27 February, 2022
Ben Richards, Global Leadership Fellow
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every country differently. Unfortunately for Cuban citizens it has severely impacted their quality of life – with tighter US sanctions brought in by the Trump administration and a fall in external support from Venezuela further magnifying problems. The island nation’s economy shrank by almost 11% in 2020. Unsurprisingly, this figure closely matches the percentage of GDP tourism contributes to Cuba’s economy. Tourism almost came to a halt globally during the pandemic, and the economy has still not fully returned to its previous strength even though the restrictions on traveling have eased since the start of COVID-19.
The quick decline of one of Cuba’s most effective generators of revenue has left the country struggling with several humanitarian problems, causing civil unrest. Reports of a food shortage, a lack of medical supplies, rolling blackouts and steadily climbing inflation rates, were all contributing factors to the dissatisfaction with the current government. However, the people of Cuba did their best to believe in their government’s ability to remedy these emerging issues before they became intolerable. However, after months of waiting and no improvement to their quality of life, a critical mass of citizens in Cuba decided to act. Cuban citizens commenced a series of protests on 11th July 2021 to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with how the government was handling the COVID-19 crisis. Most attending the protests were Cuban youths who had organised the demonstrations over social media, which was also used as a platform for Cubans who didn’t want to attend the protests in person as doing so would be a great risk as they might be charged with sedition. However, social media proved extremely effective as it allowed frustrated Cubans to voice their concerns and capture the attention and support of the world.
The protests were a testament to the raw frustration with the current government’s abilities and were some of the largest protests Cuba has seen since the start of Castro’s communist revolution. One protester even said “We are not afraid. We want change, don’t want any more dictatorships”. In the moment Cubans couldn’t help but feel like they had been liberated after enduring an incompetent government and not being able to freely express their issues with it.
Cuba has had issues with respecting human rights for as long as it has been a communist run state. Within the first 6 months of the 1959 revolution there were more than 500 political executions. Cuba continues to violate human right regulations with reports of political oppression so significant that Freedom House, an US-funded organisation, classifies Cuba as “Not Free”.
Cuba adopted the universal declaration of human rights in 1948. However, the Cuban Government has their own interpretation of the rights stipulated. For example, the freedom of expression and opinion is integral for a free and functioning country, but Cuban has only allowed this as long as it is “in keeping with objectives of a socialist society” – a caveat so broad that it effectively makes the right to freedom and expression impossible to actualise. Books, TV and radio broadcasts are tightly censored and Cuba ranks near the bottom of the World Press Freedom Index.
Unfortunately, the sense of freedom that the people of Cuba had been reacquainted with was short lived. Cuban police were quickly dispatched to deal with the protests, even going as far as to mobilize a section of the police force nicknamed “Black Berets” who are widely feared amongst Cuban citizens. During the protests hundreds of Cuban people were rounded up by the police force. According to international human rights organisations around 700 people were detained, many of whom were underaged.
As of late January, of the 700 people detained in the July 2021 protests, 172 had been tried and convicted. Most of the remainder who used their right to express their concerns freely and right to gather peacefully are still detained and awaiting trial, 55 of whom are between the ages of 16 – 18 years old. Even those who have already faced trial have been given unfair sentences compared to their crimes.
Cubans are now back to living in fear of the government and their lack of transparency with the protest trials are not helping to ease the situation. The 172 Cubans that have been tried in court have gone completely under the public’s radar. The first time the Cuban public had officially herd anything about the trials came on the 25th of January 2022 as a complete surprise, with an official statement from the public prosecution office. Justicia 11J, an active human rights group in Cuba, have reported extremely brutal and unfair prison sentences for the people who participated in the protests. Protesters have been given anywhere between 4 to 30 years imprisonment for their actions.
With the right to a fair trial seemingly nowhere to be seen and the government’s effort to hide the prosecution from the public, the accused and their families just want to know what’s happening and that their child, sister, brother, mother or father is receiving a fair trial for their actions. However, a fair trial cannot be done behind closed doors. With one effected family saying, “I have no idea why he was arrested, that’s the question we’re all asking”. The Cuban government have tried to defend their position that the trials were fair. The Prosecutor’s office said “The right to a defence was guaranteed, lawyers presented evidence and had access to the case files”. Furthermore, they said that the Justicia 11J claims were “manipulation of public opinion” and came under “due process”. However, in Cuban law any unauthorised gatherings are deemed to be illegal, even if they are peaceful. Add on top of that charges for sedition, the Cuban government may feel like they are right to prosecute the protesters.
Cuba’s unsavoury and appalling treatment of its people for expressing their freedom to protest and gather freely has been met with denouements across the world, with the USA embassy in Cuba saying “The Cuban government and police cannot crush the people’s demand for a better future”. Further support came from Canada’s foreign policy twitter account saying “Canada condemns #Cuba’s harsh sentencing following the July 2021 protests. We strongly advocate for freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly free from intimidation. We stand with the people of Cuba in their aspiration for #democracy.” Support also came flooding in on social media from everyday people across the globe who saw what was taking place, one twitter user said “It’s very sad to see what’s happening in Cuba right now”
Cuba is still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic and the problems it brought with it. However, the Cuban government will now also have to work to improve relations with its citizens as the recent events have shown the public that Cuba’s government cannot be trusted and is not acting with the people’s best interest in mind.
Image: supporters of the Cuban demonstrations in the US (source: P,TO 19104 via CC BY-SA 4.0)