How Hunger Has Fueled the Cuba Protests

Hospitals and pharmacies have run out of medicines as basic as penicillin and aspirin. Blackouts have become maddeningly frequent and agonizingly long. Cubans lucky enough to have foreign currency wait in line for hours for staples like beans and rice.

A searing economic decline, leading to hardships Cubans have rarely seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union devastated their country in the 1990s, has stirred the island’s largest protest movement in decades, eliciting a chorus of support from American politicians and angry threats from Cuba’s government.

“We stand with the Cuban people and their clarion call for freedom,” President Biden said in a statement on Monday, citing what he called “decades of repression and economic suffering to which they have been subjected by Cuba’s authoritarian regime.”

His comments followed an astonishing wave of demonstrations on Sunday, when thousands took to the streets around the nation, shouting phrases like “freedom” and “Homeland and life,” a twist on the governing Communist Party’s motto: “Homeland or death.”

Protesters even overturned a police car and looted a government-run store — acts of open defiance shared widely online in a nation with a long and ruthlessly effective history of quashing dissent.

Cuba’s president, Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, the first person outside of the Castro family to lead the country since the Cuban Revolution more than 60 years ago, has cast the outpouring as an existential threat.

“They’ll have to walk over our dead bodies if they want to take on the revolution,” he said in remarks prominently displayed on the front page of the Cuban Communist Party newspaper Granma on Monday. “We’re willing to do everything and we’ll be on the streets battling.”

But even he had to acknowledge the severity of the nation’s problems, saying on Monday that he understood how trying the past few months had been for Cubans. He pleaded for their patience, while also calling the demonstrations the product of an underhanded campaign by Washington to exploit peoples’ “emotions” at a time when the island is facing food scarcity, power cuts and a growing number of Covid-19 deaths.

“We must make clear to our people that one can be dissatisfied, that’s legitimate, but we must be able to see clearly when we’re being manipulated,” Mr. Díaz-Canel said. “They want to change a system, to impose what type of government in Cuba?”

Mr. Biden’s remarks, which flatly called Cuba’s government “an authoritarian regime,” marked a notable shift in tone from the position advanced by former President Barack Obama, who had emphasized sweeping aside decades of animosity between the two countries and cutting loose “the shackles of the past.”

Mr. Obama made restoring relations with Cuba a focal point of his foreign policy and significantly expanded ties between the two countries — a détente that the Trump administration quickly moved to strip away.

But the protests in Cuba on Sunday offered some measure of bipartisan agreement in the United States, with Democrats and Republicans alike speaking out in support of the demonstrations.

“America stands with the oppressed Cuban people assembling for their birthright of #Libertad,” former Vice President Mike Pence wrote on Twitter. “America stands for a free and democratic Cuba!”

Others blamed the American trade embargo for the protests and the deprivation driving them, a stance the Cuban government took on Sunday when the demonstrations erupted.

“The truth is that if one wanted to help Cuba, the first thing that should be done is to suspend the blockade of Cuba,” Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, told reporters on Monday. “That would be a truly humanitarian gesture.”

But some Cuban activists in the United States, including those who oppose the embargo, were quick to challenge that narrative.

“There’s no food, there’s no medicine, there’s nothing, and this isn’t a product of the American embargo, which I do not support,” said Ramón Saúl Sánchez, president of the Movimiento Democracia advocacy group in Miami. He noted that the embargo does allow Cuba to buy food from the United States, though restrictions on financing present significant barriers to the amount.

Cuba’s fragile economy has been battered by American sanctions, but also by financial mismanagement and a severe drop in tourism because of the pandemic, depriving it of a vital source of the foreign currency that it depends on for a wide array of the island’s needs. The government has also had to contend with the economic collapse of its closest regional ally, Venezuela.

“Do you know what it’s like not to be able to buy my child food from the store?” said Odalis, a 43-year-old homemaker in Havana, who asked that her last name be withheld for fear of reprisals by the government. “People are fed up with the abuse of power. We are desperate.”

In the first five months of this year, the number of international travelers to Cuba fell nearly 90 percent compared with the same period in 2020, according to the Cuban national statistics agency. The price of goods has also soared, with inflation skyrocketing some 500 percent and still increasing, according to Pavel Vidal Alejandro, a former Cuban central bank economist who is now an economics professor at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Colombia.

“The situation is very, very serious,” said Mr. Vidal, noting that official numbers for inflation are not available. “High inflation is something that always causes a lot of social unrest.”

Cuba suffered excruciating hardships after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the island’s powerful backer, ultimately forcing it to open up its economy to tourists and, ever so slowly, to some private business and property ownership.

But a big difference with the suffering now is that Cubans have access to the internet on smartphones, a reform that the government reluctantly embraced in recent years as it sought to modernize the island’s economy.

“The economy in Cuba was much worse” during the financial collapse of the 1990s, said John S. Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. “But the communication about it was controlled because you didn’t have the workarounds that exist today.”

The internet has been both a threat to and a weapon of the government. The Cuban authorities, who normally put down protests swiftly, were overwhelmed on Sunday. Demonstrations spread rapidly across the island after activists used social media accounts to broadcast live videos of crowds gathered in the streets, inspiring people to turn out in greater numbers.

“I took to the streets because I’m tired of being hungry,” said Sara Naranjo, in a video shared on Twitter. “I don’t have water, I don’t have anything.”

But internet access across the island was shut down on Sunday afternoon for about 30 minutes, and connectivity has remained intermittent as of Monday afternoon, said Doug Madory, the director of internet analysis at Kentik, which monitors access to the web.

That made it difficult to corroborate reports that scores of activists had been taken into custody. Videos posted on social media on Monday appeared to show the authorities parading through the streets and violently detaining people, beating them with batons and kicking them once they had fallen to the ground.

Cuban dissidents compiled the names of scores of people they said were missing, prompting fears that the government had begun a fresh crackdown on anti-government activists.

Cuban officials argue that the population is being manipulated by foreign propaganda that preys upon its suffering. “Cuban people have literally been bombarded with content generated abroad,” said José Ramón Cabañas Rodríguez, a veteran Cuban diplomat who served as his nation’s ambassador in Washington.

But in interviews and accounts posted online on Monday, Cubans cited a litany of their own grievances. Even people on the island who receive money from relatives abroad said life had gotten harder.

“In Havana, people still have a little more possibility and less hunger, but in the eastern provinces and in general, they’re having a rough time, they don’t even have the basics,” said Yaneisy González Rivero, a resident of Havana. “In terms of medicine, the situation is critical,” she said, adding: “People who are sick and need something for pain in the emergency room don’t have medication.”

Power outages are not new to Cuba, but they have become increasingly frequent over the past year as the island has faced a cash crunch. Sanctions tightened by the Trump administration squeezed the foreign investment that began after Mr. Obama took steps to make it easier for Americans to travel to and invest in the island.

The size of Sunday’s demonstrations, which played out across the country, stunned even longtime Cuba analysts.

“There are tremendously long lines to get into supermarkets,” said Katrin Hansing, an anthropologist at Baruch College in New York who spent much of the past year doing research in Havana. “The same can be said for medicine. There is nothing: There is no penicillin, there’s no antibiotics, there’s no aspirin. There’s nothing, really.”

As protests spread on Sunday, Mariam Rosa, a 28-year old with a toddler, said she wrestled with an everyday dilemma: Should she spend hours in line waiting to buy milk for her baby at a store, or pay triple for a bottle on the black market?

“I’m in a lucky position that I can afford this, but most people are not,” she said. She added that she had not joined the protests, out of fear for her family’s safety.

Still, “I understand the mass frustration,” she said. “Everyone has a tipping point.”

Hannah Berkeley Cohen contributed reporting.

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