DEMONSTRATIONS FANNED BY ECONOMIC CRISIS
Cuba has seen its largest street protests in decades as thousands march demanding freedom and food. The deepest economic crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a spike in Covid-19 infections, power blackouts and increased use of social media all helped fan discontent with the 62-year-old communist regime.
The pandemic devastated the island’s economy. As tourism dried up, the economy shrank 11 percent in 2020, its deepest slump since the early 1990s when the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe had deprived the nation of allies and trade partners. In response, the government this year ended many subsidies and eliminated the decades-old dual currency system. Some economists estimate that inflation could exceed 400 percent this year.
Cuba kept a lid on Covid-19 infections early on in the pandemic, and created two homegrown vaccines. But the infection rate is now soaring, even though the island of 11 million people has administered 7.5 million doses. Last Sunday, the country reported 6,923 new coronavirus cases and 47 deaths due to Covid-19 – both daily records. President Miguel Díaz-canel says that having so many people infected and isolated is hurting the economy by forcing the island to dedicate its limited electricity resources toward hospitals and recovery centres.
Cuba imports many of its basic goods, and the cashstrapped administration has been struggling to keep shelves stocked. It recently limited people’s ability to exchange their Cuban pesos for dollars, one of the key elements of the January reform package, because the government needed the cash to finance imports. Those troubles, combined with the broader economic downturn and soaring inflation, mean that many Cubans are not getting enough to eat. Along with the chants of “Freedom” and “Down with Communism” that were heard over the weekend, one of the key messages was “We are hungry.”