The protests in the streets of Havana have taken many by surprise, although not so much those of us who follow the day-to-day reality of Cuban life closely. Social unrest has been growing in recent years, and it was only a matter of time before it exploded in some way. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic and health situation has become critical, and has become the trigger for massive protests, which will undoubtedly go down in history for their historical significance. However, the pandemic cannot be considered the cause of this social unrest, or certainly not the only cause. There has been a confluence of factors: the economic situation and the lack of opportunities, the democratisation of internet access, the population's disaffection with its government, racial and class inequality, the US embargo and the pressure exerted from abroad to force any kind of change in Cuba's immobility are all factors to be taken into account in an analysis of what is currently happening in Cuba.
In mid-2019, the country's economic situation began to worsen exponentially. In September of that year, the lack of oil brought the country to a complete standstill for a few weeks. The price of the old, heavy Chinese bicycles, which nobody wanted before, skyrocketed and became the only means of transport available. There were queues in the shops to buy oil and soap. There was no chicken, eggs or a thousand other basic commodities. The few that were available were exorbitantly priced, and some were rotting on the shelves of the markets, with no one able to buy them.
The situation in itself was not new, but it was all too similar to the dreaded special period of the 1990s, one of the blackest chapters in Cuba's history. So black that, on numerous occasions, reference to that period is avoided, as if it had never happened. Those were years of scarcity, hunger and lack of opportunities. Children remember with a shudder their snacks of bread and oil, the only thing available. Adults, the long hours of idleness, without work or the prospect of a job.
Lack of opportunity is the cause of a deep malaise on the island. Talk to any taxi driver in Havana and it is common to find that they have a degree in sociology, a master's degree in economics, or even a PhD in biotechnology, and that they resignedly accept that tourism makes more money than research. Cuban society has one of the best schooling rates in the world. However, it lacks the labour market to accommodate such educated people.
The country's GDP contracted by 11% in 2020, and by a further 2% so far this year. On top of this, inflation is running at 500% following the elimination of the dual currency. At the beginning of 2021, the CUC, the convertible currency equivalent to the US dollar, was officially phased out. This unpopular measure, because of the consequences it would entail, was announced as early as the end of 2019. It was intended to facilitate foreign investment, which was unable to operate in a country with two official currencies. However, it opened the door to other foreign currencies such as the dollar, the euro or the pound sterling, which became the currencies of exchange and the only way to obtain certain products. This "dollarisation", together with the devaluation of the Cuban peso, has pushed up the prices of basic goods, leaving a majority of the population dependent on the meagre ration card.
The resignation with which the population faced the 1990s has been lost and has been replaced by the non-conformism of the younger generation. One of the causes of this social change is undoubtedly the democratisation of internet access.
It was precisely in 2019 that the Cuban government reduced internet prices, which were still too expensive for the salaries of the majority. An hour's connection cost one US dollar. An average salary was less than 40 dollars a month. Despite the prohibitive prices, Cubans took full advantage of access to social networks.
The arrival of the internet opened a window to the world, and the youngest were exposed to other realities, other ways of life, and, above all, other forms of government. On Twitter and Facebook, the most widely used communication channels, protests against the economic, political and social situation in the country began to be heard. Under the strict Castro regime, it was not easy to hear voices that contradicted the official narrative. However, during that year and the years that followed, Cubans began to lose their fear. They began to organise and mobilise. The ultimate expression of the power of the networks came in 2020, with the demonstrations organised in solidarity with the so-called Movimiento San Isidro (MSI), whose members were imprisoned after demanding the release of rapper Daniel Solís.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the first measure adopted by the government after the outbreak of the protests was precisely to cut internet access.
It is also essential to take into account the impact that the institutional change promoted by the Communist Party has had on society. The great mistake made by Miguel Díaz-Canel, President of Cuba, was not to take into account the Cuban people's disaffection towards his government once the Castro brothers disappeared from political life. Díaz-Canel has not obtained the legitimacy to govern that Fidel Castro once had, nor does it look like he will.
The Cuban people have always shown their loyalty to their leader Fidel Castro, and even today he is a revered figure by most. However, the current political leaders, however much they present themselves as the government of "continuity", do not have the blind trust of Cuban society. The respect for the authority of Fidel, who through his struggle managed to liberate the people from the dictatorship and the US occupation, no longer exists. The new generations, who have not lived under that government, and only know it through stories, no longer feel that respect for the revolution, and are demanding changes that are taking too long to come.
In his appearance before the state media, Díaz-Canel once again blamed the situation on the United States. The embargo to which the island has been subjected for 60 years is undoubtedly one of the main causes of the serious economic crisis that Cuba is currently experiencing. Due to its extraterritorial nature, the United States prevents basic necessities such as food and medicines, as well as oil and other imported products from reaching the island, and in turn prevents foreign investment in the island, thus condemning it to autarky.
However, it is important to note that the Cuban government has, for too long, taken advantage of its victimhood and exploited the anti-American narrative to the full. It is always easier to blame others. It is one of the main human defence mechanisms. But Díaz-Canel has taken too much advantage of this situation, and Cubans have had enough.
They are asking for freedom to express themselves, to travel, to undertake, to be. They are asking for greater economic openness to avoid sinking further into a crisis that prevents the population from seeing their most basic needs, such as access to food or drinking water, covered. These changes have nothing to do with the US.
It seems impossible to describe Cuba, one of the last bastions of communism, as an unequal country. But institutionalised racism is compounded by huge class differences. These differences are a drag on the country's social unity and are increasingly polarising Cuban society. While the upper class, always belonging to the Party, lives carefree, the country's doctors and teachers can barely feed their families.
The more fortunate have inherited a car from the 1950s, and spend their lives cruising the streets of the city with carefree tourists. Others have a spare room that they rent for four dollars. For the rest, remittances from abroad are the only lifeline one can cling to. One hears from time to time, in the streets of Havana, that to survive, a Cuban has to have faith: family abroad. However, in 2020 remittances were drastically reduced after the administration of former president Donald Trump blacklisted the financial institution Fincimex, putting those who depended on their families in a difficult situation.
Racial inequality is also evident, although it certainly remains a taboo subject. The black population, which is not a minority, remains deeply discriminated against. As a result, only a few have access to university education or hold positions of power. The Cuban government implemented a quota system to try to reduce these differences, but it did not produce substantial results.
It is easy to delve into the possible causes of these historic protests, but less easy to foresee the consequences. There probably won't be any, at least for the time being. It is not the end of an era, as some predict. However, the Cuban government has the chance to seize this moment and gain much-needed legitimacy. It must begin a process of economic, political, and social renewal in a country that has been begging for it for years but has so far failed to make its voice heard. It is also time for the international community to put more pressure on the US government. The embargo on the island is causing too much damage to the population, and an unjust and illegal measure must not be allowed to continue.