By Michael Jarvis
Despite the hope of a home-grown vaccine, a combination of rising COVID-19 cases and worsening economic conditions have seen Cubans in their thousands taking to the street to vent their frustrations against the government.
In a situation where the pandemic, the economy and politics have collided, what is seen as an unusual show of discontent against the government has rocked the Communist nation.
Cuba is struggling to cope with a surge in COVID-19 infections, hospitalisations and deaths at the same the economy is taking a severe battering both from a slowdown in tourism caused by the pandemic, coupled with crippling economic sanctions by the United States.
Protests which have spread across the country include demands for President Miguel Diaz-Canel to step down.
They have been chanting anti-government slogans, criticising the government for its handling of the economy, complaining about food shortages and worsening power blackouts while at the same time insisting that the government roll out coronavirus vaccines as the pandemic deepens.
The President has responded by calling on his supporters to stage counter-protests in the spirit of the Castro-era Cuban revolution.
The Cuban government is blaming the shortage of food mostly on the continuing sanctions imposed by the United States which were relaxed under President Obama but reinstated by the Trump administration.
Experts familiar with the Cuba situation point out that since 2001 the US sanctions have exempted food, but note that current President Joe Biden is yet to state a clear policy on Cuba, including or whether or not he will overturn the sanctions re-imposed by ex-President Trump.
Other external factors are also said to have affected the food supply in Cuba such as the global surge in food prices which has made food imports prohibitively expensive for the country.
Another problem cited is the government’s lack of hard currency due to the decline in tourism resulting from the pandemic, and a falloff in vital remittances especially by Cubans living in the United States.
Tough measures instituted by the government to secure foreign exchange reserves such as restricting residents from depositing dollars into their bank accounts for an undisclosed amount of time have angered many Cubans.
COVID CHALLENGES AND VACCINE HOPES
With COVID-19 now spreading across the country, hope is pinned on getting its anxiously-awaited Abdala and Soberana/Sovereign-1 and 2 vaccines approved.
A record 6,900 cases have been reported and 47 deaths attributed to the disease were reported this past Saturday alone.
A national vaccination trial is continuing with over six and a half million doses administered and more than 2.8 million people receiving their first shot.
The population of Cuba is 11.2 million.
The Cuban authorities claim that the Abdala vaccine is over 92 per cent effective after three doses, putting it on par with the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna medications.
Ongoing trials of the Soberana (or Sovereign) 02, are reported to be showing an efficacy rate of 62% with two doses with plans for a third dose to volunteers to see if the rate improves.
However, indications are that demonstrations are gaining momentum and could snowball into a bigger crisis for the Cuban government.
President Diaz-Canel has said some of the protesters were being manipulated by social media campaigns coordinated out of the United States, and by what he called “mercenaries” in Cuba.
He has warned that further “provocations” would not be tolerated.
In a statement on Monday, the Biden administration denied any US involvement.
President Biden himself said, “The Cuban people are demanding their freedom from an authoritarian regime. The US stands firmly with the people of Cuba as they assert their universal rights.”
In what is seen as a direct response to the warning to the demonstrators by President Diaz-Canel, Mr Biden stated: “We call on the government of Cuba to refrain from violence in their attempt to silence the voices of the people of Cuba.”
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