by Gisela Liebe
A few weeks ago, reports and images of mass protests in Cuba went through the media worldwide. On 11 July, there were mass demonstrations that spread from the San Antonio de los Baños neighbourhood in Havana to various cities. The protests were against food shortages, lack of medicines and power cuts. Some protesters looted shops and attacked patrol cars. There were violent police reactions, casualties and arbitrary arrests. The internet in Cuba was initially shut down. Are the protests real, and if so, against what background? Or is this another attempt to orchestrate a “colour revolution”?
In the German-language media, the view of the US government was mostly one-sided. US President Joe Biden said that Cuba was a “failed state” that oppressed its citizens. The mayor of Miami, the headquarters of Cuban exiles, even called for US military action against Cuba.
In Latin America, a more differentiated view can be found. Gerardo Szalkovicz, editor of the online platform Nodal, like many others, first points to the economic blockade by the USA, which has lasted since 1962 and also restricts the import of food and basic supplies such as medicines, syringes and respirators. Over the last 60 years, this has caused a permanent state of shortage with an estimated damage of 144 billion dollars. During the pandemic, a further 243 sanctions were imposed by then US President Donald Trump, which were not withdrawn by his successor Biden – despite announcements to the contrary during the election campaign.
The UN General Assembly has adopted a resolution condemning the blockade almost unanimously every year since 1992. In June this year, the USA and Israel were the only countries to speak out against an end to the blockade. Mexican President Andrés López Obrador said it clearly: if you really want to help Cuba, the first thing you have to do is lift the economic blockade, that would be a real humanitarian gesture.
With the pandemic, the economic problems worsened again. Tourism, the most important source of foreign currency income, collapsed. Cuba has so far coped better with the Covid-19 pandemic than most other countries in Latin America thanks to its good health system and has even been able to support many countries with its well-trained doctors. However, the number of infections and deaths has increased in recent weeks. There is a shortage of medical supplies, including vaccine production.
Szalkovicz cites the too slow and too inefficient economic reform process that had been initiated since 2011 as the deeper roots of the discontent expressed on 11 July. Franco Cavalli, former National Councillor, oncologist and President of Medicuba, a good friend and connoisseur of Cuba, also complains about the “sprawling bureaucracy and exhausting slowness in implementing the reforms that have been decided on for a long time”.1 But he equally points out the dishonesty and double standards of our reporting, which hardly finds words for the scandal of the longest and equally illegal economic sanctions, which the country has been able to resist “almost miraculously”, as he says, for decades.
Since the spread of mobile internet in 2018, a number of opposition groups such as the San Isidro movement have emerged in recent years. Among them are artists and YouTubers supported from Washington and Miami, but also young people who sincerely want to express their pent-up discontent.
An inglorious role in the protests is played by the international media: for example, Pedro Brieger, director of the online platform Nodal, notes: “The problem is further complicated by the enormous oversizing and distortion of facts in the international press, with a whirlwind of ‘fake news’ and manipulated photos, from pictures from Egypt as if they came from Cuba to photos of demonstrations in support of the revolution and the government presented as opposition marches.”2
Cuba is still a thorn in the flesh of the USA. After all, the small country with today eleven million inhabitants has managed to maintain its independence for 60 years against its overpowering neighbour. Many people in the brother countries in Latin America are also aware of this and feel a deep solidarity with Cuba, even if they have different political ideas.
Pedro Brieger sums up: “Certainly, many Cubans are against socialism, they do not agree with the revolution and prefer to live in a capitalist society or in the abundance that they imagine exists in capitalism for the large majorities. There are also numerous groups of young people born after 1959 who are organising with demands that are typical of that time, they are very critical and want changes within the revolution; and on these occasions they don’t feel heard by the leaders of the country.”3
Cuban President Miguel Diaz Canel conceded that many of the demands were justified and promised a readiness to talk.
The question remains why a country – supposedly in the name of freedom and democracy – can maintain measures that are clearly contrary to international law for decades and for more than 30 years, even against the will of practically all other states. •
1Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 4 August 2021
Over 400 former heads of state, politicians, intellectuals, scientists, members of the clergy, artists, musicians and activists from across the globe have issued an urgent appeal to United States President Joe Biden to lift the 243 unilateral coercive measures (sanctions) that were imposed on Cuba by former president Donald Trump. They argue that these measures “have intentionally throttled life on the island and created more suffering.”
The signatories which include former presidents Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva of Brazil, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, Noam Chomsky, Oliver Stone, Jill Stein, Judith Butler, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortíz, Yanis Varoufakis, Chris Hedges; artists Boots Riley, Chico Buarque, Jane Fonda, Susan Sarandon, Danny Glover, and Emma Thompson and hundreds of others, highlight that the country’s ability to buy lifesaving food and medicine has been hindered due to the restrictions imposed by the United States on sending remittances and Cuba’s access to global financial institutions, among other unilateral measures.
Despite the economic embargo, Cuba has developed 5 anti-COVID-19 vaccines and has sent medical professionals to more than 50 countries to support their efforts to prevent the spread of the virus and treat those infected.
According to official reports, between April 2020 and December 2020, the blockade caused losses of 3,586.9 million USD to Cuba. These, including the losses of the previous period, amount to a total of 9,157.2 million USD (from April 2019 until December 2020). The humanitarian damage, suffering and shortages caused to Cuban families during all these years are immeasurable.
The open letter was published as a full-page ad in the “New York Times” on 23 July 2021.
Dear President Joe Biden
It is time to take a new path forward in U.S.-Cuban relations. We, the undersigned, are making this urgent, public appeal to you to reject the cruel policies put into place by the Trump White House that have created so much suffering among the Cuban people.
Cuba – a country of eleven million people – is living through a difficult crisis due to the growing scarcity of food and medicine. Recent protests have drawn the world’s attention to this. While the Covid-19 pandemic has proven challenging for all countries, it has been even more so for a small island under the heavy weight of an economic embargo.
We find it unconscionable, especially during a pandemic, to intentionally block remittances and Cuba’s use of global financial institutions, given that access to dollars is necessary for the importation of food and medicine.
As the pandemic struck the island, its people – and their government – lost billions in revenue from international tourism that would normally go to their public health care system, food distribution and economic relief.
During the pandemic, Donald Trump’s administration tightened the embargo, pushed aside the Obama opening, and put in place 243 “coercive measures” that have intentionally throttled life on the island and created more suffering.
The prohibition on remittances and the end of direct commercial flights between the U.S. and Cuba are impediments to the wellbeing of a majority of Cuban families.
“We stand with the Cuban people,” you wrote on 12 July. If that is the case, we ask you to immediately sign an executive order and annul Trump’s 243 “coercive measures.”
There is no reason to maintain the Cold War politics that required the U.S. to treat Cuba as an existential enemy rather than a neighbor. Instead of maintaining the path set by Trump in his efforts to undo President Obama’s opening to Cuba, we call on you to move forward. Resume the opening and begin the process of ending the embargo. Ending the severe shortages in food and medicine must be the top priority.
On 23 June, most of the member states of the United Nations voted to ask the U.S. to end the embargo. For the past 30 years this has been the consistent position of a majority of member states. In addition, seven UN Special Rapporteurs wrote a letter to the U.S. government in April 2020 regarding the sanctions on Cuba. “In the pandemic emergency,” they wrote, “the lack of will of the U.S. government to suspend sanctions may lead to a higher risk of suffering in Cuba.”
We ask you to end the Trump “coercive measures” and return to the Obama opening or, even better, begin the process of ending the embargo and fully normalizing relations between the United States and Cuba.
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