Cuba had been on my mind a lot over the last months. Last weekend, Cuba became top of mind, all the time.
The news clips on television showed thousands of Cubans taking to the streets of Havana and throughout the island to protest the country's food shortages, lack of basic freedoms, high prices and the escalating number of Covid cases.
Before the protests ended on July 11, the demonstrators marched around the Capitolio in Havana chanting "Freedom," "Enough" and "United," and referred in strong language to President Miguel Diaz-Canel, whose popularity is dipping as life for Cubans deteriorates, according to news reports. The protests rolled over into the next day and may continue for some time. President Biden said in a statement on July 12 that the Cuban government must respect the rights of its people and that he stands with the demonstrators on the island.
David Lee, owner and founder of Cultural Cuba, a company which has been offering private, legal and custom luxury travel to Cuba since 2011, told me in an email that "these are unprecedented protest numbers for Cuba. It's been decades since this many people took to the streets in protest."
Lee added that it is too early to predict the outcome.
"For those of us on the ground in Havana, the situation isn't a surprise," he said, describing food shortages and daily long lines for basic necessities. "The people are desperate for tourism to return, but Covid numbers are currently increasing, despite the fact that Cuban own vaccines that are now being administered."
Lee pointed out that, just as in the U.S. and other countries, "it takes time to administer enough vaccines, and there is a lag before the numbers start to decline."
Prior to the recent protests, I had wondered about what was going on in Cuba.
The Biden administration brought a sense of optimism in January for normalization efforts. In April 2020, during his campaign, he said that if elected he would "promptly reverse the failed Trump policies that have inflicted harm on the Cuban people and done nothing to advance democracy and human rights."
However, In March of this year, during a press briefing, press secretary Jen Psaki said that "a Cuba policy shift is not currently among President Biden's top priorities."
I turned to Tom Popper for some perspective. Popper is the former president of InsightCuba and is now CEO of 82 Degrees West Consulting ("82 degrees west is one of the coordinates of Havana," he told me).
"Everybody thought Biden was going to do it fairly soon after he took office, but he has a long laundry list he's working hard on," Popper said.
"If he gets his infrastructure bill and his immigration measures passed, that is three-quarters of his priorities right there," Popper said. "He's trying to keep his eye on the ball while juggling so many pressing issues, foreign and domestic. He wants to get so much done."
Popper reiterated much of what was said during a webinar of Cuba specialists late last December, which was moderated by John McAuliff, founder and executive director of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development and coordinator of the Cuba/U.S. People to People Partnership.
McAuliff said then that "anonymous sources have said he [Biden] will do nothing regarding Cuba because of his focus on domestic issues."
McAuliff penned a letter to the New York Times on June 24 ("unlikely to be published" he said in his email to colleagues that accompanied the letter). He lambasted the June 23 vote in the UN General Assembly, when 184 countries voted in favor of a resolution to demand the end of the U.S. economic blockade on Cuba, for the 29th year in a row, with the U.S. and Israel voting against.
"Even more disturbing in humanitarian terms is that for five months of bureaucratic blithering Biden has joined Trump in denying Cuban Americans the ability to send remittances to desperate family members," McAuliff wrote.
"Economically Biden's inaction on restoring travel has cost jobs in a beleaguered industry that needs months to prepare for Cuba's post-Covid reopening."
Cuba is open to U.S. visitors, but the entry regulations are challenging, requiring medical insurance, a test before, a test on arrival, another on day five with quarantine until the test result is negative and a final test to be allowed to re-enter the U.S. And still, Americans may only visit as part of certain types of travel, such as Support for the Cuban People. Flight options are limited for Americans who are traveling to the island.
Cuba welcomed close to five million visitors in 2019, a record year despite the loss of the U.S. cruise ship business, in June of that year. The Cuban economy is largely dependent on the tourism sector, which accounts for more than 10% of its yearly GDP.
It won't meet those visitor numbers this year, or even come close, and Covid continues to take a heavy toll.
New Covid cases on July 11 totaled 6,923 and 47 deaths, according Prensa Latina (Latin American Information Agency). Cuba has dealt with more than 214,000 cases and 1,405 deaths from Covid since the pandemic broke out in the country in March 2020.
However, more than 2.2 million Cubans, representing close to 15% of the population, have received at least one shot, according to Dr. Francisco Duran, national director of epidemiology at the Ministry of Public Health.
Two vaccines, Soberana 02 and Abdala (named after a poem by Cuban leader Jose Marti) were developed in Cuba and are available, with three more vaccines in development trials.
However, the country is facing serious economic crises, lacking even the most basic medicines, such as antibiotics and syringes.
The frustration over 60-plus years of dealing with an authoritarian regime has now spilled over into the provinces and streets of Cuba. These protests could be the tipping point.
"The Biden administration has a lot on its plate and hasn't made U.S./Cuba policy a priority yet. Perhaps this situation will increase the urgency," Lee said.
I hope so.