Thousands took to the streets across Cuba this week, demanding food, electricity, medicine –and just plain freedom.
Cuba’s seen many protests over the years. But these were historic, says Cuba expert Ted Henken:
“The difference is this is no longer a handful of dissidents, journalists and artists," he says. "This is a large swath of the population ... all across the island."
Police were out in force, with internet blackouts across the island. Now, Cuba's leader has put some blame on his government for the protests, according to the Associated Press. But that might not be the end of this popular uprising.
Today, On Point: Scenes from Cuba's protests.
Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, artist, writer and blogger. He left Cuba in 2013. PhD student studying comparative literature at Washington University St. Louis.
Mónica Baró Sánchez, Cuban journalist. She worked for an independent magazine called El Estornudo, but left Cuba in January. (@Mona_Cuba)
Richard Feinberg, professor of international political economy at UC San Diego. Non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Author of "Open for Business: Building the New Cuban Economy." (@rfeinberg2012)
There are critical food shortages, electricity shortages, infrastructure problems in Cuba. Help us understand what is happening that caused these protests.
Mónica Baró Sánchez: “In Cuba, there's a huge crisis, of course, that is worse because of the pandemic. But the reasons, the causes of this crisis came from years ago. And I think the government has a great responsibility in the reality that we are living in Cuba, that we are seeing in Cuba right now. Of course, the embargo has a role in what's going on, but I think that the lack of freedom, of economic freedom and political freedom is the key to understand what is going on in Cuba. Because there are a lot of solutions that people, the society, people who live outside Cuba are providing since years ago.
"Also, many economists and other specialists are trying to explain to the government what is possible to do in Cuba in order to advance, in order to change the reality. And provide quality to the people who is living in Cuba. And the government just don't listen what the specialists, what the professionals are saying since a lot of years ago. And we saw yesterday that they approved the importation of different products, especially food and medicines from outside.
"But this is something that people were claiming since month[s] ago in order to respond to the lack of everything, not only medicines and food, there's also a lack of condoms, for example. And that's like a huge issue because it affects directly the health of people, and the quality of their lives. So there are a lot of causes. But I think that the main cause of this crisis is the lack of freedom. Because people want to participate in the solution of the problems. People want to take control of their lives, and want to determine the destiny of the nation. And the government just doesn't listen to what the people has to say, what the people want.”
We've seen protests in Cuba before, but not quite like this. What made these protests so unprecedented?
Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo: “I'm very moved, moved to tears by what's happening in Cuba. I would say it’s a wave of emancipation. The whole continent have been seeing a lot of popular demonstrations. Students, working sectors going to the streets. Suddenly in Cuba, there is like a mantra ... that the government expresses over and over that reads, the streets belongs only to the revolution. Namely, the streets are sequestered by the government.
"And suddenly students, not the leaders of civil society, not the leaders of the traditional opposition movements, which are all of them illegal in Cuba. But they work in sectors. The students, the poorer classes, people that were supposed to be defending the revolution suddenly are claiming openly change, we want the future to belong to us. This is a generational renewal. And the revolution better be ready to assume that if they are going to have any possibility for the near future, they need to open their society to all of the sectors of the society.
"The Cuban revolution cannot keep behaving like an old Cold War regime ... where all kind of dissent, and I'm not even talking of political opposition now, all kind of dissent is forbidden, is stigmatized, eventually harassed, taken to prison or forced, pushed to exile. That's not the way of running a country, especially a country so lovely like Cuba, that we are so friendly to all kind of nations, including the United States of America. Which people in Cuba love Americans. And suddenly this ideological and artificial difference between Cuba and America is completely, in my opinion, constructed, and fostered and manipulated by the Cuban gerontocracy, the power of the elderly.”
On America’s role in the protests
Richard Feinberg: “There's no doubt that the average Cuban's economic situation is deteriorating in part because of purposeful U.S. sanctions. If Cuban-Americans can't send remittances to their friends and relatives on the island, that hurts their friends and relatives on the island. If U.S. tourists can't visit the island and attend restaurants that are part of the emerging private sector, that, of course, hurts business in the private sector on the island. So that's obviously a very important factor.
"Now, is it also true, of course, that the Cuban government itself bears a lot of responsibility? And one thing, let me point out, I think there have been some important missed opportunities, both of the part so far of the Biden administration, which has so far not reverted back, as was generally expected, to the Obama policies of engagement and dialogue, which had produced positive results on the island, both political and economic. So some missed opportunities there so far.
"But also the government in Cuba had opportunities to dialogue with the intellectuals who had a very famous demonstration in front of the Ministry of Culture a few months back. They also had an opportunity to dialogue with the emerging private sector. As was mentioned by Monica, there was an intent to begin economic reform about a decade ago, but the government got cold feet, and halted and even reversed some of those market oriented economic reforms. So missed opportunities on both sides.
"As a result, particularly from the point of view of the Cuban government, their options are now more limited. Miguel Díaz-Canel, the new president's been around for about two years or so, has not shown the leadership, the willingness to move forward, to undertake important reforms. Just the opposite. He's emphasized continuity ... the same as Raul Castro. That's not what most Cubans, certainly not what most young Cubans want to hear.”
The protests are dying down, but what do you think is next for Cuba?
Mónica Baró Sánchez: "I think that what we're going to see next is going to be bigger, if the government doesn't change their policies. Because on November 27, we thought that was a great protest, that that was an incredible moment. But last Sunday, we saw something even bigger. And we also saw a lot of violence and a lot of repression. And the conclusion that I can take from all this is that while the government increases repression, the opposition to the government also increases."
This program aired on July 15, 2021.