“We no longer cry ‘homeland or death’ [slogan da revolução de 1959], but ‘homeland and life’, “sang the demonstrators who took to the streets of several cities in Cuba and Miami, USA, last Sunday (11), to protest against the regime. The lyrics are part of a song from a group of artists: Yotuel Romero, Descemer Bueno, El Osorbo and El Funky Launched on February 16, it has been the driving force behind the hitherto rare and occasional demonstrations that have taken place in recent months.
But one song wouldn’t take the crowds to the streets if the situation in Cuba weren’t so bad.
The country saw its GDP shrink by 11% last year. The island, which imports more than 70% of what it consumes, has suffered from food and drug shortages due to border closures caused by the Covid pandemic. Social media posts that show long lines to purchase items are common.
The lack of food is so great that the Cuban regime imposed conditions to allow peasants to kill cows or oxen for their own consumption. In requesting the state for the right to kill the animal, it is necessary to declare the amount of milk produced by the cow and the number of kilograms of the beef.
The lack of international flights has also interrupted the dollar remittances that Cubans living abroad, mainly in the United States, send to their families. According to official data, 65% of them received help from relatives. There is also a worsening of the health situation due to the coronavirus pandemic and the lack of a hospital structure to serve the entire population.
Although Cuba has advanced medicine and manufactures vaccines, the island’s hospital system has not been able to handle as many cases. The protests came a day after the regime rejected a request by dissidents to create a “humanitarian corridor”, allowing the arrival of drugs.
The government refused the request. In a statement, the Foreign Ministry acknowledged the seriousness of the health situation, but said it was campaigning and receiving support from abroad. In a social media post, Chancellor Bruno Rodríguez said “Cuba has received donated medical supplies from 20 countries, and 12 more are sending them.”
On the day of the mass protests, the country’s largest in decades, Cuba recorded a new daily record of Covid infections and deaths, with 6,923 cases out of a total of 238,491, in addition to 47 deaths in 24 hours, adding to all, since the start of the health crisis, 1,537 deaths. These figures, however, according to opponents, do not reflect the real situation of the hospitals, which are said to have collapsed.
The island has experienced a news blackout for years, as there is no independent press, and those calling for free speech do so under censorship and persecution. The artists were the protagonists of these demands for freedom. In addition to the collective responsible for “Pátria e Vida”, singers, intellectuals and writers of the San Isidro movement have also organized meetings and programs in the struggle for freedom of expression.
One of its members, Maykel Castillo Pérez, has been in prison since April, accused of treason against the country, and is among the names of dissidents and political prisoners complained of by art collectives. Others were arrested for a few weeks and then released.
In addition to sending dollars from overseas, Cuba has also lost tourism, one of its main sources of inflows of US currency, due to the pandemic. The tourism industry accounts for 10% of the island’s GDP, including related activities such as gastronomy.
Another of its most important economic activities, sugar production, has been affected by a drought that is already worsening year by year, due to climate change.
In the political sphere, the leader of the regime, Miguel Díaz-Canel, has also recently taken over the leadership of the Cuban Communist Party. The macroeconomic situation he faces is, however, more difficult than that of his predecessor, Raúl Castro. Under the administration of the brother of Fidel Castro, the historical leader of the country, there was an attempt to open part of the economy to the private sector and an attempt to reconcile with the United States.
The crisis, however, froze the consumption capacity of Cubans. The timid reconciliation with Washington was canceled by Donald Trump and has not yet been taken up by his successor, Joe Biden. Thus, the regime continues to accuse the embargo imposed on the island of being responsible for the lack of food for the population.