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Keys to understanding the anti-government protests in Cuba

EL PAÍS looks at the factors that have sparked the demonstrations, from food shortages to the regime’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic

Hundreds of people protest against the Cuban government in Havana on Sunday (Spanish audio and captions).Photo: EFE

Cuba’s largest protests in decades took place on the island on Sunday, as Cubans denounced food shortages and the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has hit the vital tourism industry hard. Shouting “Down with dictatorship” and “Homeland and life” – a play on the Communist revolutionary slogan “Homeland or death” – the demonstrations have spread via social media, posing a rare challenge to the regime of President Miguel Díaz-Canel, the successor of Fidel and Raúl Castro.

Here are six key points on why the protests are happening now:

How did the protests start and what do the demonstrators want?

Hundreds of Cubans began protesting on Sunday in the towns of San Antonio de los Baños, near the capital of Havana, and Palma Soriano, in the country’s southeast, against extended electricity blackouts and to demand Covid-19 vaccines. These gatherings spread throughout the country and escalated into demands for “freedom” and political changes. They appear to be the largest since 1994 during the so-called “Special Period,” when hundreds of Cubans came out to protest against the precarious economic situation, just before the Cuban rafter crisis.

This time the protests were broadcast live on Facebook, with slogans chanted that are rarely heard in Cuba: “Down with the dictatorship” and “We are not afraid of communism.” In Cardenas, in western Cuba, state-owned stores were looted and police vehicles attacked.

The protests were quickly repressed by the government, with more than a hundred people arrested. A Spanish photographer for the Associated Press (AP), Ramón Espinosa, was assaulted by police officers.

How has Covid affected Cuba?

The protests appear to be spurred by deep frustration with the handling of the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on the economy. Cuba had managed to keep cases under control last year, with just 1,500 deaths in 2020. It also developed its own vaccines, which have fared well in Phase III trials, though uptake remains limited. In recent weeks, however, the disease has surged with 7,000 cases and 31 deaths reported on Sunday. The political opposition says the real figures are much worse and that health authorities in many areas are struggling to cope with the new cases.

A stagnant economy

Cuba relies on tourism for foreign currency and to keep its economy afloat. With international travel severely restricted, inflation has spiraled and electricity blackouts and food shortages have become the norm. In 2020, the economy contracted by 11%, the worst figure in three decades. The government proposed raising salaries and pensions but also put up prices in an economy it still largely controls. There are fewer and fewer products available in stores that accept the Cuban peso, while in shops that accept US dollars, cash is “temporarily” unavailable and only credit cards can be used. Most Cubans rely on cash remittances in US dollars, compounding their plight. The government blames the US embargo on Cuba for this problem.

How has the government reacted?

Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel has blamed the United States for the protests. In a live broadcast on Cuban radio and television, he said on Monday that his government will “confront and defeat” the embargo imposed by the United States, which worsened during the presidency of Donald Trump. He said the protests were designed to “fracture the unity of the people,” adding the demonstrators “got what they deserved,” in allusion to brutal police repression. Díaz-Canel had warned on Sunday that “provocations will not be allowed” and repeated Fidel Castro’s mantra: “The street belongs to the revolutionaries.” US President Joe Biden has expressed his support for the people of Cuba and their peaceful protests.

Where does the slogan “Homeland and life” come from?

A play on the official Castro slogan “Patria o muerte” (or Homeland or death), the rap song “Patria y vida” (or Homeland and life) has become the soundtrack of the protests. Cuban rappers Maykel Osorbo and El Funky, who live in Cuba, joined musicians exiled in Miami such as Gente de Zona to release the track, whose lyrics include: “Let’s no longer shout ‘Homeland or death,’ but ‘Homeland and life’.” The music video features the face of Cuban national hero José Martí burning to reveal George Washington on a one-dollar bill underneath, as the rappers sing: “Swapping Che Guevara and Martí for currency.”

Cuba after the Castros

It is the first time in the 62-year history of the regime founded by the Castros that the government and Communist Party leadership are led by a civilian, Miguel Díaz-Canel, and a new generation of leaders who did not fight in the Cuban Revolution. Following the death of Fidel Castro in 2016 and Raúl Castro’s retirement from the role of first secretary of the Communist Party in 2021, Cuba is at a crossroads. Díaz-Canel has served as president since 2018 and will be succeeded as head of state in 2028. He now faces the difficult task of maintaining power in the hands of the party. He will rely on two key figures with a business background: Prime Minister Manuel Marrero, who was in charge of tourism, and Luis Alberto López-Callejas, who helms the GAESA, the business arm of the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces.

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