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For sixty years, the great majority of Cubans only knew a government under the name of Castro. But on April 24th, 2018, Miguel Díaz-Canel became the head of the state. The gleams of hope that the new president of the republic would promote a change of politics and governance have now vanished. Mr Díaz-Canel embodies the same line of failed autocratic socialism of his predecessors—an outdated antidemocratic regimen of denial of press, expression and assembly liberties.
The tragic situation in Cuba is complex and poorly understood by many. Some media outlets (Globe and Mail, New York Times, Washington Post) have rightfully address the nature of the recent protests and the pressing urge to help the Cuban people. The context of the discontent and demonstrations can be better understood, however, if we describe the historical antecedents that engendered the island's current political and social climate.
Cuba is a nation with extraordinary richness. Ethnography and Geography are as diverse as the world itself. Immigrants from four continents and different epochs blended into an amalgam of characters and cultures driving resourcefulness and cooperation in a heterogeneous landscape. Evergreen mountains and plains; soft rivers and dazzling coastlines; peaty, silty, and clay soils; encapsulated mineral and energy resources. A world within the world. Cuba has the seeds for emergence, the elements of progress.
Foundations of the Cuban nationality
The first arrival of humans to Cuba dates back to 3,100 BC. Neolithic cultures subsisted on hunting, fishing, and collection of wild plants. When Columbus arrived in 1492, three groups of indigenous cultures—migrants from Northern Antilles and South America—inhabited Cuba, the largest, the Taíno, was estimated to have a population of 350,000. They grew crops including yucca root—used to bake cassava bread, maize, sweet potatoes, and tobacco among others.
The indigenous population of Cuba was decimated by massacres and disease brought with European colonization, only 5,000 were left after 50 years of Spanish dominance. Not known purely indigenous people remain in Cuba today. Whether the indigenous genes are still in Cuba and from which group they might be coming is still under investigation. A recent genetic study including about 1000 individuals of different races and gender, resulted in 72% of genes of European descendant, 20% African and 8% Native American.
The colonization by Iberians, the slavery of Africans, and further migrations, mainly from Spain, France, Mexico, and China contributed to breeding the Cuban (the author's ancestry comes from fifteen different regions of the world). A nationality that hatched early in the Colony and pushed for independence through years of wearing wars against Spain.
Though one of the last Latin American countries to reach independence, Cuba developed early and fast, pushed by the needs of the sugar industry and other enterprises.
Cuba was the first Latin American country—and 8th in the world—to carve farm fields and cities with a railroad (1837, even before Spain). The University of Havana (UH) raised as one of the first in the Americas in 1722 (only three universities in the USA are older than UH). The Éxposition Universelle of Paris gold medallist Aqueduct of Albear, the tunnel piercing the underbelly of the Bay of Havana, the presumptuous Capitol building (taller than Washington's), and the central highway—riding from West to East across all Cuba—are standing engineering masterworks, symbols of the economic splendour of the island. In the 20th century, other industries and services joined the sugar cane industry driven by the growing demand of the rocketing North American market.
But the wealth was polarized both geographically and across the social strata. In the 1950s, electricity reached 87% of urban homes, but only 10% of rural dwellings. Close to 50% of the rural and a quarter of the total population was illiterate. Deep poverty, particularly in rural areas, unemployment, and corrupted governments were like rocket propellant to fuel Fidel Castro's movement, the only other viable alternative at the moment.
Fidel Castro's revolution
The promises of ending the extreme social polarization and providing education and health care for all under the umbrella of a "revolution as green as the palms" (to set himself apart from red communist ideologies) made Castro popular and yielded his movement vast support across the island.
And on January 1st, 1959 he succeeded. But betraying his promises of a "green revolution", Castro nationalized the industry and declared a Marxist revolution. Measures that led to early rebellions, such as that of Huber Matos, one of the top commanders of Fidel Castro's army who was then imprisoned for 20 years and sent later to exile. The mysterious, traceless disappearance of Camilo Cienfuegos, appointed by Castro head of Cuba's armed forces and an immensely popular leader, might also be linked to political discrepancies in the early post-victory days, though this has never been proven.
Hundreds of thousands of Cubans—including many who lost properties and hopes of democracy—left the island. Millions more left during the next decades. The flourishing economic development halted soon after the first years of Fidel Castro's power. For example, in 1958 Cuba's GDP per capita was twice that of Spain, but in 2015 it was only one-fifth of it.
(Data obtained from Humberto Bert Corzo, Comparative study of Cuba's GDP based on existing statistical data during the republic and today's communist system, La Nueva Cuba, 2002. http://www.futurodecuba.org/COMPARATIVE%20STUDY%20OF%20CUBA'S%20GDP.htm)
In line with preached promises, the economic debacle of socialist Cuba was accompanied by cut-throat campaigns to alphabetize and make health care accessible to all. In the 1960's thousands of young students—in the majority of teenagers graduates from high school—were sent to remote areas of Cuba to teach how to read and write. The educational system received high subsidies, including free education at all levels. In few years, the number of physicians was restored—to replace all those who left the country in 1959—and increased afterwards, the most basic medicines were available—with some limitations—to all.
The literacy movement and other campaigns, such as continuous mobilizations of workers of all trades to sugar cane harvest crusades (at the expense of crumbling the efficiency of other industries), the recruitment of citizens to the army and revolutionary militias, and the intense ideological manipulation of the media not only were a harbinger of the path the country was moving into but most importantly, produced a generation of individuals profoundly committed to the revolutionary process. For they invested a significant part of their lives supporting the utopia of creating a better, egalitarian, society. An ideal, hard to break apart with. A conscience, difficult to betray.
Fast-forwarding to the 21st century, new generations of Cubans see matters different. In 2020, a group of artists and intellectuals founded the San Isidro movement—named after one of the poorest neighbourhoods of Havana—intending to unite their voices to express anger against the violation of rights granted to most individuals in the world. Some were incarcerated, others lost their jobs. In the words of Cuban journalist Carlos Manuel Álvarez "The San Isidro movement epitomizes the cry of a wounded country"
Then, COVID-19 landed. Although the country has one of the highest rates of physicians per capita in the world and can develop vaccines with as much quality as many developed nations, those merits do not balance the accumulated poverty, crumbling infrastructure and resulting insalubrities. Tap water is scarce and electric power is limited. The lack of housing renders numerous family generations living in a single dwelling. People line for long hours to acquire basic food. Conditions that are like a Petri dish for the propagation of the pandemic. As of today, Cuba has one of the highest numbers of COVID-19 cases per one million people.
The prospects of solving the situation are nil under the current administration and people are fed up. Hence the protests of July 11th.
Cubans need your help
The people of Cuba are resilient and tolerant. They work hard to survive and despite the harsh situations tend a hand to other developing nations, a gesture epitomized by decades-long medical assistance to other countries. Now Cubans need the world to help them.
Even though the country developed anti-SARS-CoV-2 vaccines, other resources (such as syringes) are constraining the effective management of the pandemic. You can help through your country's non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
( One example, but not the only one is https://ghpartners.org/syringes4cuba/ )
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