Cuba witnesses its biggest anti-government protest in over three decades

Thousands of people in the small island nation of Cuba are protesting against the country’s communist government, in what are believed to be the biggest demonstrations seen in over three decades. The demonstrations have been fuelled by a collapsing economy and the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In fact, the protests were seen just a few days after the Cuban government announced that its homegrown vaccine called Soberana (Sovereign) was about 91 per cent effective against symptomatic patients, as demonstrated in late stage clinical trials.

Cuba has not imported Covid vaccines, but its authorities have been administering experimental vaccines en masse as part of “intervention studies”, according to a Reuters report. About 1.5 million of the country’s 11.2 million residents have been fully vaccinated so far, said the report.

Other than Soberana, Cuba has four more vaccine candidates being developed. If approved, it might become the first Latin American country to produce and develop its own vaccines against the disease. However, concern over Covid has mounted as the arrival of the Delta variant has led to a spike in cases. Cuba reported 6,923 Covid-19 cases and 47 deaths on Sunday, double of what was recorded the previous week.

The pandemic has been accompanied by widespread economic distress. Much like Malaysia recently, Cubans since last year have been putting up white flags or the #benderaputi (white flag) outside their homes to convey financial distress and the need for assistance.

Apart from the pandemic, the country has suffered due to economic sanctions imposed by the administration of former US president Donald Trump. In 2020, the country’s economy shrunk by 11 per cent — leading to shortages of some basic goods including rice — which was its worst performance in about three decades.

As per a Reuters report, the anti-government protests have emerged in the middle of the country’s worst economic crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union, which was its old ally.

Protestors have been chanting “freedom” and calling for President Miguel Diaz-Canel to step down. “Thousands of Cubans joined street protests from Havana to Santiago on Sunday in the biggest anti-government demonstrations on the Communist-run island in decades,” the report said.

Broadly, Cubans are protesting against food shortages, rising cases of Covid-19 and severe electricity blackouts in the country, which they attribute to the government’s failure to cope with the situation. Due to the pandemic, tourism, which was one of the major sources of income for tradesmen and taxi drivers–one of the only sectors where private activity had been traditionally allowed – has also suffered.

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel on Monday blamed historic protests this weekend on U.S. “economic asphyxiation” and social media campaigns by a minority of counter-revolutionaries while U.S.

Biden in a statement on Monday said the United States stands with the people of Cuba in their call for freedom and relief from the coronavirus pandemic and decades of repression.”The Cuban people are bravely asserting fundamental and universal rights. Those rights, including the right of peaceful protest and the right to freely determine their own future, must be respected,” Biden said.

“The United States calls on the Cuban regime to hear their people and serve their needs at this vital moment rather than enriching themselves,” said Biden, who during his White House campaign promised to ease sanctions but has yet to do so.