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Protesters in Cuba demand food and electricity as shortages bring hardship

A woman and a boy attempt to hitch a ride during a scheduled power outage in Bauta, Cuba, Monday. The island is facing an energy crisis, with waves of blackouts worsening in recent weeks.
Ramon Espinosa
/
AP
A woman and a boy attempt to hitch a ride during a scheduled power outage in Bauta, Cuba, Monday. The island is facing an energy crisis, with waves of blackouts worsening in recent weeks.

MEXICO CITY — Hundreds of protesters have taken to the streets in Cuba in recent days, furious over the lack of food and electricity. With chants of "hunger" and "we want food," the demonstrations have centered in Santiago de Cuba, the country's second-biggest city, and surrounding towns in the southeastern area of the island.

They are the biggest anti-government protests since 2021, when thousands of Cubans took to the streets, triggering a massive crackdown by the state. Since then, the economic situation has deteriorated further, and analysts say the crisis is the worst in at least three decades.

Claribel, 58, a resident of Santiago, says hardly a day goes by when there aren't at least five hours of power outages. Food is in such short supply that her 2-year-old great-nephew is being fed juice instead of milk. Public transportation has dried up because of a lack of fuel.

"The situation here is horrible," Claribel says. "To live in Cuba is a tragedy." NPR is withholding her last name for her safety.

Cuba's economy began tanking during the pandemic, when international tourism plummeted and inflation soared. During that same period, former President Donald Trump imposed a range of sanctions on Cuba after re-designating the country a "state sponsor of terrorism."

But conditions in the country have rapidly spiraled in recent months, especially in poorer regions outside of the capital of Havana. Fuel prices have increased five-fold since the beginning of March. The cost of public transportation has also soared, to the extent there is any. The Cuban government suspended all sports tournaments because of a lack of transportation. Blackouts have become a constant.

Drivers and motorcyclists line up to fill their tanks at a gas station in Havana, on Jan. 9, a day after the Cuban government announced a 500% hike in fuel prices.
Yamil Lage / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Drivers and motorcyclists line up to fill their tanks at a gas station in Havana, on Jan. 9, a day after the Cuban government announced a 500% hike in fuel prices.

The communist government — which uses a rationing system to provide a certain amount of food per household — has even started limiting its allocations of bread to children and pregnant women. Some analysts say conditions are worse than the economic crisis that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a time known as the Special Period.

"I was a kid but I recall that during the Special Period we got a ration of bread daily. Every Cuban. Not this time," says Ricardo Torres, a Cuban economist at American University in Washington, D.C.

He says Cuba's problems, from food shortages to power outages, are the result of the country's massive financial deficit and lack of money to pay for imports. Dilapidated power plants have shut down and there's not enough fuel to power those still working.

Turkish powerships docked at the bay in Havana, on Feb. 17, 2023.
Alexandre Meneghini / Reuters
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Reuters
Turkish powerships docked at the bay in Havana, on Feb. 17, 2023.

"Around 95% of Cuba's electricity is produced by power plants that burn oil. Fuel oil, diesel, even crude oil. So if you don't have the fuel, you cannot operate the plants," Torres says.

In other words, he says, there's "no fuel, no electricity."

For more than two decades, Cuba relied on oil-rich Venezuela — a political ally — for crude and fuel in exchange for sending doctors and school teachers to the South American country. But as Venezuela's oil production plummeted in recent years, so did its generosity toward Cuba.

Russia is now believed to be sending a large oil tanker to help the island amid the shortage, according to news reports citing a researcher at University of Texas who closely tracks shipping to Cuba.

Cuba's president said in a statement his government will address protesters' concerns, but also denounced "enemies of the revolution" for trying to destabilize the country and accused the U.S. of stoking the protests. A spokesperson for the Cuban government blamed the economic crisis on decades-old U.S. sanctions that have complicated the island's purchase of fuel and food.

That's partially true, says Johanna Cilano Pelaez, a researcher with Amnesty International. "But it's irresponsible to blame U.S. sanctions alone for the state of the Cuban economy," she says.

For now, the Cuban government's response to the protests has been relatively subdued compared to 2021, when hundreds of demonstrators were arrested and some sentenced to up to 25 years in prison.

While authorities have detained some protesters in recent days, they have also given out extra rice, milk and sugar in an effort to appease the growing outcry.

Older people line up to buy bread at a bakery in Havana on March 8.
Yamil Lage / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Older people line up to buy bread at a bakery in Havana on March 8.

In Santiago de Cuba, Claribel says Cubans' anger and frustration are beginning to outweigh their fear of government retaliation.

"The people aren't going to back down," Claribel says. "If there hadn't been protests, we would still be without rice and chicken."

When she heads out to demonstrate, she plans to bring her grandchildren. "They can't touch the children," she says.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emily Green