DaQuan Lawrence is a global human rights advocate and scholar activist. (Courtesy photo)

DaQuan Lawrence
Special to the AFRO

Thousands of Cuban citizens rallied, July 11, in cities across the island, including Havana, Holguin Province and Santiago de Cuba, seeking to hold the Cuban government accountable for decades of authoritarian leadership and several human rights violations. The anti-government protests began in San Antonio de los Baños, which is south-west of Havana, and eventually spread around the country. Despite being a nation with free healthcare and education, protestors cited scarce access to basic needs such as food and medicine, which have increased in demand since the advent of the COVID-19 global pandemic. Other protestors claimed the government, led by President Miguel Diaz-Canel, leader of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC), the only major political party recognized, had a harsh record against political dissidents who opposed the socialist regime and regularly repressed citizens and social movements. While Cuban officials arrested dozens of protestors, internet access was also restricted and blocked in several parts of the island in order to limit communications, as WhatsApp, Facebook, Telegram, and Twitter users reported problems with internet access. The images that did make it on the internet were either from international sources on the island or Cubans who managed to stay online long enough through a VPN (virtual provider network).

The history of Cuba is significant when assessing the current situation, as well as the role of an international political-rival-turned-economic-cooperating-partner such as the United States. Cuba is known for its large Afro-Cuban population, which has been involved in several social movements, dating back to the U.S intervention of 1898 and the eve of the outbreak of the Cuban Revolution as shown in Forging Diaspora: Afro-Cubans and African Americans in a World of Empire and Jim Crow, and most recently the San Isidro Movement (MSI). MSI is a multidisciplinary predominantly Afro-Cuban collective of activists that works with artists and citizens to protect cultural rights in Cuba. The recent anti-government protests can be linked to the “27N” protests of November 27, 2020, where MSI members claimed rights to freedom and expression, and started a hunger strike for Cuban authorities to release one of their members. Another predecessor includes initiatives by Unión Patriótica de Cuba (UNPACU), a leading dissent organization, which expressed discontent with the Cuba communist government and distributed food to Cubans in Altamira, Santiago de Cuba as they endured harsh conditions worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U.S. record on Cuba can be characterized as duplicitous and opportunistic as the previous three U.S. Presidents adjusted U.S.-Cuban relations to benefit the US. The Obama Administration’s “repair” of U.S.-Cuban relations in July 2015 led to improved government-to-government engagement, yet the U.S. trade embargo, or “blockade,” for exclusively bilateral trade relations between the countries that was established in October 1960 remained in place. Due to the Cuban Assets Regulation Act of 1963, the U.S. is prohibited from sending food, medicine, vaccines, and other basic goods to the comparatively close island. By 2019, the Trump Administration reduced engagement with Cuba and between 2019 to January 2021, it enacted 243 forms of legislation to pressure the Cuban government on human rights and for its support of the Venezuelan government of Nicolás Maduro. The Biden Administration is now preparing to return Cubans attempting to flee the island and enter the U.S., despite its claim of standing with Cubans.

The Cuban government shares responsibility for the conditions as citizens have cited police terror, defamation, repression, racialism, and lack of free expression. Cubans have exposed themselves to persecution and jail by joining what is being considered the largest anti-government protests in decades and reminiscent of the Maleconazo (1994 anti-government protests). Many believe the idea of an “absolute blockade” is propagated in order to absolve government of its failed socialist policies and internal commercial policy despite being led by a communist political regime. According to the statistics published annually by the Cuban government, the country has maintained trade relations with 76 countries, including all of Latin America, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, South Korea, and some European Union states. Cuba also uses restrictions on its own exports as a development policy and many Cubans believe this has been an unsuccessful strategy.

Despite having their needs and interests repeatedly ignored and human rights violated by both US and Cuban governments, and possibly humanitarian international governance organizations such as the United Nations, the DaQuan Lawrence Cuban populace has demonstrated unwavering resilience, intelligence, spirit, and heart. The world has much to learn from their struggle. It is of the utmost importance that those dedicated to humanity, freedom, and justice support the people of Cuba by any means available to us.

DaQuan Lawrence is a global human rights advocate and scholar activist.

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