Professor Mario González offers a detailed perspective of the confluence of factors that triggered the July 11th Cuba protests.

It is highly unlikely that if you are interested in Cuba and have an internet connection, you are not aware of the July 11th protests and what has happened in recent weeks on the island. A group of unprecedented manifestations broke out throughout the national territory. The reasons for protesting are many: food shortages, lack of medicines, daily power cuts for more than six hours, and a serious health crisis due to Covid-19, in addition to the usual economic crisis and the lack of basic freedom of expression. All in the midst of the ongoing US embargo. 

Unsurprisingly, the government’s response was not the best. Instead of calling for national dialogue and accepting dissent, the President (Miguel Diaz-Canel) incited his supporters to take the streets in order to defend his power, unleashing heavy police repression on mostly peaceful protesters. It is true that there was also looting and vandalism of some people, but we know this is inevitable – and reprehensible – in social outbreaks of this type. The official media – the only ones legally allowed – promptly branded the protesters as criminals, and mercenaries of the United States government. 

It might seem that the events surprised everybody, but the truth is that they had been incubating for a long time. This article will try to expose the events that led thousands of Cubans to mark July 11 on our calendars. 

cuba july 11 protests
A Cuban citizen sits at their doorway. Photo: Jonah Elkowitz

Dissidents

Perhaps it seems that the only opposition that exists to the Cuban Revolution is outside of Cuba, and especially in Miami; but this is obviously false. In the last year, due to the difficult economic situation, wider internet connection (although sometimes they intentionally cut us off) and certain events that will be exposed later, anti-government organizations have gained greater visibility within the island and abroad as well. These organizations have always existed but historically, they have been silenced by the official press. Now, with the impulse of the independent press, and a better  internet connection, these opposition leaders and groups have acquired more visibility among the Cuban populace. 

Of all these anti-government organizations, the one that has taken the most strength is the San Isidro Movement (MSI) and its leader Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara.

However, even with the government’s inefficient response to national problems, these organizations still do not mobilize the majority of the Cuban people. This is mainly because the Cuban state still maintains an enormous capacity for popular coercion. Furthermore, within these dissident groups there is a great deal of disunity, which deprives them of a political approach adapted to the Cuban situation.

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Of all these anti-government organizations, the one that has taken the most strength is the San Isidro Movement (MSI) and its leader Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara. Until November 2020, when some of its members began a hunger strike due to the imprisonment of rapper Denis Solís, the MSI was practically unknown within Cuba. For weeks, social networks were flooded with demands for the freedom of Solís and in support of the strikers. On the night of November 26, police agents entered the headquarters of the Movement under the pretext of non-compliance with Covid-19 protocol and took all its members by force.

This police action, evidently focused on breaking the hunger strike, provoked the most diverse popular reactions for and against the strikers. However, the most significant action and direct antecedent to the events of July 11 was the peaceful demonstration of around 200 people in front of the Ministry of Culture on November 27. Among them were artists and intellectuals, calling for a dialogue between government authorities and different sectors of Cuban society. In the evening, a selection of 30 protesters managed to meet with the Vice Minister of Culture Fernando Rojas, reaching a series of agreements that would later be broken by the authorities. The agreements were: opening a channel of dialogue between institutions and artists, the right to free creation, the right of freedom of expression and guarantees that there would be no reprisals against the protesters. 

…we are an impoverished, abused and aged country, where its young people look for a future in any corner of the planet…

In the following months, reports of arbitrary arrests of young artists, journalists, and activists increased considerably. However, once again the leader of the San Isidro Movement, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, declared himself on a hunger strike for the confiscation by the political authorities of his artistic work.

cuba november 27 demonstration
Demonstrations on November 27th, 2020.

After a week-long strike and a whole media campaign in his favor, and its corresponding campaign of discrediting him by the official media, Luis Manuel was taken from his home and admitted to the Calixto García Hospital in Havana for medical examination. Initially, the Cuban authorities reported that Luis Manuel’s health condition was perfect, suggesting that the hunger strike was false, but they kept him in the hospital for 29 days which, besides being contradictory, is a clear violation of his civil liberties. 

The Reasons

All these new civil movements, and specifically the events of July 11, have their origin in the inefficient political-economic system that Cuba has and the economic blockade to which the United States government has subjected us since 1962, which has prevented us from having a “normal” development. Therefore, we are an impoverished, abused and aged country, where its young people look for a future in any corner of the planet, and most adults live from the memory of times that were better.

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Covid-19 and the Trump administration hit a highly importing economy hard – which depends largely on international tourism and family remittances from Cubans living abroad, especially in the United States. The suspension of international flights, which prevented the entry of foreign and Cuban tourists, and Trump’s ban on remittances, raised the permanent economic-social crisis to enormous levels. 

cuba july 11 protests
Photo: Jonah Elkowitz

In response to the crisis, the Cuban government has implemented a new “Social Economic Strategy ” that has not been as good as expected and the only thing that has been achieved is more inequalities in Cuban society. 

Let’s talk a bit about that. 

In January 2021, approximately 370 measures were put into operation focused on 16 fundamental areas for the country’s development. Among them are: food production, telecommunications, foreign and domestic trade, the management of state and private companies and the monetary system. 

Of all, the most important is the monetary reordering which consisted in eliminating the CUC; until that moment, Cuba circulated two currencies, the CUC and the CUP.

Additionally, this reordering included reducing state subsidies, considerably increasing the salaries of workers (the average salary increased up to four times its amount) and pensions to retirees, in addition to social assistance. 

Although a priori it might seem something positive, the result has been the devaluation of the Cuban peso against the US dollar and the astronomical increase in the prices of basic necessities, especially in the informal market. There is a popular joke that says that Cuba is the only country where your salary increases and you are even poorer. Ummm … Yes.

But, the most criticized and contradictory measure was the opening of stores in freely convertible currencies (Moneda Libremente Convertible (MLC)), which are the only moderately supplied ones. 

A bit of context. 

MLC´s are foreign currencies, that is, US dollar, British pound, Euro, etc. If a person wants to buy food, appliances or any other merchandise at these stores, they must first create a bank account in this type of currency, take out a magnetic card, deposit the foreign currency in the bank or receive a transaction from another account in MLC to be able to go to the stores to buy.

cuba mlc store
A Cuban MLC (dollar) store. Photo: Mario González

So far so good. But…the Cuban state does not pay its workers in dollars obviously, so, whoever does not have a family in another country that puts money on these magnetic cards, must buy MLCs on the black market, because Cuban banks do not sell them.

…none of these measures will be able to reverse the desire of the Cuban people to be heard, to improve the national situation… without ever renouncing being sovereign.

If you think this is complicated, let me tell you that since June 21, 2021, Cubans cannot deposit US dollars in cash in banks because Cuba cannot negotiate with the dollars it has collected in stores. The funny thing is, this has been the case since 1962. So if we cannot as a country “do anything” with dollars, why put this puzzle together with MLCs, stores, banks, etc.? Nobody really knows, not even the rulers themselves know. 

cuba mlc store
A line at a Cuba MLC store. Photo: Mario González

The result has been a highly divided country between those who can or cannot access these types of stores in MLC. Those who cannot access them (almost everybody) must spend hours and hours in long lines to be able to buy rationalized food, mainly chicken, in the few stores that remain in CUP. The food shortage in Cuba at the moment is considerable. What the government stores offer is barely enough to survive and, on the black market, what you can get is worth three or four times its original value. 

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Cuba urgently needs an efficient economic policy, where the State acts as a mediator but does not hinder commercial development in order to grow. In turn, we need the Biden administration to urgently review its policy towards Cuba, and lift the economic sanctions that only affect the Cuban people, because their leaders will continue to live well, and without deficiencies of any kind.

After the events of July 11, the Cuban government has taken some measures in order to “alleviate” the tension. Among them, it removed customs duties on the importation of food, medicine and other essential items. But the reality is that none of these measures will be able to reverse the desire of the Cuban people to be heard, to improve the national situation, to prosper without having to emigrate, to have a country for all Cubans, without ever renouncing being sovereign.

Hopefully there will be many more July 11ths …

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Mario González is a historian who graduated from the University of Havana. Currently a professor at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences FLACSO-CUBA, he also teaches Cuban History classes at the Faculty of Communication of the University of Havana. A true believer in win-win, he is interested in Political Science and I hopes to pursue a master's degree in Cuba-United States relations.

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