beach_and_pier_-_2200x270_-_with_npr_and_cal_lu_1.jpg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Cuban Crowd Is One Of The Biggest Anti-Government Protests In Recent Memory

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Cuba is experiencing its biggest anti-government protests in three decades. They coincide with its worst economic crisis in the same period. There's frustration with food and medicine shortages, high prices, power outages, lack of COVID-19 vaccines and the leadership of President Miguel Diaz-Canel. To talk about this situation, we have Ada Ferrer. She's a professor of Latin American and Caribbean history at New York University. Professor Ferrer, welcome.

ADA FERRER: Thanks for having me, Sacha. Glad to be here.

PFEIFFER: Shortages in Cuba are not new. It's been that way for years from grocery to toothpaste, sadly.

FERRER: Right.

PFEIFFER: Why - what about this particular moment has people out demonstrating?

FERRER: I think the simplest answer is that people have just had enough, that the shortages have gotten worse in the last year or so, especially in the last few months. The sanctions put in place are hard - and I should say by President Trump - have closed their access to remittances from family, so they have less money to buy things. Inflation is soaring. The exchange rate for the dollar - many, many supplies are available only in hard currency. And to get a dollar, people have to pay, you know 60 pesos. In the countryside, it's even higher - 70, 75. And they're just tired of having no goods and waiting in line and paying too much. And all that blew over this weekend.

I think - you mentioned that these were the largest protests in over three decades. I think actually that it's - these are much larger and more significant than the ones that happened in 1994 during what they call the special period after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

PFEIFFER: Right. The Soviet Union was basically the big supplier, the provider...

FERRER: Right.

PFEIFFER: ...Of supplies for Cuba. And when the Soviet Union collapsed, the supplies went away. So you're saying this is bigger than that?

FERRER: I believe these are for several reasons. One is that they are - they're not just in Havana. They're - what we saw on Sunday happened in cities and towns across the country. Second, social media amplifies one protest.

PFEIFFER: Ah, interesting.

FERRER: And one becomes more. So people are hearing what's happening in other places. They're seeing it on social media. Then they go out on the street and join. So social media has made it - and the internet have made this, I think, more significant. And finally, the other thing is that this comes 30 years later. And right now, over a third of the Cuban population was born after the fall of the Soviet Union, so they have no memory of a revolution not in crisis. They have no memory of a time when there was relative economic security. So I think they are that much less willing or that much less patience - patient, rather, with the government's calls for patience. Right? So the government asks for sacrifice, patience. They've had it.

PFEIFFER: And how is the government dealing with these protesters?

FERRER: Well, they're taking, so far, a very hard line. The president came out on - interrupted Sunday program to say that the streets belong to the revolution and the order for combat had been given and people should go out and defend the revolution. So, you know, it's a kind of suggestion for civil war. The other thing is that the Cuban state has long used civilians - it deputizes civilians to act in its stead. So it takes people by busload to demonstrations, et cetera, et cetera. It seems to be doing that here, though it's really hard to figure out what's going out on the ground.

PFEIFFER: Very quickly - President Biden says the U.S. stands with Cuba, but the U.S. embargo of Cuba has been in place almost six decades. Is that a mixed message? Can you answer that in about 10 seconds?

FERRER: It's gotten - the embargo has been tightened more recently and made it a lot worse. It's really - it doesn't help. The Cubans use - the Cuban government uses it as an excuse, and it doesn't help at all.

PFEIFFER: That's Ada Ferrer. She is a professor of Latin American and Caribbean history at NYU. Thank you for coming on this morning.

FERRER: Sure. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.