The widespread protests in Cuba mark a new challenge to the communist regime and a major test to the Biden administration. Thousands took to the streets in cities across the island Sunday, mounting a rare public rebuke to the authoritarian government. As it looks to respond, the Biden administration should focus on alleviating the suffering of the Cuban people. It also needs to frame what’s possible with the next generation of Cuban leadership.
Sunday’s protests in Havana and dozens of other cities were the largest in decades, reflecting the depth of public resentment across the board. Long accustomed to rationing, Cubans are exhausted by acute shortages of food, medicine and electricity, rising prices and an explosion of coronavirus cases. The pandemic has all but shuttered Cuba’s tourist industry, a major part of an economy that contracted 11 percent last year. And Trump-era trade restrictions have reinforced the pain of the U.S. embargo, prompting Cubans to denounce the 62-year dictatorship in ways that seemed unthinkable only a few years ago.
President Miguel Diaz-Canel predictably blamed the United States, claiming the protests were led by U.S. sponsored “counter-revolutionaries,” and he urged his supporters to take up “combat” to reclaim the streets. The reality, of course, is far different. Cubans want to eat, they want the lights on, and they want the COVID vaccine. The advent of social media has enabled activists to easier organize protests. And as the first leader of the post-Castro era, Diaz-Canel lacks the mythology of the revolutionary movement. He has a firm grip of Cuba’s security apparatus without the populist appeal.
The protests come as the Biden administration is conducting a review of the Trump-era Cuba policy, which rolled back many reforms enacted under President Barack Obama, including placing new restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba and remittances to the island. The administration should look to increase remittances, which are a financial lifeline for many Cubans. It should assist in providing Cuba with greater access to food, equipment and medicines. And Washington should continue to underscore how human rights and democratic reforms are key to ending the U.S. embargo and normalizing relations between the two countries.
The demonstrations in Tampa, Miami and Orlando in support of the protests in Cuba reflect the role Florida can play in addressing this humanitarian crisis. In heavily-Hispanic West Tampa, hundreds of demonstrators have lined the streets this week in largely peaceful protests, calling attention to the unrest in Cuba and pressing state and local lawmakers for support.
This is no time for either country to use suffering Cubans as geopolitical pawns. The administration should pursue a careful strategy that addresses the need for everyday essentials and puts Cuba on the path to reforms. Havana is facing a home-grown crisis from its own history of human oppression. But the U.S., and Cuban-Americans in Florida especially, have no stake in having these conditions deteriorate any further. And the Cuban government should see these protests for what they are — demonstrations by ordinary Cubans flexing their muscles, who don’t need outside inspiration to say they’ve had enough.