Largest island in the Antilles, Cuba had this Sunday, 11, unprecedented protests against the government, which question the economic crisis amidst the coronavirus.
The island is one of the last communist countries in the world, and it still faces a US embargo inherited from the Cold War, even more than three decades after the end of the conflict with the Soviets.
See below some of the main facts and discussions about the country.
1. The largest of the Antilles
Cuba’s official contact with Europeans began after the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492. The island then became a Spanish colony and only gained independence in 1902.
Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean, a very poor and unequal region in Central America, with an area of 110,860 km² and 11.2 million inhabitants.
As in other countries in the region, the first centuries of colonization in Cuba had indigenous communities decimated and African labor brought in to work in the planting of sugar cane. Slavery was abolished in 1886, just before independence.
2. 60 years of the Castros
On January 1, 1959, the dictator Fulgencio Batista, who had been in power since 1952 after a coup d’état, was overthrown by rebels led by Fidel Castro. Castro established a Socialist Republic two years later.
Before that, Cuba had had presidents aligned with the US and who accepted disadvantageous conditions in negotiations with North Americans, a stance criticized by the population and by Fidel Castro’s group.
The United States broke diplomatic ties with Havana in 1961 and supported a failed invasion attempt to overthrow Castro at the Bay of Pigs. The following year, the discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba — which is located about 150 km south of the United States — triggered what is considered the worst nuclear crisis of the Cold War.
In the same year of 1962, Washington imposed a strict economic embargo on the island, which is still in force.
On July 31, 2006, Fidel Castro, sick, asked his brother Raúl to replace him in charge of the state. In February 2008, Raúl Castro officially became president.
In April 2011, Raúl assumed the leadership of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC), the single party, founded in 1965. Fidel died in November 2016.
Now, a new generation has taken over the government of Cuba with Miguel Díaz-Canel, president since 2018 and first secretary of the Communist Party since April 2021, after the retirement of Raúl Castro.
On Sunday, overwhelmed by the economic and health crisis aggravated by covid-19, thousands of Cubans demonstrated in dozens of cities, a mobilization unprecedented in Cuba.
3. Embargo, ability to “solve” and cigars
The permanent US embargo has made its inhabitants become experts in “fixing”, as Cuba calls the ability to get things out of scarcity, whether through recycling, repair and so on.
Deprived of Soviet subsidies since the disintegration of the USSR in 1990, the island has become heavily dependent on Venezuela, a prime oil supplier paid for with medical services.
But Caracas faces a very serious crisis and is also subject to a US embargo. Thus, in 2017, China assumed its place as Cuba’s biggest trading partner.
The Cuban economy fell 11% in 2020, its biggest collapse in nearly 30 years, with the absence of tourists due to the pandemic and the tightening of the US embargo under former President Donald Trump (2017-2021) after a brief thaw of relations during the administration of his predecessor, Barak Obama, which motivated the re-establishment of diplomatic relations.
Tobacco, with its famous Cuban cigars, nickel, sugar, seafood, medicines and medical services – especially the sending of Cuban doctors abroad – are the main Cuban export products.
Remittances from abroad are Cuba’s second source of foreign exchange, after exports of medical services.
In recent months, an energy crisis has also helped to worsen the economic situation of Cubans, being part of the motivation for this weekend’s protests.
4. Economic opening
Raúl Castro initiated reforms to “update” a tired, Soviet-inspired economic model. It allowed small private entrepreneurship and greater openness to foreign investment, always preserving the “conquests of socialism” in an economy still controlled by the state.
The arrival of mobile internet (3G) at the end of 2018 allowed the expression of unprecedented social discontent in Cuba.
In recent months, the government has implemented small measures aimed at modernizing the economy. Earlier this year, Cuba unified its two local currencies with the aim of making its economy more efficient and clearer to foreign investors.
The government also decided to open up most economic activities to the private sector (except in key areas such as press, health and education).
5. Own vaccines and coronaviruses
Cuba, which began designing and producing its own vaccines in the 1980s, is developing five candidate vaccines against covid-19, the most advanced ones dubbed Abdallah and Sovereign 2.
The country has just authorized this month the emergency use of Abdala, the first anti-covid vaccine created in Latin America. The Cuban government hopes to vaccinate the entire population by the end of the year with three doses of the vaccine.
With 11 million inhabitants, the island had just over 56,000 cases of covid-19 and 1,500 deaths. In recent days, the number of daily cases and deaths has soared (from 20 victims a day last week), leading to crowded hospitals in some provinces of the country.
According to government data, 27% of the population was vaccinated with one dose and 15% is fully vaccinated. Vaccination began in May, even before the vaccines were approved.