After July 11, What Has Changed in Cuba? Part I

After July 11, What Has Changed in Cuba? Part I

Editor’s note: This article is part of Consciencia Caribeña (Caribbean consciousness), a new section of 9 Millones where we provide in-depth analyses on topics relating to other countries in the Caribbean. We’re creating this to get to know and connect with our neighboring islands because we see them as part of our history. Also, we face similar challenges and could find solutions together.

By: Yery M. García and Jessica Dominguez Delgado (elTOQUE)

On July 11, 2021, thousands of Cuban citizens spontaneously took to the streets in over sixty places in every province of the country to protest the general crisis situation and the inability of the government to find short- and long-term solutions to the current general crisis. These were the largest social protests since 1959.  

There were legitimate complaints of a worn-out society, disturbances, and police violence resulting in hundreds of detainees—the exact numbers of whom are still unknown. There was also instigation, pressure from abroad, and calls to action from the government to join the confrontation. People both young and old participated, mainly from the poorest areas. The motivations and petitions were unique, but the common denominator was widespread discontent amidst the uncertainty under which Cubans residents live with.

A month after these demonstrations, their main outcome is clear: the inefficient government management in solving problems of people’s everyday life has had political costs within Cuba and internationally.

The demands of the demonstrations have not been met.  Since then, a group of measures and regulations has been approved—although the government assures they are not directly related to the protests—that attempt to prevent anything similar from happening again.  However, the root causes, which are systemic and long-entrenched, remain—further aggravated by the recent health crisis.

A system in crisis: a look into the internal causes of the protests

The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in Cuba has threatened two of the main sources of external income: tourism and remittances (money sent from families abroad). It has also significantly shaken other sectors critical to national development. Regardless, the pandemic has not been the fundamental cause of the scarcity and increased vulnerability in large sectors of the Cuban population.

In the words of the renowned Cuban economist Juan Triana Cordoví, the current situation can be synthesized as “an economy in decline (…) with a critical situation in its balance of payments and an age-old deficit in its balance of goods.” For Triana, the Cuban economy also suffers from a deficient pricing system, which does not contribute to efficiency, productivity, and innovation, on top of which there is very little access to international credit. 

To try to flip this situation, in January 2021, the Cuban government began the so-called “tarea ordenamiento” (reordering task).  This proposed an increase in state salaries and the elimination of the monetary duality—there were two national currencies and four different exchange rates.  All of this is happening parallel to a growing dollarization of the national economy with the opening of stores in foreign currency—in an initiative for only high-end products— which currently sells almost all basic necessities.

The implementation of the “reordering” has been chaotic, in spite of ten years of studying it. Salaries multiplied by three and the cost of living by five or more. The minimum salary was set at 2,100 pesos a month (about $87 USD per the official exchange rate and $35 USD per the informal market, the only one that has foreign currency available). Now workers earn more money but can obtain fewer products and services.

Housing is another outstanding debt. In 2017, the government calculated that the housing deficit was 929,000 homes. 39% of housing in the country is in poor or very poor condition and 854 buildings are in a critical state. 

In some communities, access to drinking water is also an issue. Water can only be accessed with varying frequency during the week and in some cases its access depends on tanker trucks. This situation is particularly dismal if we keep in mind that in 2015 the director of the Institute of Hydraulic Resources stated that 50% of water pumped out by the national hydraulic system was lost due to leaks in the piping

Furthermore, the scarcity of fuel and the insufficient state of the electric system led to planned power outages between four and six hours per day in the last months. This situation brought to mind the country’s worst moments of the nineties. 

On the other hand, although the State allots more than twenty million pesos to subsidize foods for more than one million people including those who receive medical diets, pregnant people, and children with malnourishment, among other vulnerable people, in practice, to buy food products families have to wait in long lines or resort to the black market. 

“The diet of the middle class Cuban home is poor in micronutrients and is neither healthy nor varied enough due to reduced and unstable availability of nutritious food products, socioeconomic factors, and inadequate food-related habits,” according to the strategic plan (2021-2024) of the World Food Programme (WFP) for Cuba.

The same happens with medicine. The Cuban biotechnological industry is prestigious, demonstrated by the formulation of the Abdala and Soberana COVID-19 vaccines and various vaccine candidates. However, BioCubaFarma, the company governing the production and commercialization of all medications, admitted in July 2020 that 139 of the 619 medications that make up the basic Cuban schedule were not available due to production problems. There’s also an absence of painkillers, antibiotics, and fever reducers because borders are practically closed and many families used to receive medications from friends and relatives outside Cuba. 

The straw that broke the camel’s back was the collapse of the medical system in light of COVID-19. By April 12, 2021, a little more than a year since the beginning of the pandemic in Cuba, 467 people had died and 87,385 cases had been diagnosed. Only four months later, on August 12, the number reached 3,842 people dead (7.2 times more) and more than 500,216 positive cases were confirmed (6.7 times more).  These numbers have continued growing and in the last month between 65 and 95 people have died every day. 

In recent days, demands have increased due to the lack of medical oxygen. “The health system has been presenting limitations with medical oxygen to attend patients, since the main oxygen-producing plant of the country suffered a breakdown,” stated the Minister of Public Health, José Ángel Portal Miranda, on August 15.

Changes in medical protocols given the lack of hospital beds, long lines for testing, lack of space in care facilities and in therapies, burnout of medical personnel, and insufficient medical teams have situated Cuban families in a desperate place. Videos of people dying due to the lack of supplies and medical treatment abound on social media.

These are the main reasons that  a diverse group of people participated in the protests that started on july 11. What has been the government response? Read the second part of this article to see how the government of Cuba has responded. 

This story is in collaboration with independent Cuban outlet elTOQUE, a multimedia independent platform focused on Cuban storytelling that is diverse, complex, creative, sometimes painful and hidden. 

Yery M. García is a journalist and communications consultant. She has a bachelors in Journalism from the University of Habana and a Masters in Arts, Media Practice for Development and Social Change from Sussex University (UK). She is the Audience and Insights Editor of ‘elTOQUE’. 

Jessica Dominguez Delgado is editor of ‘elTOQUE’, journalist and educator. Her specialty is data journalism, interactive visualizations, and investigative journalism. Her areas of interest are politics and citizen participation. She has collaborated with outlets such as ‘Progreso Semanal’, ‘Periodismo de Barrio’, ‘Postdata’, ‘Distintas Latitudes’ and ‘Connectas’.

Yates Gibson translated this story to English.

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