Cuban authorities arrested several activists on Monday as the streets of Havana went quiet following a weekend of protests at a scale not seen in decades.
In a televised address on Monday morning, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel singled out the United States for fomenting the unrest through its policy of “economic asphyxiation” typified by strict sanctions and its decades-long trade embargo against the country.
In a sign that he didn’t blame the United States entirely for the protests, Díaz-Canel had some conciliatory words for protesters—who face a historically severe economic crisis amid a pandemic-induced collapse in tourism, long term shortages of basic goods, as well as regular power cuts. Díaz-Canel said it was legitimate “to have dissatisfactions, but also we have to be capable to visualize, to define when we’re being manipulated, where they want to separate us.”
Republican lawmakers have been vocal in their support of the protests, blaming public unrest solely on Cuba’s communist government. On Twitter, Sen. Marco Rubio, chastised U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Julie Chung for describing the protests as “concerns about rising COVID cases/deaths and medicine shortages.” Branding Chung’s tweet “ridiculous,” Rubio said that Cubans were instead protesting “62 years of socialism, lies, tyranny and misery.”
U.S. President Joe Biden, under pressure from Rubio and others after waiting until Monday to make a statement, echoed the Republican framing, blaming Cuba’s “economic suffering” on the Havana government.
AMLO’s view. The sentiment is not shared by America’s southern neighbor. “The truth is that if one wanted to help Cuba, the first thing that should be done is to suspend the blockade of Cuba as the majority of countries in the world are asking,” Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said on Monday, referencing a recent U.N. General Assembly vote where 184 countries demanded an end to the U.S. embargo (the United States and Israel were the sole votes against). “No country in the world should be fenced in, blockaded,” López Obrador said.
Local foreign policy. With so many Cuban exiles living in the United States, it’s easy to see the words of support from U.S. politicians serving a dual purpose. As other southern U.S. states turn Democratic-leaning, the state of Florida—and its large population of Cuban-Americans—has become a must-win state for Republicans thinking about a White House run. A poll of Florida-based Cuban-Americans taken in March underlines the community’s importance as a Republican constituency: 62 percent supported Trump in the 2020 election, while 40 percent said they did not accept the results of that election.
Whose successor? The protests are a reminder that Biden’s Cuba policy is a lot more Donald Trump than Barack Obama. Biden has kept Trump-era economic sanctions in place, and in March the State Department renewed the Trump administration’s 2020 determination that Cuba was “not cooperating fully with United States antiterrorism efforts.”
Sen. Bob Menendez, the Democratic chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a Cuba hardliner, commended Biden for keeping Trump’s sanctions in place. “The regime needs to understand that change [in Cuba] will bring about a change in sanctions” Menendez said. Adding that now Cubans have taken to the streets “the administration will have to look at options they can exercise in support of the Cuban people.”
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