U.S.-Cuba News Brief: 07/16/2021

Special Edition: Historic Protests in Cuba

Dear Friends,

In response to the historic protests in Cuba this past week, CDA released a statement urging the Biden-Harris administration to adopt policies of engagement with Cuba that empower the Cuban people to determine their own future. The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), Cuban Americans for Engagement (CAFE), and The Cuba Study Group also released statements in support of the Cuban people and called for policies of engagement with Cuba.

In separate news, on Thursday, the founder of Detrás del Muro (Behind the Wall), Juanito Delgado, passed away due to COVID-19 complications. The artist founded the project in 2012 to reflect the meaning of the sea for Cubans. Following his recent death, the project will be renamed “Juanito Delgado Cultural Project” to honor the late artist.

Yesterday, Cuba reported 6,460 COVID-19 cases. There are currently 43,434 total active cases of COVID-19 on the island, an increase from the previous day. Matanzas reported the highest number of COVID-19 cases on the island, reaching 1,888. The total number of deaths since March of 2020 is 1,791. For a graph of case numbers since March 2020, see here. For a detailed breakdown of all COVID-19 data, visit this website.

This week, in Cuba news…

What Happened in Cuba?

On July 11, thousands of Cubans took to the streets. The historic protests, which began 16 miles outside of Havana in San Antonio de los Baños, soon spread to dozens of places in various provinces including Camagüey, Pinar del Río, Holguín, Matanzas, and Cienfuegos. The last significant public demonstrations like these took place in 1994 after the fall of the Soviet Union, when Cuba experienced what was then its worst economic crisis known as the “special period.” Initially, Cubans participating in these protests said that “they were angry about the collapse of the economy, food, and medicine shortages, price hikes and the government’s handling of COVID-19.” In addition to the overwhelming calls for resources, chants of “freedom,” “patria y vida” (Homeland and Life), and calls for Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz-Canel to step down could be heard amongst demonstrators across the island. According to Amnesty International, the government responded to the demonstrations with the arrest and disappearance of more than 150 protestors, activists, and independent journalists thus far. On July 14, Cuba’s San Isidro movement (MSI) published a list on their social media platforms outlining the names of individuals who had either been arrested or missing. The list was compiled from a Facebook group with over 40,000 members, titled “Desaparecidos #SOSCuba” (Missing #SOSCuba). The organization Prisoners Defenders also announced sending a list of 187 missing individuals following the demonstrations on the island to the United Nations.

Sebastián Arcos, associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, noted that the protests were “absolutely and definitely fueled by increased access to the internet and smartphones.” According to BBC News, the protests were not planned, but rather recorded and shared on social media platforms on Sunday as they were taking place, causing the demonstrations to spread across the island. Following the expansion of internet access brought by normalization efforts under the Obama administration, access to mobile internet was introduced on the island in December of 2018. Being relatively new, it has offered Cubans the opportunity to connect with the world. The internet also allowed photos of what appeared to be state authorities detaining, beating, and pepper spraying protestors to be shared through social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Additional posts also showed protesters overturning police cars and breaking into state-owned shops only accessible to citizens in possession of foreign currency. These shops are often the only way that Cubans have access to much needed resources, as the island faces great scarcity and economic turmoil further fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic and increased U.S. sanctions.

Independent journalists, influencers, and artists actively brought attention to the island on Twitter with the hashtag “SOSCUBA,” which was trending on the social media platform earlier this week.

Conditions in Cuba

In recent weeks, Cuba has been experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths, particularly due to the introduction of the Delta variant on the island. Most recently, the province of Matanzas reported the greatest number of new cases out of any province on the island with over 1,000 COVID-19 cases. Support for Matanzas became a rallying call last week leading up to the protests and garnered international attention on social media through the hashtag “SOSMATANZAS.”

Along with the extreme medical supplies and medicine shortages, widespread food shortages and rising food prices have left many Cubans struggling to find needed resources. Last year, Cuba’s government opened stores that only accept purchases in tradable currencies, specifically the U.S. dollar and euros. The state-owned foreign currency stores offer food and hygiene products which are missing from the national currency stores. This has further increased disparity on the island, as foreign currency stores are often the only places where Cubans can find certain foods, personal hygiene products, and home appliances, among other things.

While the island faces food shortages, many Cubans have come to rely on groups created on social media platforms to exchange and/or donate certain medications, including antibiotics like metronidazole. In addition to the food and medicine shortages, Cubans have been enduring frequent and persistent rolling blackouts to add to the frustration.

Cuba’s Government Response

After first visiting San Antonio de los Baños on July 11 to walk the streets and talk to the national press, President Miguel Díaz-Canel held a nationally televised four hour address, where he urged Cuban “revolutionaries” to confront protestors, whom he called “counterrevolutionaries,” in the street. “The order to combat has been given,” he said during his speech. Shortly thereafter, some counter protests composed of “revolutionaries” took to the streets at the request of President Díaz-Canel in support of Cuba’s government. Cuba’s Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, alleged that the protests had been instigated and financed by the United States. The foreign minister claims that the international media has not adequately or appropriately represented the Cuban revolutionaries that actively defend the Revolution.

According to Periodismo de Barrio, protesters were met with violent confrontation by the National Revolutionary Police (PNR), the special brigades (Black Berets), as well as by law enforcement officers dressed in civilian clothes. Images shared from the protests through social media and by foreign press showed state authorities beating protesters, threatening civilians with firearms, and using militarized vehicles to dissolve the protests. As of July 13, the Ministry of the Interior has confirmed one death as a result of state inflicted force. 36-year-old Diubis Laurencio Tejeda died in the neighborhood of La Güinera in the Arroyo Naranjo municipality of Havana.

On Monday, reports of an internet blackout across the island emerged. NetBlocks, an organization that monitors internet disruptions and shutdowns, confirmed that social media platforms including Facebook, WhatsApp, and Telegram, had been restricted throughout the island on Monday. Service interruptions continued throughout the week. The restrictions ultimately made it difficult for Cubans to share and receive information from within the island. This is not the first time an internet blackout has occurred, as internet connection was cut off in January following a gathering of artists in front of the Ministry of Culture in Havana. The main cellular network and data provider on the island, Cubacel, is owned and operated by the government owned telecommunications company, ETECSA. This grants Cuba’s government the ability to block usage and specific websites on the island, making communication with and between those in Cuba nearly impossible.

On Wednesday, President Miguel Díaz-Canel held a second televised national address. He admitted some failings by his government during the address, noting that Cuba’s government has played a role in the economic struggles that partially led to the protests. Mr. Díaz-Canel emphasized that Cubans must “overcome our disagreements between all of us. What we have to promote, even though we have different points of view on certain issues, is between all of us to try to find solutions.”

While continuing to blame the U.S. embargo for Cuba’s economic crisis, the President announced on Wednesday that they would remove limits and tariffs on goods, toiletries, food, and medicine that Cubans bring back into the island. The policy will take effect on July 19 and last until December of 2021. He also ensured that Cuba’s government would work to build a more efficient electricity system, a policy aimed at preventing the frequent and enduring electricity blackouts that Cubans face on the island. In addition to these reforms, Cuba’s Economy Minister Alejandro Gil announced that the government would work to institute guidelines for small and medium-sized enterprises as they had promised to do in April 2021.

On Thursday, in response to statements made by President Joe Biden, Cuba’s president Miguel Diaz Canel tweeted “The US has failed in its attempts to destroy Cuba, although by trying to do so, it has wasted millions of dollars.” He later said that if President Biden “had sincere humanitarian concerns for the Cuban people, he would remove the 243 sanctions imposed by President Trump.”

U.S. Government Response

On Monday, President Joe Biden released an official statement concerning the protests that began in Cuba the previous day. In the statement, the U.S. President asserts that the United States stands in solidarity with the Cuban people while urging “the Cuban regime to hear their people and serve their needs at this vital moment.” On Thursday, President Biden spoke about the U.S. response to the demonstrations in Cuba. The President shared that the U.S. is considering providing technology that would reinstate internet access in Cuba. Previously, the U.S. government has provided Psiphon, which is funded by the U.S. Agency for Global Media, as an internet censorship circumvention tool. It was also mentioned that the Administration would not be reinstating remittances to Cuba out of concern that Cuba’s government would confiscate them. Additionally, despite Cuba’s absence from COVAX, the Administration shared they are also considering sending vaccines to Cuba through a third-party organization. During the press conference, President Biden also offered his harshest comments on Cuba, calling it a “failed state” that is “repressing” its citizens.

Other Administration officials have also made statements in response to this week’s protests. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken refuted claims that the protests on the island were incited by U.S. missionaries, highlighting that the demonstrations began at grassroots levels after the island’s government failed to meet basic needs of the Cuban people. Additionally, Julie Chung, acting assistant Secretary for U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs has actively drawn attention on social media to the demonstrations taking place on the island.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced that Cuban and Haitian migrants traveling across the Florida straits would be repatriated by the U.S. Coast Guard. Mr. Mayorkas further emphasized that individuals fearing prosecution or torture would be referred to third countries for resettlement, stating “allow me to be clear: if you take to the sea, you will not come to the United States.” The U.S. Homeland Security Secretary did not specify precisely which countries migrants would be referred to during his statement. The House Foreign Affairs Committee responded to Mr. Mayorkas’ statements, calling it “disappointing” while stressing that “anyone who faces persecution should be allowed to apply for asylum in the United States.”

Both Democratic and Republican members of the United States Congress have weighed in on the protests and expressed support for the Cuban protesters but differ on how to respond to the demonstrations and the humanitarian crisis in Cuba. Cuban American Senators Robert Menendez (NJ) and Marco Rubio (FL) pressed the Administration to maintain sanctions imposed on Cuba by the Trump administration. Senator Menendez stressed that “the regime needs to understand that change [in Cuba] will bring about a change in sanctions.” In a recent press statement, the Senator credited the protests to large inequities, poor governance and government repression, which he said have been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. On Monday, Senator Marco Rubio delivered a floor speech addressing the political protests in Cuba. Senator Rubio urged the Biden-Harris administration to sponsor the creation of a satellite-based system that could provide Cubans unrestricted access to the internet.

On July 12, U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy and Representative James P. McGovern released official statements concerning the protests. Both Senator Leahy’s statement and Rep. McGovern’s statement condemned Cuba’s government repression and human right violations while urging the Biden-Harris administration to adopt policies of engagement that actively empower the Cuban people. In reference to sanctions imposed by the Trump administration, Senator Leahy notes, “They restrict the freedom of movement and economic autonomy of the Cuban people, and compound the suffering caused by the Cuban government’s own repressive policies and economic mismanagement.” Similarly, U.S. Representative Barbara Lee urged the Administration to lift restrictions while encouraging the U.S to offer the island humanitarian relief.

Most recently, U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez released an official statement condemning “the suppression of the media, speech and protest” while standing in solidarity with the Cuban people. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez also urged the Biden-Harris administration to lift the economic embargo and end restrictions imposed on the island by the Trump administration. U.S. Representative Kathy Castor has also called for a peaceful transition of power in Cuba.

Public Response

Many Cuban artists have spoken out in support of protesters. Cuban artist Cimafunk has actively denounced the recent state inflicted violence in Cuba, stating, “there is no justification for violence. No justification to hurt anybody in the streets.” Los Van Van, one of Cuba’s most popular music groups, have made similar statements, “We support the thousands of Cubans who are claiming their rights, we must be listened to.” The salsa band Elito Reve y su Charangon have also denounced the violent response adopted by Cuba’s government during the demonstrations. Reggaetón artist Yomil emphasized, “there is no way to go to bed and sleep calmly knowing the situation we are living.” The Havana native also recorded and shared an encounter with Cuba’s authorities while on his way to a protest on Sunday. Other representatives in Cuban music, theatre, and arts to have spoken out include Leoni Torres, X Alfonso, Yuliet Cruz, Liuba Maria Hevia, and Leo Brower. Cuban artists have spoken out in an unprecedented way, the statements listed above serve as a small sample of the declarations made by Cuban artists.

Alianza Afro-Cubana, an organization working to defend the rights of the afro-Cuban and LGBTQI+ communities on the island, have released an official statement on their social media platforms. Their statement comes in response to a statement by the Black Lives Matter movement that has sparked conversation on social media this week. The Cuba-based organization condemns Cuba’s government response to the demonstrations, urging the immediate release of those detained and an end to state surveillance. While doing so, the organization highlights that Afro-Cubans have been specifically affected by police brutality on the island. In specific, expressing “we call on activists and anti-racist groups to be concerned about the situation of Black people, who are the most vulnerable group and who bear the heaviest burden of violence.”

Cuban Americans and countless others have protested throughout the U.S. to show solidarity with the Cuban people this week. On Sunday, Cuban Americans in South Florida took to the streets of Miami-Dade County, forcing authorities to close down multiple streets given the large number of demonstrations. Many protesters held Cuban flags and expressed their hopes for a “free Cuba.” Among those present at the Miami demonstration was Miami Mayor Francis Suarez. During the demonstration, Mr. Suarez called for an international intervention led by the U.S. The Mayor’s claims have since been refuted by the U.S. Senator Robert Menendez (NJ), noting that no U.S. administration has ever fostered an international intervention on the island. Instead, the Senator urged the Biden-Harris administration to support and empower Cuban voices on an international level. Protests were also seen elsewhere in the U.S., in Hudson County, New Jersey, Tampa, Florida, and in front Cuba’s Embassy in Washington D.C., among other locations.

On Monday, social media personalities and various other interested parties in Miami announced that they would be traveling across the Florida straits by boat to support those on the island. The influencers said that they would offer cases of water, flashlights, food, medicine, and firearms. However, upon embarking on the trip from Pelican Harbor Marina, Santiago Rivera, one of the organizers, reported that the group had been stopped by the U.S. Coast Guard on Tuesday given their possession of firearm weapons. Mr. Rivera thanked those that supported the initiative, emphasizing that “This isn’t politics, this is brotherhood, this is humanity and common sense, proud to be Cuban for my land I give my life.” Since then, the U.S. Coast Guard has noted that permission would not be granted to Cuban-Americans embarking on the dangerous unofficial journey.

International Response

On Monday, Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador urged the U.S to lift the economic embargo imposed on the island since the John F. Kennedy administration. Mr. Obrador notes that it “would be a truly humanitarian gesture” if the U.S. lifted the economic embargo as the island struggles with one of its worst economic crises since the fall of the Soviet Union. The Mexican President advised countries not to intervene in the island or use the current protests for political gains. While expressing solidarity with Cuba, Mr. Obrador affirmed that his Administration would send medicine, vaccines, and food to the island if needed.

María Zajárova, spokeswoman of the Russian Foreign Ministry, urged the U.S. to lift its economic and trade embargo over Cuba this week. Ms. Zajárova declared that “if Washington is really concerned about the humanitarian situation in Cuba and wants to help ordinary Cubans, we must start (…) by repealing the blockade.” The spokesperson also blamed the recent protests in the U.S., removing Cuba’s government from any sense responsibility for the island’s current economic crisis. Meanwhile, Le Thi Thu Hang, spokeswoman of the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry, has also urged the U.S. government to lift the economic and trade embargo. The spokeswoman expressed that, ​​Cuba would “overcome the current socio-economic difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the consequences of the embargo.”

On Tuesday, José Manuel Albares, Spain’s foreign minister, demanded the immediate release of Spanish journalist Spanish journalist Camila Acosta, who was arrested while at home on Monday. The foreign minister emphasized that, “Spain defends the right to demonstrate freely and peacefully and asks the Cuban authorities to respect it. We unconditionally defend human rights.” While José Manuel Albares urged Cuba’s government to allow peaceful demonstrations to take place, Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro critiqued Cuba’s government calling it “Latin America’s worst media freedom violator.” Earlier this week, the international non-profit and non-governmental organization Reporters without Borders also criticized Miguel Díaz Canel, deeming him a “press freedom predator.”

Other Responses

Professor William M. LeoGrande urges the Biden-Harris administration to prioritize Cuba’s current humanitarian crisis. Professor LeoGrande notes that during the Summer of 1994 thousands of Cubans were forced to endure the treacherous journey across the Florida strait given economic decline on the island. To avoid increases in unofficial migration flows, the Administration must proactively engage with the island. In response to recent statements made by Senator Marco Rubio, Professor William M. LeoGrande indicates precisely how important it is for the Biden-Harris administration to build support from moderate Cuban Americans through policies of engagement.

Meanwhile, in an intimate interview, Jim Acosta, a chief domestic correspondent for CNN, urges the Biden-Harris administration to prioritize Cuba policy. Mr. Acosta, whose father migrated from Cuba to the U.S. in 1962, visited the island for the first time in 2016. The broadcast journalist highlights that the island has not progressed in over fifty years while emphasizing precisely how important engagement policies are when trying to empower the Cuban people.

Ricardo Herrero, the executive director of Cuba Study Group, has actively urged the Biden-Harris administration to make Cuba policy a priority. The Cuba Study Group executive director emphasizes that “two things can be true at the same time” – it is possible to acknowledge the repressive nature of Cuba’s government while advocating that U.S. sanctions do not relieve the hardships often experienced by those on the island. Mr. Herrero notes that it is essential for the Biden-Harris Administration to work towards policies that “support the Cuban people and expand their access to resources.” Following the announcement that Cuba would allow the unlimited importation of food, medicine, and hygiene products through passenger flights, he urges the Administration to lift travel restrictions formerly imposed by the Trump administration over the island.

Ben Rhodes, former Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications under the Obama administration, also noted that “the easy political thing to do is to issue demands for freedom from America while doing nothing,” referencing the Biden-Harris administration’s recent statement concerning the protests in Cuba. Mr. Rhodes further emphasized that the Administration needs to “figure out ways to engage the Cuban people, which necessitate taking off some sanctions both to improve their lives and [deal with] things like Covid.”

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