The island nation of Cuba has seen unprecedented demonstrations amid the country’s worst economic crisis in decades — and nearly 60 years into the United States’ embargo on the nation.
President Joe Biden says he supports Cuban citizens in the wake of anti-government protests across the island.
“This is totally unprecedented. Nothing on this scale has happened in Cuba in 62 years,” said Alberto Coll, a Cuban native with a background in U.S. foreign policy and U.S. relations with Cuba who is a professor at DePaul University’s College of Law.
Coll credits social media and the internet as factors that enabled the protests to happen.
“Even though the protests will most likely go down, this is the beginning of something bigger,” Coll said. “This is the beginning of a movement that seeks real change in Cuba. There’s a whole generation of people under the age of 40 that really have had it and they want to see real change, and they no longer have fear. That’s a significant factor. You see people not afraid anymore the way they would have been earlier.”
Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel blames the U.S. embargo for the economic situation and shortages.
Some are calling for the U.S. to lift its embargo, including Eric Torres of Chicago Coalition in Solidarity with Latin America. He said he’s not satisfied with the Biden administration’s response.
“I think that one thing we’re not speaking to at this point is the other voices, the voices of all the Cubans who do support the revolution, of which there are many.” said Torres, who is of Cuban descent. “I think that Biden is basically putting on the suit that Trump made. Trump installed a lot more restrictions, sanctions against Cuba, and instead of going back to the way that Obama was opening relations and relaxing and trying to respect more of a proper relationship with Cuba, Biden was just enacting what Trump put into place.”
María de los Ángeles Torres, a native of Cuba, said a message of U.S. intervention isn’t resonating with people in Cuba. Instead, it is messages of an open government, having a voice and economic success. She notes that the situation isn’t just an economic crisis, but a political crisis, too.
“People are hungry. There’s a lack of medicines and questions about political freedoms and civil liberties are on the table too, I think it’s a combination of things,” said Ángeles Torres, a professor of Latin American and Latino studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“The U.S. embargo for many, many years has been used as an excuse not to do anything in Cuba,” Ángeles Torres said. “I personally, when people say, ‘It’s the fault of the embargo,’ the corollary is the saving grace for Cuba is gonna be the United States again? That takes agency away from Cuban people. The Cuban government has options even with the embargo.”
Coll said Biden is unlikely to lift the embargo after the protests because of the extent at which the country has cracked down on protesters. He said the Biden administration is in a tricky situation, wanting to support and engage with Cuban people, but not wanting to be seen as strengthening the Cuban government.
“That’s going to be the challenge for the Biden administration,” Coll said. “How do you promote change? How do you encourage the forces of change without at the same time strengthening the existing order of things?”