana had been closed for several years, cutting off legal channels for migration. U.S. policy is not irrelevant to the migration crisis at hand. 

Have the renewed talks between U.S. immigration and Cuban officials brought some hope to the plight of the Cuban people? 

Twichell: Firsthand accounts I have heard from Cubans indicate some hope for relief in the short term with the reopening of U.S. consular services in Havana and with the potential easing of limits on remittances sent back to Cuba from the U.S. Hyperinflation in Cuba has made remittances crucial to one’s ability to obtain the most basic necessities. 

Bustamante: Not yet, as far as I can see. There has been one round of renewed migration talks so far. The read-outs from each delegation at the meeting were concise and did not share many specifics, aside from a commitment to continuing the dialogue. One can surmise that after several years of no such talks, both sides used the occasion to air grievances as much as propose solutions. 

The U.S. Embassy in Havana is restaffing and slowly restarting consular services—though it must be noted that even if the U.S. succeeds in issuing the 20,000 visas per year it is obligated to under the 2017 U.S.-Cuba Migration Accords, that number represents a drop in the bucket from present demand. Cuba, meanwhile, continues to cooperate with repatriations of migrants picked up at sea, though it is not yet—as far as I know—resumed receiving deportees direct from the U.S.

– Barbara Gutierrez, UM

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