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Cuba's Historic Protests and US-Cuban Relations

We spoke with SIS professor emeritus Philip Brenner, who specializes in US-Cuba relations, to learn more about what sparked the recent unrest in Cuba.

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El Capitolio in Havana, Cuba.

On July 11, the largest protests in Cuba in more than six decades began. Cuban citizens took to the streets over a number of grievances, including the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, a severe economic crisis, and shortages of basic goods. We spoke with SIS professor emeritus Philip Brenner, who specializes in US-Cuba relations and US foreign policy towards Latin America and the Caribbean, to learn more about what sparked the unrest.

Q: What were Cuban citizens protesting?

The demonstrations in Cuba were the largest since the 1959 Cuban Revolution, and they occurred throughout the country, which made them so remarkable. Most of the protestors were angry about the lack of food in the stores and increased prices for the food that is available, the lack of medicine in hospitals and pharmacies, recent inflation, electrical blackouts, and the recent rise in cases of COVID-19. Some focused on the lack of transparency about important economic decisions the government had made.

Q: The Cuban government, until recently, blamed social media and the US government for the protests. Did social media and the US embargo play a role in the protests? And, if so, how?

The key problem Cuba faces, which is a problem for most poor countries, is that it does not have the ability to earn a sufficient amount of internationally accepted (hard) currency to import the things Cubans need, such as food, medicines, and fuel. The US embargo significantly undermines Cuba’s ability to earn hard currency. US sanctions also make it difficult for Cuba to buy basic medicines and even simple devices such as syringes to administer the COVID-19 vaccine the country developed.

Cuba imports about 70 percent of its food and most chemicals and equipment that its advanced pharmaceutical industry needs to produce medicines. After US president Gerald Ford modified the embargo in 1975 to allow US corporations in third countries to sell goods to Cuba, food and medicine made up 95 percent of Cuba's purchases from these companies. However, a 1992 US law restricts ships that dock in Cuba from docking in the United States for a period of six months. Cuba rarely can purchase a full shipload of goods. As a consequence of the embargo, the cost of importing food and chemicals is high because these ships travel only partially full.

The Trump administration added to Cuba’s difficulties when it reduced the amount of remittances Cuban-Americans could send to their Cuban families, which had accounted for one-third of Cuba’s hard currency earnings. It then essentially forced Western Union in Cuba, which had been the principal conduit for remittances, to close. In 2016, US visitors to Cuba made up about 25 percent of Cuba’s 4.7 million tourists that year. President Donald Trump reversed several of President Barack Obama’s orders that had eased restrictions on travel by US citizens. The resulting income loss was compounded when Cuba itself shut down all tourism in 2020 in response to the pandemic.

While the country-wide demonstrations appear to have been mostly spontaneous, some of the instigators received US payments from a $20 million US “democracy promotion” program for Cuba. Indeed, in 2010, the United States attempted to create a Twitter-like network in Cuba, called ZunZuneo, intended to stimulate flash mobs of the sort that led to the 2011 Arab Spring.

Q: Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel recently admitted in a televised address that failings by the state also sparked the unrest. What were the failings by the Cuban government that led to the unrest?

In 2011, Cuba began to reform its economic system by allowing more than two hundred categories of small private enterprises to operate legally. But other major reforms were introduced slowly and without adequate coordination. For example, the absence of wholesale markets for restaurants led them to compete for produce in ordinary groceries, driving up prices. The dual currency system frustrated foreign investors and obscured the actual values of state enterprises’ income and expenses, resulting in costly subsidies. Cuban economists had urged the government to end the dual currency system several years ago, when the economy was growing and low-priced oil from Venezuela was still sustaining the country.

The government waited until the start of 2021 to end the system, at a moment when it was least able to cushion the blows from either the resulting inflation or the unemployment that had risen due to the pandemic and US sanctions. Rather than acknowledge the legitimacy of complaints, the government responded with a heavy hand, initially against artists who were critical of government policies. In November 2020, the government arrested several artists and musicians who had created the San Isidro Movement, inadvertently giving them publicity and making them well-known throughout the country.

Q: The combination of the coronavirus pandemic, insufficiencies in the economy, and the tightening of US sanctions has resulted in Cuba suffering its worst crisis in years. What is the Cuban government doing to address the demands of anti-government protestors?

It is important to recognize that very few protestors were anti-government; the demonstrators were angry about government policies. A small number did call for a change in the government, but it is not clear what kind of government they want instead. In response to the protests, President Miguel Díaz-Canel announced that several new policies would be put in place. These include an increase in salaries, a suspension on tariffs for goods that visitors bring into the country, a plan for increasing energy production to reduce or eliminate blackouts, and incentives for farmers to increase production.

Q: Migration to the US from Cuba is again on the rise, the decades-old trade embargo is still in place, and former president Trump tightened the embargo and imposed more than 200 measures against the regime during his four-year term. Should President Biden take steps to improve US-Cuba relations or offer humanitarian aid in the wake of these protests? What can realistically be done by his administration?

Under the initial 1962 embargo, the US Congress granted the president authority to issue executive orders imposing sanctions on Cuba. The 1996 Helms-Burton law made it more difficult for presidents to modify the embargo, because it codified into law all the sanctions that existed at the time. As a result, major modifications require new laws, and the power of US senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) seems to be an insurmountable obstacle to legislating away the embargo at the present.

Still, President Biden has the authority to modify aspects of the embargo and US policy in order to reduce the misery that Cubans are suffering:

  • First, he could restore all of the Executive Orders that President Obama issued, many of which helped small businesses and ordinary Cuban families.
  • Second, he could reverse the Trump administration's unwarranted designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, which had overturned the Obama administration's removal of Cuba from the list. The designation makes all Cuban international monetary transfers difficult, because most transfers flow through New York banks at one point or another. The banks worry they will run afoul of US laws if they are involved in Cuban transactions.
  • Third, President Biden could re-staff the consular section of the US Embassy in Havana, thus enabling elderly Cubans to visit their families in the US.
  • Fourth, he could help to reduce tensions between the two countries by re-establishing the Obama-era US-Cuban Commission, which was a forum for discussing a range of issues in both countries’ interests. Cuba and the United States signed 22 agreements in 2015 and 2016 that provide for cooperation on issues including drug enforcement, environmental protection, airline safety, disaster warning and recovery, and US FDA testing of a medicine that might prevent the amputation of limbs due to diabetes, which 60,000 Americans experience annually. However, most of the agreements need further discussions–which the Trump administration ended–in order to be implemented.

The reduction of tension is an essential step for improving human rights on the island. All countries limit freedoms when they feel threatened—think of the US Patriot Act’s impositions on Americans after the 9/11 attacks. US hostility only engenders Cuba to curtail freedoms, not to relax restrictions. Indeed, one consequence of the Obama opening was that Cubans gained widespread access to the internet, greater freedom to travel, and the right to buy and sell property. In short, President Biden should take these four steps, which would both serve US humanitarian interests and benefit ordinary Cubans and Americans.