Liuba lvarez leaves her home three times a week at 3.45am to line up in front of her local supermarket for basic goods like meat, oil and detergent. Her last queue was relatively short: after eight hours she came home with some minced meat in time for lunch. Other days she does not return until 5 p.m.
Tiresome, says lvarez, 47. Waking up early gives me migraines, but it is the only way I can take these products to feed my children.
Cubans are used to the queues. But since pandemic, endless lines, tight wages and power outages have become a harsh reality for millions. And on Sunday tensions erupted in the largest anti-government protests in decades. Social media, the pandemic and harsh US sanctions combined with a new generation hungry for higher living standards have made for a dangerous cocktail with which the ruling Communist party is trying to fight.
Cubans need cigarettes, coffee and food to be happy, Rey Alonso, 41, in central Havana on Tuesday, said. Four years ago we had everything you could go out and buy a can of cola. Now everything is gone. Of course people took to the streets!
Cuba has one of the lowest Covid mortality rates in the region, with less than 2,000 dying from the disease since the onset of the pandemic. But the island, which hospitalizes all those who test positive for the virus, has been hit hard by new variants: Cuba on Saturday recorded a record 6,923 new infections. #SOSCuba was on trend on Facebook as hospitals in the western city of Matanza were so overcrowded that they placed patient beds in the hallways. The increase in the number of cases has increased anxiety in the population.
Developing its own Covid vaccines has been the number one priority of states and 17% of Cubans have been vaccinated so far. But laundering money in vaccine production has left the state immersed in money with little funding to import other essential medicines, and pharmacy shelves are barren.
Trump sanctions still in effect
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken on Monday criticized the Cuban regime for failing to meet the most basic needs of the people, including food and medicine. For decades, however, U.S. policies have been clearly designed to create such shortcomings. (When you first think of sanctions, President Dwight Eisenhower supposed that If they [the Cuban people] are hungry, they will throw Castro out.)
Donald Trumps’s maximum pressure campaign against the island limited foreign exchange inflows: flights to the island were disrupted, cruise ships were banned, shipments were canceled and US firms were allowed to sue multinationals investing in Cuba. Target, then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, reportedly told diplomats, was to starve the country.
Then the pandemic stroke, which wiped out tourism one of the last sources of foreign revenue in Cuba.
The states’ response to the revenue contraction was the reluctant opening of dollar stores, an action which proved deeply unpopular as it vividly embodied the divide between foreign-currency assets and those that did not. On Sunday, dollar stores across the country were looted.
Although he was vice president during Barack Obama’s rapprochement with Havana, Joe Biden has not lifted any of Trump’s sanctions. After losing Florida in 2020 in part because more than 60% of American Cubans in South Florida voted for Trump, the Biden administration is careful to do anything that will alienate this bloc.
Cuba launched mobile internet late, in 2018, but more than 4 million people now access the internet through their phones.
The Internet and especially social media has changed the balance of power between citizens and the state. After hundreds of people took to the western city of San Antonio de los Baos on Sunday morning, the videos were viewed by people in Havana within minutes.
Approximately $ 20 million of US federal funds spent on factors promoting democracy in the way Cubans experience the Internet.
Anti-Castro news sites funded by US tax dollars advertise heavily on Facebook and YouTube. VPNs are needed to make credit card purchases in Cuba, and to download many applications. When using the well-known Psiphon VPN, for example, advertisements for Cubanet, Cuba DNA and Diario de Cuba all state funded appear as paid content.
Articles from these media outlets are extremely negative, adding to the sense of condemnation, darkness and hopelessness that formed the backdrop to Sunday’s protests.
In recent years, Internet access to dissident blogs and US government-funded news websites was blocked in Cuba, but major international news websites were available. As of Sunday evening, internet has been cut across the island.
Hunger for change
Politically, Cuba is marked by a strong generational divide: the older generations who lived in an era in which health care, literacy, and access to culture greatly improved tended to support government; but those born after the fall of the Soviet Union have grown up between lack and privacy and are more likely to oppose it.
This younger, less lenient generation is often uninterested in the external causes of the islands’s condition (many of them withdraw by citing the US blockade, which they see as an excuse and, sometimes, a hoax ). The blame for a system that fails to provide for their needs lies entirely with the government.
This generational cleavage was clear on Sunday: the anti-regime protesters were in the new majority; pro-government protesters tended to be older.
Claudia Genlui Hidalgo, a 30-year-old member of Movimiento San Isidro, a collective of artists who oppose restrictions on artistic freedoms, said the fact that the protests were spontaneous rather than organized showed the level of discontent in Cuban society.
Cubans need change for the better, she said, wanting to live in a democratic society where power is less centralized.
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