Increase in COVID-19 cases raises social tensions in Cuba

By Fernando Ravsberg, translated by Richard Fidler

July 21, 2021 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal translated from La Jornada — After the protests on Sunday, calm seems to have returned to Cuba, although it is difficult to know for how long that may be, given the complex situation that the country is experiencing. The economy suffers from the US blockade, reinforced by the measures of Trump and Biden , and by the slowness of the Cuban government in promoting reforms. The pandemic, controlled during 2020, erupted in the last month with terrible virulence, especially in the province of Matanzas. Health spending is bleeding state coffers that were already battered before the pandemic. The huge queues to buy food and the power outages due to the breakdown of several plants were the last straw in the face of anti-Castro calls to go into the streets to protest.

The pressure that Cubans have experienced is truly exhausting. They have been locked up in their homes for 15 months, without schools for the children, with great difficulties to buy food, and recently there were long blackouts. As if this were not enough, the authorities decided to eliminate one of the currencies, while raising wages and prices. The measure caused tremendous inflation, as most products are sold in hard currency and the Central Bank refuses to receive dollars in cash because it is hard to use them for subsequent purchases owing to Washington’s persecution of Cuba’s international transactions. So, in addition, citizens must look for Canadian dollars, British pounds or Euros, and the latter has shot up to three times its official value on the black market.

The financial problem of ordinary Cubans is aggravated by the fact that the pandemic prevents the entry of tourists and the measures imposed by Trump prohibited the sending of family remittances to the island. To make matters worse, Biden maintains all the policies of his predecessor and also puts Cuba on the lists of countries that promote terrorism and participate in human trafficking. The first list places any bank that operates with Havana under scrutiny and the second is aimed at punishing countries that hire Cuban medical brigades. This is aimed at closing the only important route of foreign exchange that the country has left.

This national financial crisis is suffered by the majority of Cubans, who spend their days queuing up to buy because the retail authorities have been unable to create virtual stores. These could make life easier for people and protect them from the COVID-19 contagions they face when they spend hours surrounded by strangers, huddled in the shade of the few trees that surround the stores. Citizens also have to fight against a legion of “coleros,” people who live by hoarding what appears in stores in order to resell it later at a much higher price. Paradoxically, the “coleros” have organized a virtual business that works like a charm, using Facebook or WhatsApp.

This was the scenario when the US began a campaign to carry out a “humanitarian intervention,” a mechanism previously used to enter Yugoslavia and Libya militarily. However, Havana was silent while a campaign was unleashed on social networks, claiming that the government was being arrogant in its refusal to open a “humanitarian corridor” to receive aid from abroad. The proposal was so attractively presented that many people inside and outside of Cuba began to ask the government to help. When Havana finally reacted and publicized the ways in which international aid could be sent, it was too late to change its image and this Sunday thousands of citizens took to the streets to protest.

The demonstrations called in San Antonio de los Baños, in the west of the island, and in Palma Soriano, at the other end, were massively relayed on social networks and the discontent brought people in Havana, Cienfuegos, Camagüey, Santiago de Cuba, among others, into the streets. Along with the opposition supporters there were many citizens simply dissatisfied with the situation, as President Miguel Díaz Canel himself admitted, when he appeared in San Antonio and summoned the population that was supportive of the government to “take back the streets.” The slogan raised by the president was “the street belongs to the revolutionaries,” and he called on everyone, with the communists in the forefront, to defend the revolution. A few hours later, in the same places where the government had been protested, there were cheers for “Fidel."

The bulk of the protesters and the police maintained a very low level of violence, nothing compared to what happens in other countries in the region such as Colombia or Chile. They have not reported deaths on either side, nor massive repression, only beatings and selective arrests. The most violent events occurred in Havana, where three patrol cars were overturned and some stores were robbed to steal appliances. However, the violent appeared to be a minority within the groups of protesters. On the Havana Malecón, for example, four policemen entered the protest ranks to disarm a man who was carrying a machete and made the arrest without being attacked by the mass of demonstrators.

On Monday morning, the President, the Prime Minister and several ministers appeared on TV and Radio to render accounts to the citizens and ask them to calm down. They promised that this week two power plants will come into operation, ending the blackouts.

They gave the facts concerning all the humanitarian aid that Cuba is receiving from people, companies and governments of the world. One of the ministers most respected by the people, José Ángel Portal, the Minister of Health, explained the mistakes made in dealing with the pandemic and also the efforts that are being made. For the first time they provided figures on how much each infected person, each patient and each serious case in an ICU costs the country. The leader of the scientific group that developed Abdala, the first Latin American vaccine against COVID-19, guaranteed the effectiveness of the antigen and reported that vaccinations will be accelerated throughout the country.

Undoubtedly, the US blockade is the primary economic problem facing Cuba, but there are others such as the slowness of the government to make the changes that they themselves propose. Years ago, they decided to approve the creation of Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) but they have not yet drafted the regulatory norms to be able to establish them. Those in charge of organizing digital commerce fail time and time again but all remain in their positions. Dozens of corrections have had to be made to the monetary unification, planned for 10 years. It is difficult to predict whether these protests will be repeated or not, but what is clear is that they shocked the government, a message that said in good Cuban would be “espabila que el horno no está para galleticas” ["Hey, wake up! Things are way too hot for business as usual!”].