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Explainer: What’s going on in Cuba with protests and new sanctions?

Thousands of Cubans are taking to the streets in an historic anti-government protest, demanding change after 62 years of communist rule, says NBC News. As the Financial Times, adds, the communist government is facing a major challenge to its authority for the first time without a member of the Castro family in charge.

According to international observers, there are three main drivers behind the protest: the COVID-19 pandemic, Internet access, and the economic crisis. 


Last year, Cuba was able to keep the coronavirus infections largely under control. But the country now has the highest infection rate per person in Latin America. Over the last week the country has reported nearly 4,000 cases per million people. That is nine times higher than the world average and more than any other country in the Americas for its size.

The sharp rise in new infections is putting a strain on their medical system. Doctors are reporting a lack of oxygen and other medical supplies — including aspirin — while some citizens say their relatives died at home without receiving sufficient medical care. This trend is not expected to change anytime soon, as less than 20% of Cuba’s population has been fully vaccinated.

Internet access

Government authorities have also blocked social media sites in an apparent effort to stop the flow of information. Citizens across the tiny island nation have been using social media to criticize the government and organize protests. But the Cuban government says social networks are used by “enemies of the revolution” to create “destabilisation strategies” that follow CIA manuals.

“The government has created a very sophisticated disinformation process,” says Cuban dissident Tania Bruguera. “They start by saying the people who protested were revolutionaries who were confused. Later, they said [the protesters] were delinquents. Now, they say [the protesters] are people who want the U.S. government to invade Cuba.”

Economic crisis 

Cubans are also facing the country’s worst economic crisis in decades. Cuba’s communist controlled economy has been stagnant since the Soviet Union stopped propping up the local government. But recent actions by the government have deepened the problem. For example, recent economic reforms attempted to raise wages, but have also resulted in price increases. Economists predict prices in Cuba will rise between 500% and 900% in the next few months.

As the BBC reports, Cubans have to wait in long lines to buy goods such as oil, soaps, or chicken. Many provinces have run out of wheat flour and are having to make pumpkin-based bread. “Cubans are doing eight hours in line just to get a piece of bread,” add Bruguera. “And at the same time, the housing situation is worse. People said, ‘Enough.’” 

Cubans also rely heavily on remittances, money transfers from citizens or relatives living abroad. Western Union annually transfers approximately one billion to Cuban citizens from U.S. citizens. Last month, though, the Cuban government said it would temporarily stop banks accepting cash deposits in dollars, the main currency that Cubans receive in remittances from abroad. The move was seen by some economists, notes the BBC, as the most severe restriction imposed on the U.S. currency since the government of the late president, Fidel Castro.

“The American left needs to understand that Cuba is no longer the paradise of social justice. It’s a dictatorship,” says Bruguera. “And the U.S. government should be on the side of the Cuban people. I would say to the American politicians, to be on the side of the people and to not believe the fake news and the stories the government is creating.”

Global Magnitsky sanctions

U.S. President Joe Biden labeled Cuba a “failed state” that is “repressing their citizens” during a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on July 15.

On July 22, the Biden administration sanctioned one Cuban individual and one Cuban entity for serious human rights abuse, pursuant to Executive Order 13818, which builds upon and implements the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act and targets perpetrators of serious human rights abuse and corruption around the world. This action targets the Cuban Minister of Defense and the Brigada Especial Nacional del Ministerio del Interior of the Cuban Ministry of the Interior for their role in facilitating the repression of peaceful, pro-democratic protests in Cuba that began on July 11.

The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, passed by Congress in 2016, authorized the executive branch to impose visa bans and blocking sanctions against any foreign person or entity “responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights committed against individuals in any foreign country seeking to expose illegal activity carried out by government officials, or to obtain, exercise, or promote human rights and freedoms.” In 2017, President Trump signed an Executive Order titled “Blocking the Property of Persons Involved in Serious Human Rights Abuse or Corruption” that significantly broadens the scope of the Global Magnitsky Act by authorizing sanctions targeting a broader range of persons associated with serious human rights abuse.

Global Magnitsky sanctions are a powerful tool to promote human rights abroad. By allowing the U.S. to apply targeted sanctions, these sanctions can pressure foreign government leaders and entities to change their behavior.  The ERLC has been supportive of the use of the Global Magnitsky Act to counter repressive regimes, most recently against China due to the ongoing genocide taking place against the Uyghur people.

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