The Cuban government’s announcement that it is lifting restrictions for travelers who want to take food and medicines to the island is being met by many on the island with indignation because the measure does not satisfy the demands of regime change at the core of unprecedented protests that erupted Sunday islandwide.
In an attempt to calm the situation and address widespread shortages, Cuba’s prime minister went on live TV Wednesday evening to make the announcement, saying authorities will temporarily lift government-imposed limits and custom duties on the medicines, food, and personal hygiene products that travelers could take to the island.
But many Cubans quickly reacted, saying authorities didn’t address the demands for political freedoms at the core of the demonstrations. Several videos of the weekend protests show crowds chanting “regime change,” “down with [Cuban leader Miguel] Díaz-Canel,” “down with the dictatorship” and “freedom.”
“It’s outrageous, it’s an insult,” dissident journalist Myriam Celaya said from Havana. “People who took part in the demonstrations were not asking for shampoo, they were asking for freedom. It is a measure to cool things down because they have lost control over the people, who have lost their fear.”
Manuel Cuesta Morúa, a dissident leader who was detained when he was trying to join the demonstrations on Sunday in Havana, called the announcement “a distraction.”
“The core demand made by the protesters was freedom,” he told the Miami Herald in a phone interview. He said young protesters with whom he shared a police cell on Sunday night were moved by “feelings of hope.”
Celaya labeled those praising the government for the new measures “useful fools.”
“This is not the time to be praising these symbolic gestures of the dictatorship,” added Celaya, who said her niece Amanda Hernández Celaya, 17, has been detained incommunicado at a police station since Sunday, supposedly for having filmed the protests.
“It is completely illegal for a minor to be detained without communication with her family,” she said. “Many abuses are being committed.”
Other Cubans noted that the government could have lifted the restrictions on food and medicines much earlier to alleviate a severe economic crisis made worse by the coronavirus pandemic.
“It bothers me a lot! And it is proof that it was something they could always have done. Cuba has had a shortage for a long time, not just now,” actress Yuliet Cruz wrote on Facebook.
After the government’s announcement late Wednesday, Cuban journalist Yoani Sanchez tweeted, “No, we don’t want crumbs. We want freedom. Blood was not spilled on Cuban streets so that we could import a few extra suitcases. Most of the injured or detained don’t even have someone to bring them something in their luggage.”
Cubans were also saying Thursday that police are hunting down demonstrators in their homes, in some cases with the help of face recognition software. Images of special forces deployed to patrol Havana and other towns have been shared widely. A new video surfacing Thursday shows several special forces officers shoving and throwing a man to the pavement, all while beating him with batons.
Cuban authorities have been depicting the protests as riots and the participants as delinquents, showing images on state television of looted stores and overturned police cars. But Morúa said the government has been showing images of mostly Black Cubans, “with a racist intent” to instill fear on the “white elites” that stayed at home during the street demonstrations. On the evening TV show “Mesa Redonda” — Round Table — Díaz-Canel made repeated references to participants from “vulnerable neighborhoods,” widely understood to be mainly Black.
Experts agree that while positive, lifting the customs restrictions on food and medicine is not enough to alleviate the situation on the island in the short term. “The government could speed up the expansion of private enterprise or allow people to cultivate and own land, " said Pedro Freyre, a Cuban American attorney with Akerman LLP who advises companies doing business on the island.
But the implications of the protests go further than mere economic reforms.
“In the long term, an ideal scenario would be for the Havana regime to recognize the urgency to include and dialogue with broad sectors of the population that have publicly expressed their discontent since last Sunday,” said Jorge Duany, the director of the Cuban Research Institute.
“No government, democratic or authoritarian, can ignore such a clear and forceful manifestation of its views outside the prevailing political system,” he added. “The protests articulated the critical will of a considerable swath of Cuban society, which until now had remained dormant, in jail or forced into exile.”
Miami Herald staff writer Adriana Brasileiro contributed to this story.