The island is seeing its biggest protests in decades in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Here’s what you need to know.

By Audra Heinrichs.

This week, the largest anti-government demonstrations in decades erupted in Cuba, with thousands of people taking to the streets, chanting “Freedom!” in frustration with the Cuban government. People on the ground have reported what sounds like pandemonium as protestors are forcibly arrested for things like overturning police cars, looting stores, or refusing orders from police. More than 100 people have now been reported arrested or are missing on the island following the start of the widespread protests on Sunday.

While the international media is rife with different reports, it’s likely that those in the streets represent a mixture of factions with varying frustrations with Cuba’s leaders and perhaps even leaders in the U.S. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, Cuban residents have suffered shortages of food, medicine, electricity, and other basic goods. The already struggling Cuban economy has experienced a critical hit as tourism and good imports have dropped dramatically during the pandemic. On Sunday, Cuban health officials reported a record single-day increase in new COVID-19 cases and deaths and the island’s vaccination rate is considerably low.

Between an economic crisis and the deadly effects of the pandemic, why an uprising happened now is easy to understand. The fact that U.S.-Cuban relations are at their lowest point in years has also played a considerable role. The Trump administration enacted damaging economic measures against Cubans, and as of now, the Biden administration seems reluctant to lift them. These sanctions have only tightened the U.S. stranglehold on Cuba since a decades-old trade embargo, which effectively prevents American businesses, and businesses with commercial activities in the United States, from conducting trade with Cuban interests.

Many U.S. politicians—both Republican and Democrat—have sent messages of support to the protestors, including Senator Bernie Sanders, who called on President Biden to put an end to the embargo altogether. Even President Miguel Díaz-Canel has said the U.S. “politics of economic asphyxiation” has had a “cumulative effect” on the people of Cuba and that the origins of problems cited by the protesters, including shortages of food, electricity, and medicine, are all the result of the U.S. embargo on the country.

It’s worth noting that last month, the United Nations voted overwhelmingly to call on the United States to lift the embargo. Only the United States and Israel voted no, while 184 nations voted yes.

Even still, U.S. lawmakers remain split over how to approach the demonstrations and alleviate the intersecting humanitarian crises on the island. Some—like Republican Senator Marco Rubio—believe that maintaining the sanctions is the best course of action, while many progressives see it as something of a death knell that should’ve stopped when Biden took office.

At this point, President Biden has only offered support to Cuba via a statement. Protests have continued on the island and sparked more in Miami and Naples, Florida. Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel recently acknowledged the Cuban government’s shortcomings yet was unclear about any immediate aid aside from allowing passengers flying to the island to bring unlimited food, hygiene, and medicine products with no import fees. Numbers of arrests and missing protestors continue to rise while one person has since been confirmed dead.

Image credit: Yerson Olivares/Unsplash