Analysis

As Blame Flies For Cuba’s Protests, One Major Factor Seems To Go Unmentioned

(Photo by YAMIL LAGE/AFP via Getty Images)

Dylan Housman Healthcare Reporter
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Contrary to the prevailing narrative, the ongoing protests in Cuba are not simply about COVID-19.

President Joe Biden’s State Department has characterized the protests as pandemic-driven. In reality, the economic and humanitarian hardships brought on by the virus are merely exacerbating existing frustrations with the communist government in Havana.

Americans who are sympathetic toward the regime have deployed a laundry list of reasons to explain the protests away. Some have said they are purely about the pandemic and nothing else. Twitter’s official trend for the subject described the protests as a way to “spread awareness on the impact of COVID-19 in Cuba.”

Others argue U.S. economic sanctions have made conditions in the country unlivable, blaming supply shortages on the U.S. embargo. While sanctions certainly play a role in the economic fortunes of the island, the U.S. Commerce Department granted a special license to one NGO to send syringes to Cuba to help it vaccinate its people earlier this year.

Some on the far-left, such as journalist Ben Norton went so far as to accuse the U.S. of plotting the protests with covert CIA assets, an allegation Cuban President and Communist Party First Secretary Miguel Díaz-Canel echoed without evidence.

The socialist healthcare system in the country has reportedly been overwhelmed by the stress of an ongoing surge in COVID-19 cases. Shortages of supplies, infected medical workers and heavy patient loads have strained hospitals. “The situation in the hospitals is critical because we’re collapsing under the weight of patients, and almost without tools to work appropriately,” one doctor told the Miami Herald

It is undoubtedly true that the pandemic, and a shortage of medical supplies, has intensified an already bad situation. Cuba has relied on two homegrown vaccines to inoculate its population. The government claims both vaccines have an efficacy rate north of 90%, but hasn’t publicly released full clinical data for either or shared information with the World Health Organization (WHO).

Despite being one of the only countries in the world to develop its own vaccines, Cuba has only fully vaccinated about 10% of its population.

The chants from protestors also tell a deeper story about the grievances many Cuban people have. Protesters chanted “freedom” and “liberty” and “down with communism.”

The dissidents on the ground have also informed the media that they are protesting for civil liberties, economic opportunity and an end of a repressive government.

For example, Ernesto Hernández Busto, a Cuban writer, told The Wall Street Journal, “It’s the end of an era where a deep fear prevailed: the symbolic fear of going out to protest.”

There are also other shortages unrelated to medicine. Food and fuel have also been hard to come by, as the pandemic has shrunk more than 10% of the national economy. Tourism, a major revenue generator for the state, also dried up as international travel was ground to a halt due to COVID-19.

Again, it is difficult to blame the street tensions entirely on the U.S.: Since 2001, food has been exempted from the American blockade, and the U.S. has been the world’s largest exporter of food to the island ever since.

The embargo has been in place for decades, but the protests are new. Furthermore, it is fair to say protestors who were waving American flags in the streets did not blame America.

Government officials in Cuba have responded in accordance with the playbook of an authoritarian state. Special forces were dispatched to round up dissidents. Counter-protestors were mobilized to drown out the calls for freedom, and Díaz-Canel issued an “order to fight,” leading to fears that a more intense crackdown was coming.

It is evident the protests are about more fundamental issues, and the Biden administration has quickly changed its tone to reflect that. It remains to be seen if American politicians and media figures who have expressed support for the Cuban regime in the past will mobilize in full support of the Cuban people.