Communist Cuba continues to grapple with deep economic and social challenges, worsening the conditions that led to unprecedented anti-government protests two years ago. Despite the Cuban government’s notorious intolerance of dissent, the situation has only deteriorated since then.
Long queues for essential goods like food, fuel, and medicine have become a daily reality for the Cuban population. The country is grappling with double-digit inflation, a struggling tourism sector, and a decline in sugar production, which has traditionally been a significant part of the economy.
The lack of foreign currency and the devaluation of the peso have contributed to rising prices, pushing more Cubans to seek ways to leave the island. The protests that took place on July 11 and 12, 2021, initially sparked by similar grievances, involved people chanting slogans like “Freedom!” and “We are Hungry” in dozens of cities and towns.
A year later, President Miguel Diaz-Canel promised that the nation of 11 million people would soon recover from the “complex” economic situation exacerbated by six decades of US sanctions and the devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the vital tourism industry. However, as another year has passed, little progress has been made, if any.
Cuban political scientist Arturo Lopez-Levy, affiliated with the Autonomous University of Madrid, explained that the government has limited options in the short term. President Diaz-Canel has been constrained by the dire state of food and energy security inherited from his predecessors, Fidel and Raul Castro.
In an attempt to alleviate shortages, the Cuban government authorized small and medium enterprises in 2021. While this move has helped to some extent, it has also widened inequalities due to the higher prices that many people dependent on government support cannot afford.
Growing discontent among Cubans has resulted in more open expressions of frustration with the authorities. In the past year, intermittent protests against power outages occurred in several provinces, despite political opposition being prohibited and protests being extremely rare prior to 2021.
In May of this year, dozens of people demonstrated against shortages of food and medicine in Caimanera, a town located 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) away from the capital. These protests were spontaneous reactions to the challenging living conditions rather than organized events, according to Lopez-Levy.
Sociologist Rafael Hernandez, editor of the Temas social sciences magazine, views these demonstrations as evidence of the “erosion of government credibility and its policies for emerging from the crisis.”
As Cubans have grown bolder in expressing their grievances, the government has responded with arrests and harassment, as reported by activists. Intermittent internet blackouts have been used to stifle dissident voices. Justicia11J, a rights group, describes a “new wave of repression” currently occurring in the country.
Over 1,500 individuals were arrested following the 2021 protests, and hundreds remain in custody. Official data indicates that 488 people have been sentenced to prison terms of up to 25 years on charges such as contempt and public disorder.
Numerous activists have chosen to leave the country due to these oppressive conditions. The Cuban government has repeatedly placed blame on the United States for the unrest, stating through its official mouthpiece, Granma, that Washington bears “direct responsibility” for the protests.
Amnesty International, highlighting the adoption of a new penal code last year, warns of the deteriorating human rights situation in Cuba. Critics argue that this code was designed to preemptively suppress any displays of public discontent. Under the law, individuals engaging in demonstrations that violate the code can face imprisonment for up to two years.
The Vatican, the European Union, and the United States have all called for the release of imprisoned protesters. As the two-year anniversary of the protests approaches, large numbers of police and security forces have been deployed in the streets of Havana in preparation, as observed by AFP reporters.