SNAPSHOT: Cuba sees largest protests in decades amid growing public anger over handling of economy and pandemic

SNAPSHOT: Cuba sees largest protests in decades amid growing public anger over handling of economy and pandemic

OVERVIEW

  • On Sunday (11 July), thousands of people participated in large, spontaneous anti-government protests across the country amid growing public anger at economic hardship, constraints on civil liberties and the communist government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

  • The demonstrations began in San Antonio de los Baños, a municipality some 35k south-west of Havana, and rapidly spread across the island after protest footage was broadcast on social media.

  • Security forces deployed to the protests arrested dozens of activists, including in Havana, while internet and electricity services were disrupted across the country.

  • Smaller pro-government demonstrations also took place nationwide after President Miguel Díaz-Canel blamed the unrest on the US and urged government supporters to take to the streets.

  • Anti-government protests continued at a much-reduced intensity on Monday (12 July). One protester, identified in press reports as 36-year-old Diubis Laurencio Tejeda, died during violent confrontations between demonstrators and the security forces in the La Güinera neighbourhood of Havana, marking the first and only fatality linked to the protests.

  • Partial disruption to popular social media networks, including Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Telegram, was reported on Monday and Tuesday (12-13 July), according to London-based monitoring organisation NetBlocks.

  • On Wednesday (14 July), Prime Minister Manuel Marrero announced that import duties applied to travellers bringing food, medicine and other essential items into the country will be temporarily halted from Monday (19 July) until 31 December in a move aimed at placating the protesters.

  • As of Thursday (15 July), street protests have largely ceased amid major security forces deployments. Approximately 140 people are reported to have been detained or are missing.

  • Protests expressing solidarity with the demonstrators have also been reported in Florida, home to the US’s largest Cuban-American population. On Tuesday, protesters in Miami blocked a section of the Palmetto Expressway, while others gathered at the city’s Tamiami Park.

ANALYSIS

  • Sunday’s protests were the largest seen on the communist-run island in several decades, highlighting the extent of public anger, particularly in relation to increasingly difficult economic circumstances. Common grievances among protesters include food shortages, rising price inflation and regular power outages.

  • Authorities’ moves to halt internet and electricity services were almost certainly aimed at limiting the spread of protest footage and hampering activists’ ability to plan further gatherings. By Wednesday, internet access had been restored but social media platforms remained partially inaccessible on the country’s 3G and 4G networks.

  • Cuban authorities have blamed the US for the unrest, with foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez attributing responsibility to US-financed mercenaries. The principal causes of the unrest and broader civil discontent, however, are the island’s economic malaise and worsening COVID-19 caseload.

  • Marrero’s announcement on import duties was effectively a small concession regarding one of the demands made by anti-government protesters. The policy change, however, is unlikely to have any significant impact on the wellbeing of the vast majority of the island’s residents, particularly as few inbound flights are currently arriving due to the coronavirus pandemic.

  • Despite its minor impact, the import duty policy change is noteworthy as it highlights the government’s apparent willingness to make some small concessions to protesters, albeit in the context of security forces’ mass arrests of demonstrators and communications restrictions.

  • The potential for further anti-government demonstrations will remain high in the immediate outlook, particularly as deep-seated economic issues remained unaddressed. Protests on the scale seen during the past week, however, offer little threat to the stability of the communist government, which remains popular among many sector of society despite the economic circumstances. The lack of any credible alternative to the communist authorities and Havana’s willingness to rapidly quell protests using the security forces bode poorly for the prospects of any significant political change.

ADVICE

  • Organisations with interests in Cuba should carefully monitor updates on recent protests and the government response. The country’s state-dominated media environment distorts regular information flows, while politically-driven misinformation and disinformation is prolific on social media platforms.

  • Corporates operating in Cuba are encouraged to review resilience capabilities in light of the protests. These include ensuring access to basic goods such as food, fuel and medication in the event of a significant uptick in unrest. Organisations deploying overseas staff should also monitor updates on international airports, such as Havana’s José Martí International Airport, which has remained operational throughout the unrest, albeit with very few commercial flights due to the coronavirus pandemic.

  • Staff on the island are advised to exercise heightened vigilance, anticipate potential spontaneous protests, and avoid any grievance-linked gatherings due to the risk of detention. Press organisations are warned that media personnel have been detained since Sunday, including one local journalist working for a Spanish media outlet.

  • Organisations operating in Miami and other locations in the US with large Cuban-American populations should anticipate additional anti-communist activism, including demonstrations, marches and the blocking of highways.