Jul 15, 2021 - World

"No more lies": What drove Cubans to the streets

Data: Proyecto Inventario; Map: Will Chase/Axios

Sara Naranjo, 88, took to Cuba's streets this past week because she is "done with being hungry, unemployed, without water, without power." Naranjo is one of thousands of Cubans to take part in what activists said were the largest anti-government protests on the island in decades.

What's happening: People like Naranjo, who remembers Cuba before the revolution, joined thousands of younger Cubans, who have only known Communism, in the massive street protests despite their fear of the government’s harsh response.

Why it matters: Sunday’s seemingly spontaneous mobilizations across the island were something unseen in 60 years of castrista rule.

  • Anti-government protests even erupted in the southeast province of Santiago de Cuba, Fidel Castro’s stronghold during the revolution and where he is buried.
  • “So much hunger ate away at our fear,” one demonstrator, Wendy Guerra, told the independent Cuban news site 14yMedio.

The big picture: The pandemic deepened Cubans’ frustrations with lack of food and resources that had simmered for decades.

  • Tourism, mostly from Canada and Europe, dried up along with the hard currency it provided.
  • Mismanagement of the island’s state-run economy, already under a U.S. embargo since 1962, sent Cuba’s GDP crashing by 11% last year, its worst showing since the former Soviet Union stopped subsidies in the early 1990s.
  • Chronic power cuts and shortages of food and medicines have been more acute, while the nearly quarter-million people who have had coronavirus have had to seek treatment from a healthcare system on the verge of collapse.
  • Vaccinations have been scarce since the government decided not to participate in the COVAX sharing program for developing nations and to develop its own shots.

Between the lines: Pockets of overt dissidence had been growing even before Raúl Castro, Fidel Castro’s younger brother and his deputy during the revolution, stepped down in June as head of the Communist Party.

  • Movimiento San Isidro, a young coalition of artists, journalists and academics formed in 2019, urged more Cubans to make their dissatisfaction public.
  • Musicians and San Isidro members, Maykel Osorbo and El Funky, were joined by Yotuel, Gente De Zona, and Descemer Bueno to release the song “Patria y Vida” (Homeland and Life), which became an anthem for this week’s protesters.
    • Its lyrics demand “no more lies” and “no more doctrine,” telling those who cling to the revolution that their time is past.

The growing availability of the internet, though also controlled by a state-run company, has allowed like-minded Cubans to share their frustrations more easily, like they did on Sunday.

  • The protests erupted days after #SOSCuba began to trend on social media, with Cubans demanding humanitarian assistance to address the island’s many crises.

Where it stands: At least one person — 36-year-old Diubis Laurencio Tejeda, who was from an especially impoverished part of Havana — has died during the protests, according to local reports.

  • The government shutdown the internet and phone lines after the first protest on Sunday.
  • Reliable information regarding arrests is hard to come by with estimates ranging between 200 and 5,000 people.

In Washington, the Biden administration has said the protests are “remarkable,” but has not yet indicated whether further policy changes were coming.

  • The U.S. has warned Cubans who might attempt to emigrate across the Florida Straits that they would be turned back.

In Havana, meanwhile, President Miguel Díaz-Canel has pointed to the U.S. embargo as the cause of his country’s economic woes and accused U.S. authorities of financing and promoting “non-conventional warfare.”

  • On Wednesday, the Cuban government announced that tariffs on the private import of food, medicine and personal care products would be lifted at least until December.

By the numbers: 3.5% of all Latinos in the U.S. are of Cuban ancestry or Cuban immigrants, the fifth largest Latino or Hispanic cultural group.

  • Most live in Florida. The state’s weight in the Electoral College means Cuban Americans have outsized political influence.
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