Weekly Report - 18 November 2021 (WR-21-46)

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CUBA: Cracking down ahead of planned protest

The highly anticipated ‘Civic March for Change’, a day of nationwide protest planned for 15 November, failed to materialise after the Partido Comunista de Cuba (PCC) government deployed what Juan Pappier, a researcher for the US-based NGO Human Rights Watch, described as a “strategy of total suppression”. The response by the government, which was clearly taking no chances following the unprecedented July protests which erupted over economic, health, and political grievances [WR-21-28], underlines the continued challenge facing dissidents who had, perhaps prematurely, hoped that the July unrest would prove a turning point.

In an unprecedented move, the dissident group Archipiélago, which emerged following the July protests, had requested permission to stage the march, known as ‘15N’, which it said was “against violence, to demand that all the rights of all Cubans be respected, for the release of political prisoners and for the solution of…differences through democratic and peaceful means”. The letter invoked Article 56 in Cuba’s 2019 constitution which recognises the right to peaceful demonstrations. The Cuban government acknowledged this constitutional right but refused the request, citing other constitutional provisions such as respect for public order. It said that the protesters, who it claimed were US-backed, were seeking a “change in Cuba’s political system” which would be at odds with a constitutional article which establishes that socialism is irrevocable.

Given the apparent intransigence on both sides, fears of violence grew ahead of the protest which, on 10 November, Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez reiterated his government would not tolerate, telling foreign ambassadors and diplomats that “Cuba will never allow actions of a foreign government in our territory, trying to destabilise the country”. This was backed up by clear efforts to quash the opposition ahead of 15N. In the preceding days, various high-profile figures were arrested, including historian Manuel Cuesta Morúa, Berta Soler, the leader of the local dissident group Damas de Blanco, and her husband, Angel Moya. Guillermo Fariñas, a recipient of the European Parliament’s 2010 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, was detained on 12 November, while Archipiélago’s leader, Yunior García (who has since fled to Spain), reported that his home was surrounded by government supporters on 14 November.

A 17 November statement by Spain-based human rights NGO Observatorio Cubano de Derechos Humanos (OCDH) tallied over 400 “repressive acts” relating to 15N, including over 100 repressive acts in the days leading up to it. These included 122 cases of people being confined to their homes and surrounded by a police presence; 62 summons to police stations; 50 threats; 87 arrests; and 35 instances of internet shutdown. The day itself was marked by a huge deployment of police officers and state security agents.

There is little doubt that many of the grievances which sparked the July unrest persist. In an open letter to the foreign community dated 8 November, Archipiélago said that, since April 2018, over 9,000 arbitrary arrests and over 4,200 detentions had occurred and there were currently over 600 political prisoners. It noted a “worsening humanitarian situation”, citing reports that over 70% of Cubans live in poverty, eight out of ten cannot access medicines in pharmacies, 73% consider their diet deficient, and over 80% suffer electricity cuts. The government itself has acknowledged the continued dire economic situation, which stems from the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic and US sanctions which caused Cuba’s GDP to contract 11% in 2020. Last month it slashed its GDP projection to 2.2% this year, down from the initial 6% forecast, adding that recovery was not likely “in the short term, not in a month or two”. The impact on the population was also noted by Marino Murillo, the chairman of the PCC’s economic policy commission tasked with implementing economic reform guidelines. In a recent report outlining the results of the currency reform which took effect in January [WR-21-01], he acknowledged that the population is facing prices “up to ten times higher than what was foreseen”.

  • Rising costs

In his report, Murillo said that the average salary in Cuba is CUP3,888 (US$160), and the currency reform had envisaged the cost of the basket of goods and services for individual monthly consumption at CUP1,528. However, he said that the cost of that basket has been rising, especially in Havana and eastern provinces. For example, in March this basket was CUP2,347; in May, it was CUP2,628; in June, CUP2,700; and in August, CUP2,821. Murillo said: “This last price for August is 1.85 times the cost of the basket that we used to calculate the minimum pension, which means that those living on a pension or minimum wage, at this time, are not consuming what was foreseen.” He warned that “for a Cuban to eat something in the street today costs twice as much as designed”.

However, the government is no doubt banking on economic recovery following the 15 November reopening of the crucial tourism sector with the lifting of border restrictions imposed during the pandemic. According to the national statistics institute (ONEI), 280,913 international tourists arrived in Cuba in the first nine months of 2021, just 22.6% of the number registered in the same period in 2020. The government is also no doubt hopeful that the health situation will continue to improve amid reports of a slowdown in new infections (with 22,744 new infections reported over the past four weeks, down from the record monthly high of 268,259 in August). It also reports that 83.2% of the population that can be vaccinated have been fully inoculated with home-grown vaccines Abdala and Soberana 02 and Soberana Plus which, while authorised for emergency use by the local regulator, await approval from the World Health Organization (WHO).

Foreign response

The crackdown by the Cuban government did not go unnoticed by the international community. On 14 November US Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned “intimidation tactics” by Cuba’s government and was clear that Washington, which has already sanctioned the Cuban government in response to the crackdown which followed the July protests, would seek “accountability”. Meanwhile, when asked about Cuba in a 16 November press conference, United Nations Human Rights Office spokesperson Elizabeth Throssell recalled that the rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly as well as to exercise opinion are “fundamental pillars of society”.

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