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There's More To The 'Unprecedented' Cuba Protests Than Just Food Shortages

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to spend the next few minutes focusing on two countries that have experienced significant protests and serious unrest over the past week. We're talking about South Africa and Cuba. We're hoping to understand the factors that brought each country to this moment. And we're going to begin with Cuba.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Patria y vida. Patria y vida. Patria y vida.

MARTIN: A week ago, protesters took to the streets of Havana and elsewhere in Cuba, chanting patria y vida, meaning motherland and life. These were the largest protests in Cuba in decades, and many demonstrators were arrested. Lillian Guerra is a professor of Cuban history at the University of Florida and has written four books on the country's history. So we asked her for her take on what's happening and why, and she's with us now.

Professor Guerra, thanks so much for being with us.

LILLIAN GUERRA: Thank you so much for inviting me.

MARTIN: So I understand that the immediate spark for these demonstrations in Havana and elsewhere in Cuba were food shortages and high prices. And I understand that you feel that there's much more to this moment than that. But first, I did want to ask, why are there food shortages and high prices right now?

GUERRA: Well, unlike what the Cuban government would say, it's not the embargo. It has a lot to do with the fact that the state says it has no resources. And yet it's investing and has been investing those resources in building and continuing to build hotels and tourist facilities with its own money. Cubans are fed up with that. They are sick and tired of seeing small street vendors pay more in taxes and put up with more harassment than your average foreigner, who is an investor on the island, might own a hotel. So, you know, I think that there is much to the story that is not just about the gross national product dropping 11% in the past year.

MARTIN: So the protests have been described as rare, even unprecedented. Do you agree with that? And what is so unusual about this moment right now, in your opinion?

GUERRA: Yes. Well, they are completely unprecedented. Not only have they taken place in more than 50 towns and cities, but all the kinds of rallies and demonstrations that we've seen for the last 62 years, with just a few exceptions, those rallies have been orchestrated by the state. I mean, really since 1960, the state has provided the bussing, the script, the enforcement and the repercussions and consequences to those who didn't participate in rallies. But these were government rallies. So what we have been seeing for this week is something just unheard of. It's not only illegal, but it is a demonstration of the degree to which Cubans have reached a kind of consensus about the nature of their regime, the nature of the government and the lack of democracy and the lack of accountability.

MARTIN: What is it you think emboldened people now, given that, as you just told us, protests that aren't organized by the government are actually illegal? Hundreds of dissidents have been detained or arrested in recent years. So what is it that you think emboldened people in such numbers to take to the streets now?

GUERRA: Well, first, a set of examples. In November of 2020, you had more than 300 artists who staged hours-long sit-ins in front of the Ministry of Culture, demanding the right to negotiate their own terms for the sale and distribution of their work. And that included intellectuals, artists, filmmakers, musicians. That was followed by another extraordinary example of, you know, major musicians in the rap and hip-hop scene making a joint, free video called "Patria Y Vida"...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PATRIA Y VIDA")

ALEXANDER DELGADO: (Singing in Spanish).

GUERRA: ...Which has been the slogan of these protests. That video came out on YouTube in February of 2021. And within four weeks, 5 million people on the island - that's half the population - had seen it.

So these also, I think, have to be taken into the context of Cubans having had a taste of much greater freedom in the last two years of the Obama administration. Those policies made it possible for Cubans on the island to pursue a number of businesses with Americans, with Cuban exiles, to share in profits. So these kinds of openings were terrifying to the Cuban state. And as early as January of 2017, Raul Castro, who was the former head of the army, president of the country, he effectively began to roll them back.

MARTIN: I did want to ask you about that back and forth over the U.S. economic sanctions against Cuba. President Obama's push for an opening to Cuba called for an easing of some sanctions. And then the Trump administration tightened them again. And now President Biden is under pressure from some to reverse course again. What would you like to see the Biden administration do?

GUERRA: Well, I would like to see the Biden administration effectively reinstitute the openings to the embargo that Cuban citizens had been able to exploit to their own maximum reward. And by that, I mean, I'm 100% in favor of a greater free flow of ideas and travelers to Cuba. I think that we can reestablish the ability of Americans to send money to Cubans so that they can use that money for their own businesses in the private sector. We need to do something that is unexpected and it shows our friendship with the Cuban people and that will ultimately help them undermine the nature of this state.

MARTIN: I understand that there have been calls from some in the Cuban exile community to send in the U.S. military to Cuba. I don't see that there's any inclination on the part of the administration to do that. But how widespread a sentiment is that among the exile community? And as somebody who's written extensively about the history of U.S. intervention and occupation in Cuba, what are your thoughts about that?

GUERRA: Well, yes. I mean, it is a growing rallying cry. It has, you know, unfortunately been echoed through the halls of certain government entities in South Florida, including the mayor's office. Mayor Suarez of Miami was one of the first to endorse this. I mean, this kind of stuff is insane. First, it's insane because the United States has a very long history of relying on military occupations and political interventions in Cuba as well as Latin America that span, you know, most of the 20th century. And returning to what is, you know, an imperial policy of imposing authority through military means is going to also be catastrophic for the protesters. That will allow for the Cuban state to repress them in unheard of ways.

You know, we have also proven ourselves wrong again and again in Latin America, in particular, when we have tried to impose U.S. interests or just - even United States presence in a situation at - that is on the verge of its own democratization process. We need to let that democratization process ride itself out. And the consequences, I think, will be very positive.

MARTIN: That was Lillian Guerra. She's a professor of Cuban history at the University of Florida. Professor Guerra, thank you so much for being with us.

GUERRA: Thank you so much. And thank you for covering this. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.