The Current

Cubans line up for hours for something to eat, but government isn't listening: activist

Cubans marched in the streets on the weekend over food shortages, high prices and their government's handling of the coronavirus crisis.

Cuba's elite blames U.S. embargo, but 'they're all super well fed,' says Tania Bruguera

Cuban artist and activist Tania Bruguera, centre, speaks following a demonstration outside the Ministry of Culture in Havana last November. (Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images)

Read Story Transcript

An artist and activist in Havana says the Cuban government is not listening to the demands of the protesters who have taken to the streets over food shortages and high prices.

"Cubans have been doing lines of eight hours to get a piece of meat or a piece of whatever to eat," said Tania Bruguera, a longtime political activist in Havana. Her artistic work, which centres around collaboration and social change, has been featured in major exhibitions and museums around the world, including London's Tate Modern and the Moscow Biennale.

"The government has been for the last few years demanding only sacrifices ... without hearing the demands they have," she told The Current's guest host Mark Kelley.

"I don't know what is going to happen, but what is for sure is that the people had enough."

Thousands of people marched in Havana and elsewhere on the island on Sunday, protesting power outages, shortages of basic supplies and high prices driven by the country's worst economic crisis in decades, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

WATCH | Cubans protest food shortages and high prices amid coronavirus crisis: 

Cubans protest ongoing poverty, demand more freedom

2 months ago
Poverty and the pandemic have converged in Cuba, to create unbearable circumstances that people were protesting in the capital over the weekend. They're demanding more freedom, while their president blames the situation on U.S. sanctions. 2:00

The demonstrations resulted in violent clashes between protesters and police, multiple arrests, internet blackouts and allegations of police using excessive force.

The protests are the largest in decades, with former Canadian ambassador to Cuba Mark Entwistle noting they are unusual in that they are spreading across the country "not led by any kind of intellectual or cultural elites."

"And for the first time, they're calling for ... the removal of the government," said Entwistle, who was ambassador from 1993-97.

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel has blamed the country's plight on U.S. sanctions that restrict trade with the country. The rules were tightened under former president Donald Trump.

Diaz-Canel described the embargo as "a policy of economic asphyxiation intended to provoke a social uprising," but Bruguera argued it is being used to distract from a class disparity in the country.

"They keep saying, 'It's the embargo, it's the embargo, it's not our fault, it's not our fault,'" she told Kelley.

"But if you see them, if you see the people in power, they're all super well fed and they have no problems," Bruguera said.

"The class that is in power is completely privileged and protected, and the people are completely unprotected and vulnerable."

Diaz-Canel has also blamed the Cuban diaspora and other U.S.-backed groups for stirring up the protests, but Bruguera said that "what happened was spontaneous, and it was the rage of the people in the street."

"Hundreds of thousands of Cubans have woken, and now they know what being free is," she said.

Embargo does 'great harm' to Cuba

Entwistle said the Cuban government can and does use arguments about the embargo for its own political purposes.

"But that still can't mask the fact that it's true that the U.S. embargo has done great harm to the Cuban people and their welfare," he said.

"It's simply a fact."

Last month, the United Nations voted in favour of a resolution to condemn the economic blockade, for the 29th year in a row, with only the U.S. and Israel voting against it.

On Monday, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador reiterated that call.

"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," he told a press conference.

U.S. President Joe Biden said Monday that Washington stands with the people of Cuba. He did not directly address the sanctions.

"The Cuban people are bravely asserting fundamental and universal rights. Those rights, including the right of peaceful protest and the right to freely determine their own future, must be respected," Biden said in a statement.

"The United States calls on the Cuban regime to hear their people and serve their needs at this vital moment rather than enriching themselves."

WATCH | Cuban Canadians react: 

Cuban Canadians react to weekend protests, high COVID-19 case counts

2 months ago
Thousands of Cubans protested in cities from Havana to Santiago on Sunday, calling for more freedoms and better access to food and medical supplies. Lorenda Reddekopp spoke to Cuban Canadians living in the GTA who are looking for ways to help. 2:27

Global Affairs Canada has called for restraint and "encourages all parties involved in the crisis to engage in peaceful and inclusive dialogue."

But in a televised address, Diaz-Canel called for government supporters to take to the streets and defend the revolution.

"That's a really frightening call," said Karen Dubinsky, a professor in the global development studies and history departments at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., who organizes academic exchanges between Canada and Cuba.

"I'm really concerned when any country's leader — in the midst of a popular uprising as this clearly is — engaged in such hawk-like posturing from the beginning," she said.

"There's no space for common ground, for dialogue, for peaceful solutions."

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Joana Draghici, Julie Crysler and Ryan Chaterjee. 

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