Faced with a crippling U.S. embargo, a worsening economic crisis and a deadly pandemic, Cuba’s leaders struggle to manage growing public anger
July 11, 2021 marked a critical moment for post-revolutionary Cuba. In what was an unprecedented outpouring, hundreds of Cubans came on to the streets shouting slogans across 40 towns and cities. They were registering their protests against the communist government’s handling of the pandemic and some even asking for a change in regime. The popular slogans included “Patria y Vida” (’Fatherland and Life’), a play on the revolutionary slogan popularised by late President Fidel Castro — “Patria o Muerte” (’Fatherland or Death’), in response to the embargo imposed by the U.S. that sought to undermine the socialist regime.
With more than 24,000 COVID-19 cases and 200 plus deaths in the last five days and a severe lack of basic medicines because of shortages, Cuba is going through a particularly difficult public health crisis even though the total number of cases and deaths are much lower than most Latin American countries.
Ironically, the protests came right after Cuban scientists announced that the two indigenous COVID-19 vaccines — Abdala and Soberana-2 — had registered more than 90% efficacy in phase-3 trials (two doses for Abdala and three for Soberana-2). Abdala had already been deployed for emergency use, but only 18% of the Cuban population has been vaccinated so far.
Cuba is mired in a severe crisis after its economy shrunk 11% following the pandemic. The contraction in the economy was largely due to the collapse in the tourism sector due to travel restrictions last year and the inability of the government to secure enough cash to make necessary imports such as fuel, food ingredients and other basic goods.
Measures such as restricting subsidies and ending the unpopular dual-currency system have exacerbated problems, resulting in scarcities and inflation. But the Cuban government blames the decades-long economic embargo imposed by the neighbouring U.S. for the situation. The embargo was tightened up further by the Trump administration after some relaxations were brought about by President Barack Obama and the fact that these measures have had the support of the politically powerful emigrant Cuban community in Florida has forced the Biden presidency from reversing them.
The consequences of the economic crisis have been scarcities in many basic necessities such as electricity, available of medicine and food. As The Economist reports, Cuba, which imports nearly 70% of its food from abroad, is going through its most severe food shortage crisis since the Special Period of the 1990s following the Soviet Union’s collapse. Cuba has an expansive welfare programme that focuses on basic education and health being available to all, but shortages of essential items have made things worse for the citizenry, which is affected by the pandemic as well. This explains the unprecedented outpouring of protests, which took a coordinated shape because of the spreading of discontent over social media across the country.
Cuba’s President and secretary of the ruling Communist Party, Miguel Diaz-Canel, initially denounced these protests as being externally driven and called for regime sympathisers to come to the streets. Some demonstrators, who were seen as leading the protests, were rounded up and arrested and one protestor died in the actions.
But a couple of days after the protests received widespread media coverage throughout the world, the President seemed to have mellowed down. He conceded that some of the concerns expressed by the protestors were legitimate and some customs restrictions were eased on food, medicine and hygiene products. But with travel still being limited, it remains to be seen if these measures will immediately help ease the shortage situation.
President Diaz-Canel was designated the first secretary of the ruling party in April. He is the first top leader who doesn’t belong to the revolutionary generation that took part in the overthrow of the Fulgencio Batista regime in Cuba in 1959. That generation helmed by late President Fidel Castro and his comrades Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, Raul Castro, Juan Almeida, among others, led an armed struggle that began as a movement against a dictatorship that was seen as being propped up by external interests.
But once they succeeded in the overthrow of the regime, the Fidel-led 26th of July Movement, during a period of “national liberation” between 1959 and 1961, subsumed itself into a group featuring others as part of the ‘Integrated Revolutionary Organizations’ (ORI), which included the extant communist party known as the Popular Socialist Party and the student-based Revolutionary Directory. The ORI became the United Party of the Cuban Socialist Revolution (PURSC), which later became the Communist Party of Cuba (Partido Comunista de Cuba, or PCC) in 1965. By now, the Cubans had firmly engaged in nationalisation of assets and properties owned by oligarchic and foreign owners, and agrarian reform, and developed a stronger economic and trade ties with the Soviet Union.
‘Vanguard of the people’
The PCC was conceived as the “vanguard of the people” with the polity dominated by a single party system and decision-making thrust to a PCC-led government answerable to a National Assembly of People’s Power, a legislative Parliament in place since 1976. The National Assembly’s members are elected from electoral districts by a process of nomination from mass organisations (farmer organisations, student unions, trade unions, etc.) and from public meetings held to nominate representatives from municipal assemblies, who are themselves either elected via secret ballot or nominated.
This form of representation by nomination and election from the grassroots is defended by the Cuban regime as being democratic without the influence of money power and to perpetuate the country’s socialist orientation. But the party-less politics has also created a system of intolerance of dissent with political dissidents given harsh punishment for promoting ideas that are seen as critical of the regime or socialism itself.
In the last decade or so, the PCC has been cognisant of the frailties of the country’s economic system and Mr. Diaz-Canel’s predecessor, Raul Castro, had undertaken a series of cautious but steady reforms that furthered liberalisation of the economy by allowing small businesses, self-entrepreneurs and cooperatives more autonomy and recognition of private property with restrictions, besides greater flexibility in foreign investment.
These measures did not come up easily with hardliners, who are keen on retaining the orthodox Marxist-Leninist principles of state ownership of the means of production. But the PCC had learned from the experience of the Communist Party of China and the impact of the economic reforms there, and after intense inner party debate, they decided to embark upon liberalisation, albeit cautiously.
Despite these piecemeal economic reforms, Cuba still suffers the impact of the U.S. embargo and has had to struggle to maintain its strengths in the social sector. Besides, unlike the older generation with memories of constant struggle and incremental progress in post-revolutionary Cuba, younger people demand more political freedoms and an end to the shortages of essentials, which many see as not only a consequence of the embargo but also the failures of the highly regulated economy.
This has meant that it will be tougher for the current regime led by the post-revolutionary generation to retain the legitimacy of communist rule than its predecessors.
Mr. Diaz-Canel and his party colleagues will have to not just extinguish the slowly spreading flames of the pandemic — a quicker deployment of the home grown vaccines will play a vital role — but also implement economic reforms to quickly address the shortages without the use of repressive measures. The vaccines could also be a source of revenue for the beleaguered regime if it can find buyers from other countries. Mobilising public opinion as the regime did in the 1990s and achieving social peace would be the key imperative and it can only happen if the government backtracks from blaming the protests as being entirely the handiwork of external actors. The PCC and Mr. Diaz-Canel have their task cut out.