Albert Gil makes sense of a new layered crisis in Cuba shaped by the pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Caribbean country’s internationally lauded healthcare system, a new generation in power, and a new culture of dissent.
Tourists who come back from Cuba often comment that their trip, in some respects – from Havana’s’ classic cars to its colonial-era buildings – felt like a journey to the past. Going there in early 2022 from Europe, where most Covid restrictions have been lifted, can feel like going back to a more recent time: to 2020. When I arrived, face masks were still mandatory in all public spaces and most people would even wear them whilst driving. On 31 May, the government lifted the mask mandate after months of denying rumours of the change, a sign of how long Cuba has remained, as the motto of Cuba’s revolutionary neighbourhood committees (CDR) says, ‘on guard’.
Cuba’s handling of the pandemic was very different from that of most countries in the region and has often made global headlines. Thanks to its long-term investment in biotech, this tiny state became the only country in the Global South to develop an effective vaccine – in fact, up to five have been in development. This undeniable triumph has become the first badge of honour for the new generation in power, led by President Miguel Díaz-Canel.
Since its victory in 1959, the Cuban Revolution legitimised the rule of the Communist Party through a series of popular reforms and campaigns that improved the conditions of the population in different ways, such as the literacy campaign or the development of public and robust education and health care systems.
However, for the younger generations who were born or grew up during the traumatic Special Period (the name given to the crisis after the fall of the Eastern Bloc) these changes are either taken for granted or regarded as ancient history. As the original generation of revolutionaries dies out, their legitimacy, earned first in the sierra and later in managing a comprehensive transformation of the island, is disappearing with them.
While the efforts to combat Covid-19 have been mostly successful, the pre-existing political and economic situation has exacerbated the non-medical consequences of the pandemic. These are amplified by the Trump administration’s aggressive tightening of the 60-year-old sanctions regime, with 243 new measures added. A further complication has been the long-postponed currency reform, in which the dual currency system of the island ended as the CUC (the convertible peso tied to the US dollar) was unified with the CUP, the regular peso.
Lastly, the war in Ukraine and the resulting global food crisis have further worsened the situation.
This toxic mix of problems has, during the first half of 2022, precipitated the worst crisis for Cubans since the Special Period: significantly long queues at food shops that lack the variety of products they used to stock; reductions in the variety and quantity of products assigned in the ration booklet every Cuban has; and strong inflation. While the Cuban peso had been stabilised at 24 per dollar for the last decades, the black market has been exchanging dollars for more than 100 pesos each.
Thus Cubans find it impossible to separate their experience of the pandemic from this wider crisis which has a clear precedent in the Special Period. Asked to make comparisons, answers vary. They point to the wider-spread disappearance of vital products from the shelves; or the fact that power cuts have become commonplace; or the cancellation of bus services because of the lack of fuel.
However, Cuba today is in a very different political position. Fidel, the charismatic father figure of the Revolution, is gone. For many Cubans, the leadership of Fidel Castro was a source of hope and a revolutionary spirit of resistance that the new generation in power has been unable to revive, not only for younger generations, but also for politically orphaned older Cubans.
In contrast to other socialist countries, such as the Soviet Union, the Cuban Revolution was not a one-off event that took place in 1959: the official discourse considers it an ongoing process which began in earnest that year; a living process, a promise of a better future, as Fidel Castro put it, ‘to change everything that should be changed’.
As we approach the first anniversary of the 11 July protests that started in San Antonio de los Baños, one conclusion could be that, for a part of Cuban society, this layered crisis – both with internal and very dramatic external causes – weighs more than the undeniable victory against COVID-19.
Poster shared on social media showing sites of protest in Cuba on #11J
It is no coincidence that these 2021 protests happened when they did. As William LeoGrande argues, these last few years have seen the birth of ‘a new culture of dissent’, which has been viewed by the governments in Washington and Havana respectively as either essentially grassroots and local, or the fruit of purely external threats. The once-in-a-generation crisis, the epochal change in power, and the fast rollout of internet availability throughout the island all contributed to this change in popular culture and in the attitude towards power.
Although the effects of the pandemic during this two-year period should not be underestimated, the big headlines created by the Cuban government’s relative success in handling it – as well as the now conventional praise for Cuba’s healthcare system – overshadow the complexity of a delicate moment in Cuban history. This new chapter, however, still remains a familiar territory for Cubans. There might be new players, but these are old battles.
Main image: Julio César Guanche