A rare revolt in Cuba

A rare revolt in Cuba

On Sunday afternoon, thousands of Cubans did something remarkable in a police state: take to the streets in the biggest protest against the government in almost 30 years. Yet only dozens were arrested the next day. They are all risking lengthy jail terms to demand access to scarce food, medicine, and COVID vaccines.

How did we get here, and what might come next?


From COVID containment to economic tragedy. Cuba avoided the first wave of the pandemic by closing its borders and implementing tough restrictions. In the early stages, Havana was even sending doctors to help friendly nations in need. But stopping the virus came with a price: shutting itself off from the world killed the tourist industry, the main source of foreign cash for Cuba's state-run economy. That in turn hurt sugar, Cuba's top export, which last May had its worstharvest in over a century because growers can't afford to buy enough fertilizer and machinery.

Throughout 2020, the economic crisis was further aggravated by tougher US sanctions under the Trump administration — which made it virtually impossible for Cuban Americans to send remittances back home — as well as dwindling oil supplies from political bedfellow Venezuela. When Cuba's food rationing system collapsed a year ago, the regime had no choice but to bring back 1990s-era "dollar stores" (where foreign residents and locals with access to dollars can buy goods in foreign currency instead of worthless pesos) to pay for much-needed imports.

Things have since gone from bad to worse. GDP declined by 11 percent in 2020, and overall scarcity could make prices shoot up by as much as 900 percent this year. And COVID is now raging: authorities on Sunday reported almost 7,000 new daily infections and 47 deaths, the highest figures to date. (Cuba claims to have developed two highly effective homegrown COVID vaccines, but the vaccination campaign is losing steam because it's running out of needles.)

Tough choice for Havana. The latest protests are the most significant public display of discontent with the regime since the 1994 Maleconazo, when Cubans rose up to complain about shortages after Soviet subsidies dried up following the collapse of the USSR. Back then, all it took was a riveting speech by the charismatic Fidel Castro to end the demonstrations. But Fidel died in 2016, and last April his younger brother Raúl stepped down as head of the ruling Communist Party.

With both Castros gone, it's hard to predict how Havana will respond. Although Miguel Díaz-Canel is the president and leader of the party, it's unclear whether the powerful military would obey him if he orders a Tiananmen-style violent crackdown because he's not a Castro. On the other hand, caving to the protesters without putting up a fight would make Díaz-Canel look weak in the eyes of the army and the people, especially older Cubans who support the regime.

Miami and Washington are watching closely. Cuban Americans — most of them rabid anti-communists — are immensely influential in US politics through Florida, a known swing state which former president Trump won in 2020 by an even larger margin than in 2016. Trump courted the Cuban American vote there by designating Cuba a state sponsor of terror right before the election, while Biden oversaw Cuba's removal from the same list when he was Obama's VP.

Biden is likely to face immense pressure by Republicans, (most of) his own party, and Cuban Americans themselves to get tough on the regime, perhaps by further tightening economic sanctions. But if he pushes Havana too hard, Biden risks thousands of Cubans getting on boats to Miami to flee the island's economic implosion — as they did in 1994. With migrant flows to the US southern border still high, in part because of more Cuban asylum seekers, the last thing the Biden administration wants is another immigration crisis.

Whatever happens in the coming days and weeks, Cuba's problems aren't going away. So far, the Cuban government has mostly shown restraint in dealing with the protesters, but it may change its tune if the rallies grow, as they probably will if tech-savvy young Cubans continue to mobilize on social media (despite frequent internet blackouts). What's more, the country's leaders find the protesters' demands reasonable — they just don't have money to pay for them right now. The regime is in survival mode, and needs time to weather the storm.

"I knew that history was my life's calling."

On Bank of America's That Made All the Difference podcast, Secretary of the Smithsonian Lonnie Bunch shares his journey and present-day work creating exhibits that inspire visitors to help our country live up to its ideals.

A few weeks ago, a Signal reader emailed me to ask why so much of our coverage of the world is so damn dark. Aren't there any good news stories out there?

More Show less

There's a lot of doom and gloom in the world these days, and much cause for pessimism. Still, the advent of new technologies and scientific advancements has lifted millions out of poverty and increased quality of life for many over the last half century. Since 1990, global average life expectancy has increased by eight years to 73, while GDP per capita has also grown exponentially, doubling over the past decade alone. We take a look at how life expectancy and GDP per capita have evolved globally from 1960-2019.

Get insights on the latest news in US politics from Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington:

Why can't President Biden order a vaccine mandate for all Americans?

Well, the reason is it's out of his powers. The one of the fundamental challenges in the pandemic is that the federal government has actually been fairly limited in the steps they can take to stop the spread of the virus. So, that's why you've seen President Biden order masks on transit, mass transit, airplanes, and the like. But he can't order masks in workplaces because that's not within his power. That power lies within state governments. State governments and other entities, like employers, can require vaccinations before you come into their buildings, or you come back to school, or you go to work in your office. But the federal government can't do that. What Biden is doing is, allegedly, supposedly going to announce a mandate for federal workers to get vaccinated.

More Show less

American gymnast Sunisa "Suni" Lee, 18, stunned spectators around the world with her breathtaking performance in Tokyo Thursday that earned her the gold.

Here are some interesting facts about Suni Lee, the gymnast queen:

More Show less

"Super Mario" takes his chances: Less than five months after becoming Italy's consensus prime minister, Mario Draghi's coalition government is on shaky ground over Draghi's proposed judicial reforms. "Super Mario" — as he's known for saving the Eurozone as European Central Bank chief during the financial crisis — wants to dramatically speed up Italy's famously slow courts. But his push to reduce judicial backlogs is opposed both by the populist 5-Star Movement, the coalition government's biggest party, and by prosecutors because many cases could be scrapped before reaching a verdict. Draghi, upset that this resistance is stalling his other initiatives to cut Italian red tape, has decided to roll the dice anyway: he'll put his plan to overhaul the courts to a no-confidence vote in parliament. If Draghi wins, he gets the reforms passed without debate; if he loses, the PM technically has to resign, but he'll keep his job because he has enough votes even if the 5-Star Movement bows out of the coalition.

More Show less

Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden, shares his perspective from Europe:

What is going on in Bosnia with Bosnian Serbs boycotting all major institutions?

Well, it's a reaction against a decision that was taken by the outgoing high representative during his very last days, after 12 years of having done very little in this respect, to have a law banning any denial of Srebrenica and other genocides. But this issue goes to very many other aspects of the Bosnian situation. So, it has created a political crisis that will be somewhat difficult to resolve.

More Show less

700: Roughly 700 people arrested for joining the unprecedented July 11 anti-government protests in Cuba are still being held by the regime. They may now face mass show trials as Havana continues to crack down on dissent following the biggest challenge to its power in decades.

More Show less

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter, Signal

GZERO World with Ian Bremmer. Watch episodes now

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal

The history of disasters

GZERO World Clips

How booze helps get diplomacy done

GZERO World Clips
GZERO World with Ian Bremmer. Watch episodes now

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal