Cuba
"Díaz-Canel has no symbolic capital and many do not recognize him as legitimate"
LPO spoke with Yery Menéndez García, director of Hearings, Monitoring and Impact of the Cuban site "El Toque" about the protests on the island.

Cuba is at the center of the international debate after massive anti-government protests broke out in major cities demanding greater freedom, and a change in the island's economy, hard hit by the pandemic and by the embargo that has weighed on the country for 60 years.

However, the differential element of this crisis includes a new generation of young Cubans who never knew Fidel Castro as a leader, who do not feel questioned or contented by Díaz-Canel, and have more access to social media. Faced with this scenario,  the president made a dangerous call to mobilize against the dissident groups and ordered a police deployment to repress the marches and arrest the protesters.

As is often the case with Cuba, the region is divided among those who call it a dictatorship and emphasize state repression, and those who defend revolutionary achievements and direct responsibility to the U.S., as well as alleged funding to local agitators through agencies.

The embargo that has weighed on the island for decades and the authoritarianism of the government to defend its permanence in power, are two sides of the same coin that brings back the discussion about the future of a country that has been divided for a long time.

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In this context, LPO spoke with Yery Menéndez García, Director of Hearings, Monitoring and Impact of the Cuban site "El Toque", who explained the reasons for the protests, the role of the blockade and the reforms that should be incorporated in the Caribbean country.

What are the reasons for the protests?

The protests have several reasons: social, economic, political and health care. These include the lack of availability of food and medicine. Food is obtained through long lines and waiting time, and in stores, charged in MLC (a reference currency that is based on the value of the US dollar), which is not the currency in which most Cubans earn their salaries. To have access to it, they must exchange their currency, which arrive mostly by family remittances in virtual currency banks that deposit the funds in cards for buyers to make the purchases.

The so-called Ordering Task, an effort to organize the country's economic pyramid, has not achieved its objectives and this has been recognized by the Cuban government itself. One of the most unpopular measures was the ban on the exchange of dollars into cash in Cuban banks, after partially dollarizing the economy in MLC, forcing people to buy their MLCs only in other currencies that are not common in Cuba after a period of time.

One of the most unpopular measures was the ban on the exchange of dollars into cash in Cuban banks.

This is added to a major pharmaceutical crisis. Hospitals and pharmacies are out of stock and most Cubans can only meet their needs for medicines in the informal market (at very high prices). This creates a very large gap for vulnerable groups.

On the other hand, over the past few days, Cubans have experienced the collapse of the hospital system in several provinces, especially Matanzas, where there has been a considerable increase in the number of positive cases per day and deaths from Covid-19.

Residents of Havana are waiting to get vaccinated with the Cuban Abdala vaccine.

Finally, in the face of this situation, an online campaign under the hashtag #SOSCuba has led artists, influencers, and famous figures to advocate for the international recognition of the crisis and for the permission for humanitarian aid to enter the country. This campaign has also been joined by those who are calling humanitarian intervention, understood by the country as the use of force to promote regime change.

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This campaign has also allowed many Cubans to organize and collect donations to be taken to the most vulnerable territories.

The situation is much more complex, long years of failures in the mechanisms to promote debate, the absence of a charismatic leadership figure such as Fidel Castro, the energy crisis that causes hours of power outages, the lack of representativeness of political organizations and the polarization and hate speeches between detractors and followers of the government, are other factors.

There is talk of economic measures that aggravated the difficult situation brought about by the pandemic. What are these measures?

I mentioned some above, such as the ban on the use of dollars in cash, but before that, the opening of stores based in MLC, the inefficient management to supply food, while keeping open the entrance to a group of tourists, even after the sanitary conditions became complicated.

The situation is much more complex, long years of failures in the mechanisms to promote debate, the absence of a charismatic leadership figure such as Fidel Castro, the energy crisis that causes hours of power outages, the lack of representativeness of political organizations and the polarization and hate speeches between detractors and followers of the government.

Also, customs restrictions limit the entry of basic necessities, such as food and toiletries. Right now, in Cuba, there are several currencies in use (MLC, Cuban Peso and other currencies - Euros, Pounds, Mexican Pesos) while most of the salaries are paid in Cuban Pesos.

Beyond the government's narrative, do you think lifting the embargo could alleviate the situation?

Yes, the embargo is real and specifically affects the Cuban economy. The Helms-Burton Act eliminated the ability of U.S. citizens to do business within the island or with the Cuban government.

Foreign affiliates of United States companies may not trade with Cuba for values exceeding $700 million annually, except for the sale of certain humanitarian products.

Cuba has to pay in exact cash all of the products it imports from the United States, since the latter does not grant it any type of financial credit. The embargo also makes it difficult for international banking or financial institutions to be willing to receive, convert, handle or process cash in U.S. currency, putting pressure on the national banking system to deposit money into the international financial system.

The embargo has been condemned more than 23 times by the United Nations on the grounds that it is a burden on the Cuban economy, and during the Obama administration, the United States itself abstained in voting. Therefore, there is international agreement on its harmful nature.

The embargo is real and specifically affects the Cuban economy. The Helms-Burton Act eliminated the ability of U.S. citizens to do business within the island or with the Cuban government.

That is related to macro plans, but the block/embargo also affects micro plans. For example, digital platforms such as OpenSea, WeTransfer, Hootsuite, a social network manager focused on the business sector, and Asana, a web platform that facilitates teamwork, as well as Github, are not available to users accessing from Cuba.

It is also a consequence of the restrictions that the United States Government imposes on the provision of services to certain countries by official sites such as AMD or Intel to upload applications to the Google Play Store or AppStre, as well as applications such as Source Forge. Accessing Adobe and Oracle and some of Google's services are also blocked for Cubans.

Does the fact that there is no Castro in charge, matter?

In terms of these protests? Yes, Fidel Castro was a charismatic figure who had the symbolic capital of leading "The Revolution" and the social changes that came with it, which benefited many people.

Raul Castro, although less media-savvy, was also part of that generation as well. Díaz-Canel does not have that symbolic capital and has had to deal with the economic remodeling that has not yet taken effect and its unpopular measures, in addition to the health crisis. Many do not recognize his legitimacy to hold the positions he holds. Cubans were used to a present media leader, capable of convincing many, Fidel, in other words.

What are the changes that the island should incorporate?

This answer is big enough for an entire interview. But broadly speaking, it is necessary to free up productive forces, promote entrepreneurship, make customs laws more flexible, gain transparency in government management and popular control, create mechanisms for debate, separate sources of power, detach the public communication system from the government, and guarantee decent living conditions, among others.

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