Washington, D.C.—On July 11, thousands of Cubans took to the streets in unprecedented and largely spontaneous demonstrations that spread rapidly across the nation, ignited by growing frustration with the country’s economic crisis and the government’s response to the spiking COVID-19 outbreak. Demonstrations, though they appeared to have dissipated in the next few days amid heavy policing operations, have continued more sporadically and on a smaller scale.
The Cuban people are facing serious shortages, exacerbated by U.S. sanctions at the expense of the most vulnerable populations in Cuba. Hospitals and pharmacies have run out of basic medicines, blackouts have become longer and more frequent, and procuring scarce food is a hurdle. Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases have spiraled out of control in recent weeks, breaking records for daily infections and deaths, pushing health centers to the point of collapse.
Moreover, failed Trump policies continue to inflict harm on Cubans and their families. Restrictions on remittances, including caps on the amount and measures that have made it impossible to wire remittances from the U.S. to families in Cuba, have limited the purchasing power of many families, banking regulations have made third country purchases more difficult, and onerous rules governing medical sales have had an especially devastating impact during the pandemic.
The U.S. and the international community should recognize the seriousness of the crises, and respond constructively to the worsening humanitarian situation in Cuba. U.S. sanctions, especially Trump-era restrictions, are factors in the crisis. Most immediately, the administration should ease restrictions on remittances that help Cuban families, and end restrictions on medical sales in the context of the COVID-19 crisis, as we have done with other countries with whom the U.S. government is at odds.
At the same time, the Cuban government needs to respond to popular concerns, including implementing a series of promised economic reform measures that have been repeatedly delayed, and opening a channel for dialogue and reconciliation to address dissent.
Much focus has been on the street protests in Cuba; while President Biden is right to urge the Cuban government to respect its citizens’ right to protest, and to criticize repression, as the U.S. does elsewhere, the administration should recognize that it can and should take steps that help address the immediate humanitarian situation that impacts the Cuban people. Focusing only on the protests, with language that describes them as “clarion calls for freedom,” while politically popular and well received in some communities, is one-sided, and casts a shadow on what’s most important: alleviating the suffering of the Cuban people.
The administration should prioritize measures that will concretely aid the Cuban people, reversing Trump era sanctions, beginning with the removal of limits on family and donative remittances, and the specific licenses required to send medical supplies, as a number of members of Congress have suggested. The administration has announced it will form a Remittances Working Group to explore easing sanctions on remittances. For this to be meaningful it should prioritize allowing remittances to reach Cuban families, rather than debating the mechanisms.
At the same time, the Cuban government should respect the right of peaceful protest, and refrain from violence and repression. There are troubling reports about the numbers of people who were detained on July 11 and in the following days; families report that the whereabouts of some detainees is unknown and that some continue to be held without the filing of charges. Cuba’s constitution, revised in 2019, guarantees the right to due process in legal proceedings. Anyone detained in the course of the protests should be afforded due process rights, and promptly released or charged. Arbitrary summary trials without due process are unconscionable. President Diaz-Canel should listen to the voices protesting to be heard, end the inertia on deeper and more profound economic reforms, and respond with more political openness.
WOLA remains committed to changing U.S. policy towards Cuba. Engagement, rather than isolation, is more likely to enable the political openings that Cubans desire, and to ease the hardships that Cubans are experiencing. The U.S. government should return to a path of normalization, and move toward ending the embargo that continues to aggravate the island’s long standing economic difficulties and the suffering of the Cuban people.
This statement was originally published on July 14, 2021 and was updated on July 23, 2021 to reflect new developments in Cuba and the U.S. response.