A lot has changed since then: the Communist Party government made its largest – albeit limited – opening to private business in six decades, allowing small and medium-sized businesses. And the easing of the COVID-19 pandemic has allowed for a gradual revival of the critical tourism industry.
But the overall economy remains grim, with long lines and soaring prices for limited goods. This has led to a huge increase in migration, mainly to the United States.
And the economy remains squeezed by US sanctions. While US President Joe Biden has made some relaxations, such as allowing US citizens to send more money to Cuban relatives and process some visas in Cuba, he has made campaign promises to reverse many of the other restrictions imposed by former President Donald to make, only slowly implemented trump. That pledge may have been further delayed by the Cuban government’s crackdown on the protests, darkening the atmosphere for apparent concessions from Washington.
However, for the Román family of La Guinera in Havana, the protests changed everything.
Three of the family members were arrested on June 12, 2021 and two remain in detention.
“You have not committed a crime sufficiently serious to warrant this punishment,” said Emilio Román, 51, whose 26-year-old son Yosney, a construction worker, and 24-year-old daughter Mackyanis, a homemaker, were sentenced March to Sentenced to 10 years in prison for sedition. His youngest daughter, 18-year-old Emiyoslan, was conditionally released because she was a minor when she was arrested.
Three cousins were also arrested – two of whom are now also serving 10-year sentences.
Officials have not said how many people were arrested during the protests, which took place in dozens of locations across the country, but an independent organization set up to track the cases, Justice 11J, has counted more than 1,400.
The national prosecutor’s office said in June that courts had sentenced protesters to 488 prison terms of up to 25 years in prison.
“The government has demonstrated its authoritarian nature,” said Giselle Morfi, a Cuban lawyer now based in Mexico who works with Cubalex, a legal aid group focused on human rights in Cuba. “The state criminalizes the exercise of fundamental rights that should be protected in any democratic society, such as freedom of expression, and it stigmatizes protest.”
She said the crackdown should dissuade Cubans from any new wave of protests.
One who – unsuccessfully – called for more demonstrations last November, playwright Yunior García, eventually left the country.
Authorities insist those arrested are not political prisoners but people who have violated laws against civil disturbance, vandalism or sedition, often at the instigation of US-based opposition groups who use social media to shed light on the people to attack the socialist state.
After a massive vaccination campaign using vaccines developed in Cuba itself, authorities said they have seen no COVID-19 deaths for more than a month. Hotels and flight routes that have been closed for more than a year have reopened — something crucial for a country that relies heavily on foreign tourism for the hard currency needed to import food and other essential goods.
Cuba welcomed just 573,000 foreign visitors last year, down from 4.2 million in 2019.
However, after the pandemic-driven economic contraction of 11% in 2020 and a weak 2% recovery in 2021, long lines for fuel and food remain and power outages are commonplace.
“These Cuban officials refuse to accept the three simplest economic keys to the crisis: breakfast, lunch and dinner,” said Domingo Amuchástegui, a former Cuban diplomat. He argues that opening up to small private companies is still too limited.
“The great lesson from China and Vietnam is being ignored,” he said, referring to the communist-led nations that have opened up to private business much more widely.
Nevertheless, Cuba’s Economy Ministry announced in mid-June that 3,980 small and medium-sized private companies had been registered since September, creating 66,300 jobs.
The once-mighty sugar industry managed to produce just 480,000 tons in the last harvest, just over half of the projected production and not enough to meet foreign contracts.
But perhaps the hardest blow to most Cubans is the inflation that followed the abolition of the country’s old dual currency system — a long-discussed reform that eventually came amid other crises.
While the newly unified peso is officially trading at 24 to the dollar, prices on the street are 100 to 1.
One of the most visible consequences of the economic crisis – and to a lesser extent of the crackdown – is the sharp rise in emigration.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection recorded encounters with around 140,000 Cubans at U.S. land borders from October through May — a number that even surpassed the dramatic Mariel Exodus of 1980, when 125,000 Cubans reached the U.S
And the US Coast Guard has reported intercepting 2,464 Cuban migrants at sea – also a jump from recent years.
“There are fewer and fewer young people willing to make a living in the country,” said Cuban-born lawyer and political analyst Luis Carlos Battista, who said the loss was economically damaging for a small nation with an aging population, trying to cope with the US economy sanctions.
“It could easily be that 1.5% of the Cuban population left in just 10 months,” he said.