Cubans demand an end to the dictatorship among a growing humanitarian crisis

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Over two hundred artists gathered in front of the Ministry of Culture in Havana, Cuba  Nov. 27, 2020, calling for freedom of expression during their 10-day protest. The picture above showcases a Cuban man as he plays the national game of Cuba, dominoes. (Photo/AHS Student Artist)

This article is by guest writer Aurora Lai.

Cuban citizens call to end the 62-year dictatorship that worsens their already devastating living conditions, shortage of foods and vaccines, and a general lack of basic goods and services as they are experiencing the worst economic crisis in decades. Their cries have alerted people across the world of a humanitarian crisis that the country is facing. The July 11, 2021 protests in Cuba drew worldwide attention, marking the first time since August 1994 that Cubans protested the communist regime. 

Cuba imports more than 50% of its fuel, food and other basic resources. Thus, the shrinking economy (a result of the pandemic), US sanctions,  inefficiencies in the state-run economy and economic crisis dating back to the fall of the Soviet Union have resulted in an exacerbation of already serious food shortages that leave many waiting in long lines with no guarantee of receiving food. In Havana, the capital of Cuba, a teenager showed in his YouTube video that the local grocery store held nothing in its refrigerated sections and had limited food items stocked on its shelves. 

Along with the food shortage, the country denies its people internet access (a recent result of the protests) and faces a crumbling healthcare system, hourlong power outages and rising inflation. In an attempt to acquire foreign currency for the Cuban government, dollar stores stocked with foods such as meat and pasta were set up in August 2020. Only American currency was accepted, but the average Cuban citizen who did not have access to a relative in the US or American money was forced to rely on the state-run distributions of food, which faced its worst shortage since the 1990s. 

The Cuban government has now transitioned to using a currency their government developed known as moneda libremente convertible (MLC), or free convertible money. People have to convert their foreign currency into MLCs, thereby giving the government control over foreign money. 

MLCs and the native currency, Cuban convertible pesos (CUC), have caused a growing inequality and wealth gap. MLC stores are supplied with a different level of basic necessities, stocking more items than the CUC stores as a result of taking the CUC store’s supplies; however, this results in CUC stores having limited resources in stores for Cubans who are not able to afford or convert to MLCs.

Since the economy is state-run, the shortages over the past decades can also be accredited to the fact that the government tends to distribute resources among people in power and people in places where tourism, which Cuba is highly dependent on, can return a profit. 

One of the most severe restrictions against Cubans is over their ability to exercise freedom of speech. Cubans are fighting now more than ever for their rights to expression and access to online opinion articles that the government has censored. 

“There have been different stages of this crisis ever since my [Cuban] parents were kids, in terms of low food rations and restrictions on freedom of speech,” junior Sofia Toledo said. “Freedom of speech wasn’t allowed in terms of you are not allowed to speak out against the regime because you will get arrested.” 

 The current protests are a culmination of outrage from food, vaccine, and medicine shortages due to the continued inaction that Cubans have felt from their repressive government for decades. Despite the risk of being jailed and the security forces at the protests that detained, beat, and pepper-sprayed some of the protesters,  participants exclaimed and chanted “Libertad” (freedom), “Patria y Vida” (Homeland and Life), “SOS Cuba” and other anti-government slogans. 

Junior Sofia Toledo’s grandfather fled from Cuba in 1994 on a raft. After some time at sea, he was taken by a US navy ship to the Guantanamo Bay US military base in Cuba for a year until he was allowed to go to the US in 1995. He describes the current situation in Cuba and the past by stating that the Cuban people “no tienen nada más que perder,” or “they have nothing less to lose.” Sofia Toledo explained that he meant that although the Cuban people were stripped of several of their basic human rights before the Covid-19 crisis, people weren’t likely to protest because they were responsible for taking care of their families. With Covid-19’s arrival and so many family members dying, the tipping point that led to the protests against the lack of food and freedom of expression was reached.

President Miguel Diaz-Canel, who was chosen by Raul Castro to succeed as president, encourages his supporters to “fight” the anti-communist protestors. However, one anti-communist protestor from San Antonio declared, “We are not afraid. We want change, we do want any more dictatorship.” 

The protests have occurred primarily in Cuba and in South Florida but extend to all parts of the world, calling for an end to the repressive regime that has caused the humanitarian crisis to escalate. Although the protests have not made any political change in Cuba, President Joe Biden announced new sanctions against Cuba’s national-revolutionary police and its top two officials last Friday. As Biden plans to increase political pressure on Cuba’s government as a result of the protests, Cubans around the world are demanding freedom for their home country by shouting “SOS CUBA” and “suficiente es suficiente” (enough is enough).