Gloom at Cuba’s revolution

People lining up in a market in Santiago, Cuba. — Reuters

A CROWD swarms the steps of a small state-run market on the outskirts of Santiago, Cuba’s second-largest city, sweating and shouting, jostling for a chance at a once-monthly ration of chicken.

A pound bag of thighs is going for a bargain 20 pesos – about 22sen at the black-market exchange rate - but furore devolves to chaos as word spreads there may not be enough for everyone.

And that’s when the lights go out.

“This is life here,” said Mauri Macias, a 39-year-old chef with two children who was waiting his turn to buy a handful of the government-subsidised poultry.

“You live without being able to make plans.”

The episode in Santiago – the site earlier last month of a rare public protest – provides a telling snapshot of the challenge facing Cuba’s government: when the power fails, tensions – even in areas sympathetic to Fidel Castro’s 1959 communist revolution – begin to soar.

Residents and local officials in the Santiago de Cuba neighbourhoods of Veguita del Galo, Jose Marti, Micro 9 and Abel Santamaria tell of their frustration at food shortages and electricity outages that sometimes top 10 hours daily.

“Living without electricity is primitive,” said Yoni Mena, a 34-year-old who runs a vegetable stand in Abel Santamaria, a hillside neighbourhood. “The mosquitoes, the heat, sometimes there is no water. People are losing their minds. And that leads to other problems, like violence.”

Several hundred protesters gathered on March 17 in Santiago’s Carretera del Morro Park, chanting “power and food”, according to first-hand accounts from local residents. Social media videos showed a smaller group shouting “freedom” as local Communist Party leader Beatriz Johnson prepared to speak with the crowd from a rooftop.

Both the government and observers characterised the protests as largely peaceful.

The Cuban government, once reticent to acknowledge protests, now calls for dialogue and has moved quickly to attend to grievances in areas where they have flared.

A man waiting to get a once-monthly ration of chicken, during a blackout. — ReutersA man waiting to get a once-monthly ration of chicken, during a blackout. — Reuters

In Santiago de Cuba, local officials and residents said the government has begun to distribute subsidised rations, including chicken, rice, sugar and milk.

Power supply also became much more regular in the week following the protests, according to residents.

“We are aware that (lack of) electricity provides the spark for any protest,” Energy and Mining Minister Vicente de la O’Levy said recently.

Cuban president Miguel Diaz-Canel blames the United States and the “capitalist media” for stoking protests, and says his government is willing to have dialogue with upset citizens.

Santiago, a Caribbean outpost some 870km south and east of the capital Havana, dubs itself the “cradle” of the Cuban Revolution.

The former Moncada military barracks downtown were the site of the revolution’s first battle in 1953.

Castro himself, who ruled the island for nearly five decades, once lived in a wooden home overlooking the bay. He is buried there, his tombstone marked simply “Fidel”.

The city, like Cuba, has fallen on hard times since the Covid-19 pandemic.

Tourism – once a major source of foreign currency – has sputtered, with potential visitors put off by a lack of infrastructure, US visa rules and news coverage of economic woes and unrest.

A long-standing US trade embargo and related sanctions, as well as an inefficient state-run economy, have led to shortages of food, fuel and medicine, while Cuba’s obsolete power plants cannot meet demand.

Mirta Rusel, 58, a state textile worker in Jose Marti, earns 3,410 pesos (RM47) a month. She said she had adapted to the power outages, but not to food shortages.

“In the days there was no rice, I ate only sweet potato,” said Rusel, adding that recently she would fry it in oil for variety. “That’s the reality of life in Cuba.”

Some Cubans in Santiago talked of their appreciation for a system that for decades provided basic state-subsidised healthcare, food, housing and education.

Luz Perez, 48, a former schoolteacher who lives in an apartment block built by the Castro administration, said she would not protest but felt authorities needed to take action.

“Aggression doesn’t solve anything,” Perez said. “I love Cuba. But this situation is terrible. No one can live like this.”

Cuba’s 2019 constitution grants citizens the right to protest, but a law more specifically defining that right is stalled in the legislature, leaving those who take to the street in legal limbo.

Others try to work with the system.

Maria Antonia Figuera, a neighbourhood block leader who represents 1,500 people in Abel Santamaria, said she attends often angry complaints day and night.

Figuera said she organises sporting events for children during blackouts and is constantly wrangling with local officials to assure water and food.

“People are irritated,” she said. “We have to solve our own problems here, because no one is going to do it for us.”

Rights groups, the European Union and the United States say Cuba’s heavy-handed response to anti-government rallies on July 11, 2021 – the largest in decades – have also led many to think twice before attending demonstrations.

In the wake of the recent protests, 38 people were arrested countrywide, including several in Santiago, according to Spain-based Prisoners Defenders. Cuban authorities have said some protesters committed crimes ranging from public disobedience to vandalism, but have not provided information on detentions.

A government truck carrying “black beret” Interior Ministry troops – sometimes employed to disperse protesters – was parked at the site of the largest protest, near a local Communist Party headquarters in Veguita del Galo.

Maria Elena Casanova, a 64-year old state worker who lives near the site of the Santiago protest and watched it take place, described it as peaceful – and the natural conclusion of several weeks without power.

“I don’t feel that anyone planned it,” she said as she sat on her doorstep waiting for power to return to the neighbourhood.

“That was the people there expressing their problems.” — Reuters

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