Denouncing the communist regime for its failures to provide basic material goods, coronavirus vaccines, and civil liberties, tens of thousands of Cubans protested in cities throughout their country on July 11. The protests stunned many observers of the island nation, where there haven’t been any widespread demonstrations since 1994. The regime has brutally repressed dissent since the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power, while its economy has been in shambles for decades. What finally drove Cubans into the streets?

According to Javier Corrales, the author of five books on Latin America and chair of the Political Science Department at Amherst College, the most immediate cause was a viral video of police violently suppressing a demonstration near Havana early that Sunday, but the demands that ended up animating the protests have reflected long-term structural problems. As Corrales explains, Cuba’s feeble economy had worsened recently, after Venezuela cut back its long-standing subsidies. The lack of vaccines also angered Cubans, Corrales adds, but the outbreak of protest—and the continuing unrest—represent far more than discontent with the government’s pandemic response.

Michael Bluhm: Why did this happen?

Javier Corrales: It’s not like there was a clear trigger. In many ways, we don’t have an answer for what would have been the difference between this Sunday and previous Sundays. This protest was about issues that are very familiar.

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