On July 11, 2021, thousands of Cubans throughout the island took to the streets. Economic desperation, food, medicine, electricity, and goods shortages, and the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, among other reasons, sparked the historic protests 16 miles outside of Havana in San Antonio de los Baños. Some called for changes to the island’s economy and for political change; chants of “libertad” (freedom) and calls for Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz-Canel to step down could also be heard amongst demonstrators across the island. While the July 11 (J11) protests were not the first social protest or expression of public discontent in the past few years, they are notable for their scale and diversity of their participants.
Over the past year, Cuba’s government has responded to the protests with a combination of censorship, violence, repression, and an attempt to implement some improvements to economic strife. Since the July 11 demonstrations, Cuba has successfully mitigated COVID-19 transmission through a vaccination campaign using three of Cuba’s five domestically produced vaccines, and the government has taken timid steps to encourage private sector growth such as approving new small and medium size enterprises (SMEs or PYMES in Spanish) to operate and relaxing some import and export regulations for these enterprises. However, accumulated poverty, political and legal repression of any calls for reform, and socioeconomic inequalities are also on the rise. While Cuba’s government initially admitted some failings and culpability in the economic struggles that contributed to the protests, it has yet to acknowledge its role in creating social discontent and disenfranchisement and continues to label dissent as U.S.-backed intervention. A recent social media post by the official Twitter account of Cuba’s Presidency framed the one year anniversary of J11 as a celebration of “the dismantling, together with the people, of a vandalic coup d’état.”
Cuba’s ongoing economic crisis – the island’s worst since the fall of the Soviet Union – has continued to be a source of great economic desperation, hardship, and disillusionment. Economic crisis coupled with the repressive and heavy-handed response to the July 11 protests, the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ongoing deterioration of state support has made life on the island increasingly difficult, and the standard of living deteriorate. In turn, Cubans are still experiencing hours-long blackouts, hours-long lines for food and goods, stagnated incomes, and less food and medicine on shelves and at higher prices or in hard-to-obtain currencies.
For many, post-J11 has meant leaving their country behind under dangerous circumstances. In only eight months, around 1 percent of the island’s population, including families with children and other vulnerable populations, has sought to emigrate to the US, leading to the largest wave of Cuban migrants in history. Since the start of fiscal year 2022, over 140,000 Cuban migrants and asylum seekers have attempted entrance into the US. The majority of these Cubans attempted to enter the United States at the southwest land border, however, dangerous seaborne migration in FY 2022 has also increased, totaling more than the past five years combined. While the reasons for migration are multifactorial and varied, those who have left Cuba over the past year have included numerous dissidents, activists, and members of Cuba’s civil society who have been forced to leave due to state or social pressure.
Since the initial crackdown, independent journalists have faced increased censorship, activists have encountered continued harassment, and demonstrators have been subjected to widely criticized arrests and mass trials. According to official numbers, Cuba’s government has indicted nearly 800 people for their alleged involvement in the J11 protests and sentenced nearly 500 people to detention, house arrest, and work camps, including several who were under 18 years old. In contrast to the government’s reporting, civil society organizations report there have been over 1,477 detentions and 650 sentences issued, 24 of which were minors. Despite numerous requests to monitor the trials, the trials have remained closed, and many in and outside of Cuba have voiced concerns over the lack of governmental transparency, of due process violations, and over disproportionate and unfair sentences.
While the July 11, 2021 demonstrations initially instilled a sense of urgency in the Biden-Harris administration’s Cuba policy review and they ultimately reversed some sanctions, Cuba policy has largely remained standstill. The demonstrations, record-breaking numbers of Cuban migrants and asylum seekers at U.S. borders, and the advent of a potential embarrassment at the Ninth Summit of the Americas demonstrated the Biden-Harris administration’s willingness to come to the table in the face of a crisis. The recently announced policy measures are welcomed but the Administration has yet to enact a robust policy and implement preventative measures while building sustainable change. Among other impacts, the current maintenance of blanket sanctions, a failed policy of isolation, and other punitive measures towards the island has paralyzed investment and blocked most remittances, only compounding pre-existing issues and aggravating the humanitarian crisis. In addition, while likely attempting to avoid the political polarization of U.S.-Cuba policy, the Administration’s inaction and failure to create a cohesive Cuba policy has actually given space for hardliners in both countries to take advantage of the situation and deepen the polarization. In the end, the “clarion call for freedom” from the Cuban people is being muffled in part by the perpetuation of failed U.S. policies.
All in all, a year after the July 11 demonstrations, there has been little improvement to life on the island and in U.S.-Cuba relations, and a lack of commitment from either side to enact policies that bring sustainable change. As Cuba goes through one of the most complex times of its contemporary history and the people of Cuba continue to suffer, they remain hostage to politics on both sides of the Florida Straits.
For recommendations from CDA on steps the Biden-Harris administration can take, see here, here, and here.
Recommended Readings and Reflections on One-Year After July 11
Cuba One Year After the Protests, William M. LeoGrande, The Nation
A Year After Cuba’s Uprising, the Aftershocks Continue, Julio Antonio Fernández Estrada, Americas Quarterly
Twitter Thread on One Year Post-July 11, Michael Bustamante
In Cuba, Protesting While Poor Is Now a Crime, Lillian Perlmutter, Foreign Policy
A year after protests, Cuba struggles to emerge from crisis, Andrea Rodríguez, AP News
Rights and Law in Cuba one year after July 11 (Spanish), Julio Antonio Fernández Estrada, Joven Cuba
July 11 in Cuba: A Year Later, Washington Office on Latin America
A year after Cuba’s historic protests, the government’s grip is tighter than ever, Patrick Oppman, CNN
How Cuba’s investment in writers and artists came back to haunt its regime, Parjanya Christian Holtz, The Washington Post
In other news…
CDA is hiring! The Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA) seeks an in-region, dynamic, and experienced consultant to act as a Policy Advisor for Refugee and Migrant Protection to support the development of the organization’s migration program with the possibility of joining CDA as a full-time employee after one year.
This week’s Top Stories
- US imposes fresh restrictions on Cuban officials ahead of protest anniversary
- The killing of a Black youth in Cuba sparks criticism of police brutality and racism
- Sentencing of Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and Maykel Castillo Pérez
- Rising numbers of Cuban migrants
This week, in Cuba news…
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