14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 31 December 2020 — What happened in Cuba throughout this year can be related in a fragmentary way through a chronology, but the most important did not begin in January 2020, but on Wednesday, September 11, 2019, when the President of the Republic, to calm the citizenry, advised that on the 14th a ship with fuel arrived. Thus, began the so-called ‘temporary situation’, which, far from being transitory, has become chronic.
The novelty was that this time the Government lacked a commitment to improve the economic situation and the governed began to show their disagreement like never before.
Unlike when Fidel Castro was in command of the ship and could count on the absolute monopoly of the media, the emergence of social networks, which recorded exponential growth throughout 2019 with the ability to connect from mobile phones, enabling hundreds of thousands of people not only to learn more about what was happening but also to express their discontent.
The collapse of a balcony in Old Havana at the end of January 2020 resulted in the deaths of three girls; the fatal event unleashed a wave of protests that reached the comments section in the digital version of the official media comments. The momentous thing was not that the Government knew that its governed were blaming it for the tragedy, but that each dissatisfied person discovered that they were not alone.
The arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic on March 11 unleashed an intense citizen campaign that urged the closing of airports to prevent the entry of new cases. The government’s irresponsible reaction to proclaim the country a “safe destination for tourism” caused a widespread reaction of disgust that included Communist Party supporters and activists. By the end of the year, more than 11,600 people had been infected and the death toll on the Island reached 145.
Shortages of food products in 2020 touched the agricultural markets that sell their products in a ‘liberated’ form – that is unrationed – and take payment in Cuban convertible pesos (CUC). As an inevitable consequence, the informal market gained in importance for consumers. Faced with the state’s inability to produce and market what the people need, the regime’s response was to persecute and punish those who were capable of doing so. National television, violating all known ethical standards, dedicated itself to making these cases public to serve as an example to others.
Faced with such actions, voices were also raised inviting the Government to unblock the productive forces, to permit rather than to repress.
The appearance in the middle of the year of new format of state stores where basic products can be bought only with bank cards backed by freely convertible currency – such as dollars and euros – appeared to promise to be the most unpopular measure of the year, especially since supplying these stores with goods (also in deficient quantities) rested on withdrawing numerous products from traditional stores.
To many it seemed inadmissible that the currency with which the government pays the workers to build socialism – the Cuban peso (CUP) – was not accepted as currency in these stores and that those who shopped in them were, by necessity, those who had relatives abroad able to recharge their cards with the required foreign currency. Furthermore, the cards created by the Central Bank of Cuba for this purpose, did not offer the service of changing Cuban pesos into dollars of euros.
The increase in restrictions imposed by the United States Government, in particular the sanctions that resulted in the suspension of Western Union as a remittance processor, were also protested by many Cubans and not only because of their effects on the family economy, but also because the measure was used by the dictatorship as an argument to justify its poor economic management.
The last two months of 2020 brought a barrage of news. In November, the events led by the San Isidro Movement, later resized with the presence of hundreds of young artists demanding freedom from the Ministry of Culture. In December, the so-called “Tarea Ordenamiento” (“Ordering” or “Statutory” Task) announced the end of the circulation of the convertible peso and significantly modified the relationship of wages to the prices of goods and services.
What happened around the San Isidro Movement, especially the disproportionate repressive response of the regime, dispels any doubt about the corrosive effects that freedom has in the middle of a dictatorship. The Government rejected the ability to meet with a small group of artists who decided to gather in their headquarters to protest the arrest of one of their own, rapper Denis Solís.
The government’s assault on the movement’s headquarters did not go unpunished and, although some of those who stood on November 27 in front of the Ministry excused themselves by clarifying that they did not share everything that was done in San Isidro, they agreed that it was necessary to recognize the right to express dissent.
Coinciding with the celebrations for Human Rights Day on 10 December, President Miguel Díaz-Canel, with the silent presence of Raúl Castro, announced in a special speech broadcast on National Television the beginning of new economic measures to take effect on January 1, 2021.
The exchange rate of 24 Cuban pesos for one dollar, the final extinction of the convertible peso and a set of measures aimed at eliminating the gratuities and subsidies that some workers receive through their jobs, will introduce the most profound changes in the daily lives of citizens.
The rise in the price of the electricity tariff from 9 centavos per kilowatt hour (kWh) to 40 centavos faced a reaction of such magnitude that a few days after it was announced it had to be rectified, leaving the price of one kWh at 33 centavos. For some, all this was a trick and from the beginning they announced prices that they already knew were going to drop; for others, it was a triumph of citizen protest reflected essentially on social networks.
Subsequently, increases in water rates and drug prices were announced and it is expected that in the first months of 2021 other bad news will become known. But beyond what remains to be known and the many facts that would serve to narrate this year that is ending, 2020 showed that Cubans are no longer the same. The pulse between the Government and the citizens was settled — on repeated occasions — at tables or with officialdom giving ground. 2021 could be the scene of many other defeats for the regime.
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