Havana, Cuba – By Monday morning, the streets of Havana’s October 10 neighborhood were cleared.
The only sign of last night’s violence was old men in tattered work clothes removing the last of the dust from the road surface, leaving only gray spots where the bricks had fallen.
However, this street, heading south towards the outskirts of Havana towards the beautiful hilltop Church of Jesus del Monte, was the site of the unheard of protests in the Cuban capital on Sunday.
Further protests took place across the country, after the first rallies began outside Havana in the town of Sant Antonio de los Banos. The demonstrators chanted “Libertad” – freedom – and “Patria e Vida”, Homeland and Life, a play on the revolutionary slogan Patria or Muerte, which states the revolutionaries are ready to die for the homeland. They also chanted, “We are not afraid.”
Videos and news of the protests spread through social media, which led to more demonstrations across the 1,250 square kilometer country.
In the province of Santiago de Cuba, people walked in the city of Palma Soriano. There have been reports of unrest in Santa Clara, the center of the country, and in Cardenas, the city hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic.
The protests spread so quickly that the government was caught off guard, and President Miguel Diaz-Canel stormed all programs – including the Euro 2020 football final – to call on people to take to the streets to defend the revolution.
Amid heavy security, he appeared on the streets of San Antonio de los Baños, calling the protesters “agitators” and noting that they had been deceived by counter-revolutionary forces backed by foreign powers. “We call on all the country’s revolutionaries, all the communists, to take to the streets,” he said when he later appeared on television.
Ramiro Valdez, the 89-year-old who fought alongside the Castros and rose to vice president before retiring earlier this year, tweeted that the protesters were “perverts in the service of the empire, carrying out the instructions given by their owners.” Since the vast majority of the protesters were young people, his comment showed a stark generational divide opening up in Cuba.
It is clear that Díaz-Canel’s appearance in San Antonio de los Banos was designed to be an echo of the last major protests in Cuba, in 1994 during Cuba’s special period, when the economy collapsed after the withdrawal of financial support from the Soviet Union. Then-President Fidel Castro appeared on Havana’s famous promenade, the Malecon, to speak for the protesters.
Echoes of the hunger of that time are now evident.
Cuba’s problems have been slowly worsening over many years, as underinvestment and growing obsolescence have taken their toll – but the pandemic has exacerbated the problems. Last year, tourism fell to nothing and the economy shrank by 11 percent, a number that is believed to be much worse now.
Many Cubans either worked directly in tourism, or on the sidelines, to earn enough to feed their families, or depended on money sent from abroad. All these sources of criticism have dried up.
Meanwhile, the government unified the two currencies it ran – the Cuban convertible peso, which is pegged to the US dollar, and the Cuban peso. This was seen as a long-needed restructuring – the regime protected Cuba’s outdated and inefficient industry – but it came at the heart of the crisis.
This move saw the return of the United States dollar as a joint bidding. In order to increase the hard currency needed to pay for imported goods, the government then moved many necessities into so-called “MLC” stores where only hard currency was accepted – that is, foreign currency.
The black market immediately established itself as the market value of the peso fell to half or worse than its official rate against the US dollar and the euro. Huge queues at MLC stores have also given rise to a black market for food.
These exchanges favor those who have access to foreign currency, although the increasing cost of food means that those with dollars are paying roughly what they did before for bread, eggs, and medicine (other items, such as milk, are all impossible to obtain)
As for those on the other side of the bargain, who have to buy foreign currency with the pesos they earn, food and drug prices have doubled and then doubled again. Demonstrators after protesters on Sunday told reporters that they took to the streets because people were hungry and had nothing to eat.
The power outage now makes the problem worse. Most parts of the country are facing a four- to six-hour power outage caused by what the government has said are worn out parts that cannot be replaced due to the 60-year-old US embargo. She also said that power supplies for hospitals dealing with COVID-19 victims needed to be protected.
The storm is brewing
At 9 a.m. on Monday, with the streets quiet, state television began showing a cabinet meeting. Local journalists put questions to the president, health minister, and ministers responsible for electricity and food supplies. Diaz-Canel blamed the protests on US “economic strangulation”.
He also directed his fire at the demonstrators. “They threw stones at the foreign exchange shops, they stole things,” he said, before describing their behavior as “vulgar, indecent and delinquent.”
Since the demonstrations began, Cubans from all over the island have been complaining about the shutdown of the internet. Meanwhile, social media lit up on the other side of the Florida Straits. Sections of the Cuban community in South Florida called for “intervention” and organized a rally outside the famous Versailles restaurant in exile.
Francis Suarez, mayor of Miami, told the crowd: “The United States and the international community must do something now. The people of Cuba need medicine. They are starving. They need international help.”
Michael Bustamante, a veteran Cuba observer and associate professor of Latin American literature at Florida International University, responded to the most extreme calls for intervention by saying on Twitter: “It doesn’t help.”
US President Joe Biden said in a statement: “We stand with the Cuban people and their unequivocal call for freedom and relief from the tragic grip of the pandemic and of the decades of oppression and economic suffering they have been subjected to by the Cuban people’s authoritarian regime in Cuba.”
Outside the Zinja police station, where police the night before confronted cheering protesters, sometimes rushing into the crowd to arrest people, family members of detainees are now patiently seated.
The sun was shining but over one of Havana’s dramatic summer storms it was gathering.