The Guardian view on Cuba’s protests: people deserve better from their leaders – and the US
The crackdown is well under way. On Sunday, thousands of Cubans took to the streets in cities across the country, impelled by food shortages, high prices and other anti-government grievances. These were the biggest protests in decades. Over 140 activists, demonstrators and journalists are believed to have been detained or disappeared, and one man has died. A few hundred more protested on Monday, but – while internet shutdowns make it harder to follow events – the unrest appears to have ebbed for now. The discontent has not.
Though the speed and scale of the demonstrations took everyone by surprise, and owe much to the advent of social media, the pressure has long been building. Cuba is in the throes of its worst economic crisis since the “special period” of the early 1990s, after the Soviet Union, its patron, collapsed. The government’s long-term failings, including foot-dragging on reform, have been matched by the impact of the American embargo. Hopes aroused by Barack Obama’s restoration of relations and loosened restrictions were cruelly dashed when Donald Trump reclassified the country as a state sponsor of terrorism and imposed new sanctions barring travel to the country from the US and, crucially, remittances: a key source of income. Washington’s claim that Havana is failing to meet people’s most basic needs is undeniable. But the US has ensured this is the case. Mr Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, reportedly told diplomats that the aim of the tightened sanctions was to “starve” the island to bring down the regime.
The pandemic was a fresh blow to a country on its knees, killing off the tourism upon which Cuba is heavily reliant. The economy contracted by 11% last year and is thought to be doing worse this year. A necessary but too-long-delayed currency revaluation was finally carried out in the midst of the crisis, compounding the problems. Prices soared. Daily life means hours of power cuts and queues for scant food and scarcer medicines. While the country’s initial response to Covid was impressive – it has even produced its own vaccines – things are deteriorating swiftly. Last year, Cuba saw relatively few cases; it is currently notching up approximately 7,000 a day. The hospitals of its famed health service are overwhelmed. And the country’s leader, Miguel Díaz-Canel, lacks both charisma and the aura of the Castro brothers he followed. Many Cubans have had enough.
While Havana blames the US for stirring up the protests, Joe Biden’s top priorities are domestic. He has no interest in the intervention some demand (the mayor of Miami, Francisco Suarez, even suggested that airstrikes were an option that “has to be explored”). As a candidate, he promised to loosen restrictions. But having lost Florida to Mr Trump, with his predecessor claiming the lead among Cuban Americans there, he has not done so. It is harder to see him doing so in the wake of this week’s events. But the resumption of remittances, in particular, is sorely needed.
There is a grave danger that the Cuban government may become more, not less, repressive in response to these protests. Cubans have a right to demonstrate peacefully, to express their views, and to obtain information. And as the US secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, said this week, they have the right to determine their own future. That is a message which should be heard not only in Cuba, but in the US too. Cubans deserve better than to be treated as pawns.