Last Sunday, thousands of Cubans joined street protests chanting “freedom” and calling for President Miguel Diaz-Canel to step down. The protests spread so fast and simultaneously in so many cities that the government appeared to be caught off guard. The dictator Diaz-Canel interrupted all media programming (even the Euro Cup football final) and ordered his loyalists to spill onto the streets to defend the ‘revolution’ i.e. beat up the protesters.
Protester after protester told reporters they were on the streets because people are hungry and have nothing to eat. This is the biggest anti-government demonstration on the Communist-run island in decades. These protests began as Cuba was experiencing a severe economic crisis. Due to the pandemic, lack of tourism and impact of US sanctions imposed under Donald Trump, Cuban economy has been under great stress. Apart from that, the mishandling of Chinese virus, including shortage of vaccines is a major issue for protests.
Cuba’s problems have been slowly growing ever since the US trade blockade that began many decades ago. Lack of investment had taken its toll but the pandemic has worsened the problems. The country faces food shortages, rising cases of Covid-19, and acute electricity shortages (4 to 6-hour blackouts that the government blames on the US’s 60-year embargo).
Due to the pandemic, tourism, which was one of the major sources of income for traders and taxi drivers has also suffered. Incidentally, this is one of the only sectors where private activity had been allowed for decades! They also depended on money sent from Cubans living and working abroad. All these sources of cash have dried up.
Calls for freedom and dissent
This is also a tightly controlled communist country and shouting “Freedom!” and “Down with Communism!” will surely land you in jail, exactly what the resistance wanted. Indeed, 100 odd activists and independent journalists were detained when they tried to leave their homes.
The marchers shouted slogans against the government and the president and called for change. They specifically targeted only state-owned shops (ones that sell their goods in foreign currencies) and looted them.
Curiously for many Cubans, these shops are the only way they can buy basic necessities but prices are high. Stocks had dwindled in local shops that sell in pesos (the local currency). The resistance also targeted the establishment, stormed local communist party offices, and flipped police cars.
— Giancarlo Sopo (@GiancarloSopo) July 12, 2021
— Giancarlo Sopo (@GiancarloSopo) July 12, 2021
The regime blocked the internet and the streets are full of police. The arrest of those who participated continues. They are not being taken to the local police station but to other ‘institutions.’
Havana alleged that these dissidents are mercenaries on Washington’s payroll. The communists are admittedly known to handle dissent brutally. Almost 4000 Cubans who question an unjust system of governance are accused of being ‘antisocial’ or ‘dangerous’, every year! All are sentenced to jail even though none has committed a conventional crime. Cuba now has around 1 lakh prisoners!
These are high numbers when you consider that the Cuban population is roughly 1.1 crore or one-third of another communist regime that exists in Kerala. If one excludes China, North Korea, Laos and Vietnam are the only other countries where communism still is a ruling ideology. Dissidents are not permitted to hire lawyers to defend them in completely militarized ‘courts’, a system manipulated by the dictatorship.
The last time major protests erupted in Cuba was in 1994 during when the economy collapsed after the withdrawal of financial support from the Soviet Union. The then President Fidel Castro had appeared to talk to the protesters.
GAESA is a Cuban military-controlled group with interests in the tourism, financial investment, import/export, and remittance sectors of Cuba’s economy. It has a monopoly over a crucial part of the Cuban economy. When Trump announced his government’s policy toward Cuba in 2017 he made it clear that he would punish GAESA.
Trump banned “all direct financial transactions” with GAESA, which controls most tourist hotels and leading retail chains in Cuba. A Western Union alliance with Fincimex (one of GAESA’s companies) managed all the money transfer operations to Cuba from the US. At the height of the pandemic, in June 2020, the US cruelly included Fincimex in its list of banned companies for its association with GAESA.
By the end of 2020, ordinary people’s well-being was sidelined and now there is no way to send money to Cuba. Without Western Union and with very few flights operating between the US and Cuba due to the pandemic, Cubans have become desperate.
The black market
On Jan 1st this year the Cuban regime unified two currencies, the US dollar-pegged Cuban convertible Pesos (CUC), and the Cuban pesos. No shops could accept CUC from 1 July. The move brought back the US dollar as common tender. People could only purchase new products using a magnetic card linked to a dollar-based bank account.
For common Cubans, grocery shopping requires patience, determination, and lots of time. There are no hypermarkets or department stores where you can find everything in a single place. Cubans still use a food rationing system the government has run since Che Guevara first set it up in 1962.
GAESA moved many necessities to newly formed so-called “MLC” stores or new dollar shops where only foreign currencies were accepted. The authorities initially said that these shops would just sell non-essential products but now they have become the only places where people can buy basic goods. According to the Spanish Embassy in Havana, the profit margin in such stores was up to 240 percent.
A black market formed as the street value of the pesos fell to half or worse of its official rate against the US dollar and the Euro. Simultaneously, a black market also appeared for food even as huge queues formed at the MLC stores.
Though food became harder to get, this system helped those with access to foreign currency. The ones with dollars were paying roughly the same as what they did before for bread, milk, eggs, and medicine.
The corrupt administration did not use the dollars raised in the new shops to increase product availability in the rest of the stores. For those who have to buy foreign currency with the pesos they earn, food and medicine prices doubled and then doubled again. It is now seen that the same products are offered in the MLC shops in pesos but for thrice the price. Only Cubans who receive dollars from abroad are able to shop for even basic necessities.
Social discontent grew since there are products that many people cannot buy because they do not have access to dollars. A mother pleaded on social media that sweets be removed from view so children whose parents did not have dollars to buy them would not cry. Shockingly, they were removed from shop windows in MLC stores and placed in ‘less visible areas.’
Shopping is only possible on a particular day of the month set by the authorities, depending on the customers’ place of residence. The ration card regulates the sale of products, with quantities strictly limited.
On an assigned day, each family (size does not matter) can buy one liter of oil, one tube of toothpaste, a portion of minced meat, two packs of sausages, two bottles of detergent, one pack of chicken, two soaps, and one deodorant. If there is no chicken or soap on that day, then the family has to wait several weeks for a new opportunity to buy them. For additional purchases they depend on the black market.
Prices also continue to be too high for Cuban salaries. A pack of frozen chicken costs the equivalent of many retirees’ monthly pension. Other products such as shampoo, hair conditioner, detergent, and deodorant can cost a third of what most state employees earn a month. Many elderly or poorer people can only buy one or two of the products they are entitled to.
Both capitalist US and the communist Cuban regimes have contributed equally in creating hell on earth for ordinary citizens of Cuba at a time when they least wanted troubles. As if to back the violent protests, US president Joe Biden said that his government “stands with the people of Cuba.” On the other hand, the Cuban-born Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has said that Cubans will not allowed to come to USA as refugees! It goes on to show the continuity in policy from the Trump to Biden regimes and exposes their hypocrisy when they ask Bharat to take in Rohingyas and the like.
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