5 things to know about the rare protests in Cuba, and why they matter

Thousands denounce government in demonstrations across island

ORLANDO, Fla. – Thousands of people poured into the streets in Cuba on Sunday in what is becoming the largest anti-government protest in decades.

Demonstrations lasted for hours as they popped up all over the 777-mile stretch of the island, with people rallying against the country’s worsening economic situation, failure to address the coronavirus pandemic, a lack of freedom and disgust for the government.

This is a rare moment for the communist country, as its government structure has been in place for decades with harsh penalties for those who speak out against it.

Here’s why the recent protests matter and what it means for the island.

60 years in the making

In this Feb. 8, 1986 file photo, Cuban President Fidel Castro, left, joins hands with his younger brother Raul Castro, chief of the Cuban Armed Forces and first vice president, after the two were re-elected during the 3rd Cuban Communist Party Congress session in Havana, Cuba. For most of his life, Raul Castro played second-string to his brother, but for the past decade, it's Raul who's been the face of communist Cuba. On Friday, April 16, 2021, Raul Castro formally announced he'd step down as head of the Communist Party, leaving Cuba without a Castro in an official position of command for the first time in more than six decades. (AP Photo/Charles Tasnadi) (Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

After Fulgencio Batista was overthrown in 1959, Cuba entered a new era with Fidel Castro.

The Castro regime started with arrests, acts of torture and executions against anyone who supported the former president or openly opposed the new one. The country’s new leader paused elections indefinitely and dissolved the capitalist system in Cuba.

Instead, Castro established a centrally planned economy, meaning Cuba would decide when and how many goods could be sold. This new economy meant families were prohibited from purchasing certain food, clothing items and other things due to production limitations established by the government.

The new administration also assigned jobs to its people, regardless of education and experience. Engineers became bus drivers, children were asked to work on state farms and pay was standardized, with the average person in 2019 taking home about $225 a month, which is less than $60 a week.

Historians say decades of oppression took a toll on the island’s residents, with people opting to leave if they could.

Those who chose to stay, or who couldn’t leave, have to live under these conditions.

“Protests like this are unprecedented. This was spontaneous and this was massive,” University of Central Florida history professor Dr. Luis Martinez-Fernandez said. “The immediate triggers are the current crisis having to do with the pandemic and lack of vaccines and rising number of deaths.”

Martinez-Fernandez is Cuban and has studied Cuban revolution for 20 years.

One thing that works well with the Cuban government is its ability to repress the Cuban people, he said.

“Some of the images are coming out, showing police beating Cubans who are protesting peacefully. They call them rapid response brigades that are unfurled on Cubans to abuse them physically,” Martinez-Fernandez said.

Food, medical care, human rights

People wearing face masks amid the spread of COVID-19 visit while waiting to enter a government-run food store in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, May 19, 2020. State media has started a campaign of zero tolerance for anyone attempting to cash in on the fallout from the spread of the coronavirus, like hoarding and speculative pricing, which has imposed even more distress on Cubans who were already used to shortages and long lines in their efforts to find basic necessities. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

To note, the country’s decline in food and medical care started years ago. The coronavirus just made it worse.

Inflation, trade embargoes and a decline in aid have caused acute medical shortages, according to the Association For the Study of Cuban Economy. Cuba’s health minister reported last June that 116 basic medicines were scarce. Shipping delays due to the pandemic and global shortages have only exacerbated the problem.

Food security has become a rising national issue through the pandemic. The island imports around two-thirds of the food it consumes. Imports are becoming more scarce due to economic fallout from the pandemic and Trump-era trade embargoes. Food scarcity is becoming such a troubling issue, economists are saying it’s borderline a famine, especially as Cuba has called on its citizens to grow their own food.

People protesting say they are hungry. The outcries are for food, access to basic medicine and basic human rights. People were lining up outside of pharmacies and state-run grocery stores before the pandemic. Today, demonstrators say they’re fed up with waiting and walking away with nothing.

“Most embarrassing, is some of the world’s poorest countries are sending help to Cuba -- sending vaccines so the Cubans can buy them. This is unheard of,” Martinez-Fernandez said.

Economic issues

A pickup truck, hauling a poster of Fidel Castro, drives past Revolution Square completely empty of tourists, in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, March 2, 2021. The Caribbean is hunting for visitors and vaccines to jump-start the stalled economy in one of the world's most tourism-dependent regions. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Tourism was once one of the main sources of revenue for the island. In 2019, it earned around $4.1 billion from tourist visits.

By the end of December 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Cuba had experienced a 74.6% drop in international visitors compared to those who came in 2019, with numbers continuing to decline, according to World Tourism Organization figures.

This drop is not only the result of Cuba closing its borders, but also due to restrictions imposed by other countries working to keep COVID-19 infections under control.

Cuba started allowing foreign visitors last July, but they’re not coming in at the capacity that could sustain the country’s economy. With shortages, a global pandemic and the country struggling to rebound economically, its residents are suffering from the impacts.

A new generation

Government supporters shout slogans as anti-government protesters march in Havana, Cuba, on Sunday, July 11, 2021. Hundreds of demonstrators went out to the streets in several cities in Cuba to protest against ongoing food shortages and high prices of food. (AP Photo/Ismael Francisco) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

More than 11 million people call Cuba home. The median age of the country’s residents is 42 years old, meaning that many were not alive during the Cuban Revolution or when Fidel Castro implemented his regime in 1959.

For context, this means that most of the island’s residents have only known trade sanctions, scarcity, authoritarian rule and what some call oppression.

It’s a new generation experiencing what historians may call “old Cuba.” As the residents have seen three different leaders, gained access to cellphones and utilized limited access to the internet, there’s a different level of awareness.

This is what has sparked historic protests across the entire island -- not just in the urban areas. Protestors are livestreaming the unrest, which inspired copycat demonstrations elsewhere on the island. This helped create one of the largest movements since the 1994 Maleconazo uprising, which is dubbed “Cuba’s first popular revolt.”

The image below maps out the locations of protests in Cuba on July 11.

And they’re not just in Cuba.

Another key element to note is that the Cuban diaspora has taken root all over the U.S.

Miami is known for its Cuban population. With thousands of people shutting down streets and calling for freedom on the island, similar cries were heard from demonstrators in New York, Philadelphia, Jacksonville, Orlando and in Washington D.C.

The people of Cuba have a connection to a world outside of their island, and that connection looks like constituents in the U.S. asking their lawmakers to take action.

“My family and I escaped a repressive authoritarian regime, and I know what it’s like to be a citizen that is being mistreated by its government. It’s critically important that the Cuban people have the support they need to protest and call for better treatment,” U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy said.

The House Appropriations Committee approved $20 million of the Economic Support Fund to support Cubans, Murphy said, and the money would go toward democracy-building and human right programs for Cuba -- and will not be used to assist the Cuban government.

Though the people of Cuba do not have freedom of speech, those with that human right elsewhere are using it to draw attention to issues on the island.

About the Authors:

Crystal Moyer is a morning news anchor who joined the News 6 team in 2020.