Protests and Crackdowns in Cuba
From the 11th-12th of July, thousands of people took to the streets to protest the government in not only Havana but other cities and towns across the country of Cuba. The demonstrations were the largest since the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 90s and saw protesters loot a government store, overturn a cop car, and at times clash with police. Hundreds of people were detained during and following the protests with an estimated 700 people still in government detention.
The government labeled the protesters “vulgar criminals” sponsored by the US and the President called on “revolutionary citizens” to take to the streets and fight the protesters, leading to clashes. Despite government claims, many who participated in the protests have described them as spontaneous and spurred not by foreign backing but instead by the severe economic straits in which much of the Cuban population suffers currently.
Cubans today face severe shortages of food, medicine, and fuel along with periodic electricity shut offs. The economic situation is the product of multiple factors that, in no particular order, include: COVID-19 which has decimated the critical tourist industry, down 90% from pre-pandemic levels; the ongoing US embargo on Cuba which was strengthened under Trump and sustained by Biden; and an ongoing reluctance for Cuban leaders to embrace further economic reforms of the highly managed economy which at best leads to inefficiencies and at worst enables opportunities for government graft. Additionally, an ill-timed government decision to devalue and gradually discontinue the Cuban convertible peso (CUC) beginning in December 2020 has resulted in a non-insignificant drop in real income for those who have held their money in CUCs, a disproportionate number of whom work in the COVID-19 decimated tourism industry. While this reform was considered necessary by most economists across the spectrum, its timing added only additional burden to an already suffering population.
Activists hoped that the act of defiance would spur the government to make good on promises of long promised economic and political reforms. Many opposition groups believe the ongoing lack of such reforms is partly to blame for the long term economic struggles of the unique island state. In the days following the protests the President did seem to strike a conciliatory tone, recognizing the economic struggles the population is going through and promising to act, but the weeks since have seen a severe crackdown on government dissidents with hundreds detained and many more harassed and put under surveillance by police.
What happens next remains unclear. No further protests have taken place since 12 July and the size and scope of the protests took almost all observers by surprise. While the contributing factors are known, the question of why the largest Cuban protest in decades occurred in mid-July 2021 remains unclear. It is evident from recent events that the Cuban people are willing to take to the streets if conditions get bad enough, particularly if they perceive the Cuban government to be culpable in some way. Key to that narrative will be the US and its ongoing embargo/sanctions on Cuba, which contribute to Cuba’s economic distress and has been effectively used as a scapegoat by the Cuban government in the past. The Biden administration has implemented new targeted sanctions on Cuban officials and is considering more in response to the recent protests. In contrast, there is an argument being made by some US policy makers, observers, and foreign leaders that the US should ease economic sanctions on Cuba to rest the blame for any economic woes squarely on the Cuban government’s shoulders with the hopes of expediting economic and political reforms. Clearly, this is not the path currently being taken by the Biden administration, but it represents an interesting policy alternative to a more than half century-old policy.
MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA
The World Should Know About Yusra Mardini
Yusra Mardini fled Syria in 2015, four years after the war began. She grew up in Darayya, a suburb of Damascus. Yusra and her sister Sarah trained at the local pool under her father Ezzat, a swimmer who competed on Syria’s national team. Daily violence eventually made it impossible for the two girls to reach the pool to train. The sisters desperately wanted to leave, but the family held onto hope that they could live safely.
Plans drastically changed after Ezzat was arrested and beaten by regime soldiers. Her family home was then leveled in a mortar attack. Her family decided that it was best for Yusra and Sarah to leave Syria. It was impossible to arrange an escape for the entire family, but relatives were able to get Yusra and Sarah to Turkey. After arriving in Turkey, the sisters boarded a smugglers’ dinghy for the Greek Island of Lesbos. Fifteen minutes after leaving the Turkish coast, the boat’s engine died. With rough seas and an over-crowded boat, the vessel quickly began sinking. Yusra, Sarah, and two other refugees jumped into the ocean, swimming as they pulled the boat towards Greece. Three hours later the dinghy arrived in Lesbos.
Once on land, they made their way to Germany on foot. On their journey, the sisters found themselves living in a Budapest train station and then spent six months in a refugee camp in Berlin. There, Yusra heard about Wasserfreunde Spandau 04, a swimming club that trains young athletes. Soon, a trainer helped the sisters get papers to stay in Germany as Yusra began training at the facility. Yusra has since competed in both the 2016 Rio Games and the 2020 Tokyo Games for a team that is comprised of refugees from all over the world.
The Refugee Team was established to allow athletes to compete even if they have been forced to leave their home countries. The team first debuted in the 2016 Rio Games with 10 athletes. This year, the team is comprised of 29 athletes. The athletes this year all train for the games in a new home country and are originally from Afghanistan, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Iraq, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Venezuela.
The refugee crisis around the world continues to be a major concern. Crises that claim major media coverage like the war in Syria often capture short lived attention. Since 2011, Syria has found itself in the middle of a devastating civil war that has left the country in shambles. According to the UN Refugee Agency, more than 12 million people have been displaced. Syrians who fled the country are currently living in more than 125 countries around the world. The situation has only become more severe with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Sharing the same sentiment that many of her refugee teammates have, she believes sports saved her life. Yusra is a resilient example for all refugees, past and present. She offers hope in a time that many people desperately need it.
Myanmar’s Junta Extends State of Emergency and Consolidates Power
On 1 February 2021, Myanmar’s military staged a coup, overthrowing the country’s democratically elected government and replacing it with a military junta headed by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Shortly thereafter, the junta announced a nationwide state of emergency that would remain in place for one year. The military also vowed to hold new democratic elections following this yearlong state of emergency, a pledge that few Myanmarese nationals nor the international community expected the junta to follow through on. Six months after the overthrow of Myanmar’s government, those doubtful of the military’s long-term motives have had their skepticisms justified as the military appears to only be consolidating its power rather than preparing for a peaceful democratic transition.
Recently on 1 August, during a televised address by Myanmar’s junta leader Hlaing, no one was expecting any notable announcements to indicate the rolling back of the military’s control over Myanmar’s government and society. Dressed in civilian attire rather than his military uniform, Hlaing attempted to project a conciliatory image. His announcements, however, indicated the military’s intention to consolidate its power rather than allow another democratically elected civilian government to form. Hlaing essentially stated that the state of emergency, which was originally to remain in effect for one year following the coup, would be extended for another two years. It was also announced that a transitional government, headed by Hlaing as Prime Minister, would be established to run the country until fresh elections are held in late 2023. Rather than placating Myanmar’s dissident factions, this announcement instead validated their expectations that a return to democracy was not a central motivation of the junta.
Although Senior General Hlaing has stated the junta’s intention is to eventually revert back a democratically elected civilian government, it is unlikely that the military would cede its power willingly. Given the violent post-coup crackdown the military carried out against its population and the ongoing accusations of human rights violations, public sentiment in Myanmar has increasingly gone against the military. This essentially indicates that if elections were held in the near-term, political candidates in opposition to the military could garner the most support amongst the civilian population. Any military supported candidates could lose a legitimate election and the military would be unlikely to support or tolerate a newly elected civilian government that has the potential to condemn the military, prosecute military leaders, or further diminish the military’s authority.
South Africa Unrest
South Africa continues to recover and stabilize impacted regions following several days of rioting and looting that began in July following the jailing of former President Jacob Zuma. The unrest has resulted in at least 215 deaths, over 2,500 arrests and extensive economic damages. The events following President Zuma’s arrest have been said to be some of the worst widespread violence in South Africa since the end of the Apartheid government.
Prior to being jailed on 7 July, former President Zuma had been sentenced for refusing to comply with an order from the constitutional court to provide evidence at inquiry into high-level government corruption through the end of his nine years as president in 2018. He awaits an unrelated separate trial on charges including corruption, racketeering, fraud, and money laundering.
Protests and demonstrations began on 7 July with tensions escalating quickly as large-scale rioting erupted throughout the KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng provinces. Reports attribute the rapid rise in violence to KwaZulu-Natal being the home region of President Zuma as well as long-standing racial grievances among various communities in both regions. The escalation of violence coupled with severely overwhelmed police and security forces resulted in local residents resorting to arming themselves to block off roads and protect businesses following days of the inability to restore order. Arrests began to increase drastically as residents reported neighbors and others known to have looted goods to police.
On 16 July, over 25,000 soldiers were deployed to Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal to support local authorities and restore order resulting in rioting and violence subsiding over the weekend. By 19 July, no significant violence was reported as the military presence continued to assist with maintaining stability. In the aftermath of the rioting, President Cyril Ramaphosa admitted to a lack of preparedness for such widespread violence by his administration which impacted the ability of security forces to respond effectively.
Assessments in the impacted areas have documented damages including around 200 malls targeted by theft and arson with over 3,000 businesses looted and a combined 200 banks and post offices damaged. Stocks in several business sectors also lowered in addition to ongoing struggles to recover from the worst COVID-19 epidemic on the continent. It will likely be some time before the full impact of these recent events is understood as President Ramaphosa has stressed that an immediate priority will be restoring medical supply chains for COVID-19. During the unrest, many COVID-19 vaccination centers were forced to close, leading experts to fear a possible surge in cases.
While the violence from the riots has de-escalated, a larger law enforcement presence remains active as the focus turns to maintain order and rebuilding. Current estimates on the economic impact place the potential costs and losses around USD $3.4 billion while an estimated 150,000 jobs are now considered to be at risk and unemployment currently standing at 32.6%. This economic downturn in South Africa presents a risk of further unemployment leading to an increase in crime. The latest unrest may have simmered, but tensions still remain high for many citizens in South Africa and abroad as they monitor the government’s next move.
Belarusian Exiles Fear for Their Lives
On 3 August, Vitaly Shishov was found dead in a park near his home in Kyiv, Ukraine one day after he was reported missing. Shishov led the Belarusian House, an organization in Ukraine that aids Belarusians fleeing persecution. His partner reported him missing on 2 August when he did not return home from his morning run. After searching the area, Kyiv police found him hanging from a tree. Police have since launched an investigation to determine whether his death was a suicide, or a homicide meant to look like a suicide. Shishov’s colleagues stated that he felt like he was under surveillance since leaving Belarus last year after taking part in anti-government demonstrations, and that he had recently been followed by strangers on his morning runs.
On 1 August, Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya made a desperate plea for help because she feared for her safety after criticizing the Belarus Athletic Committee. The Belarusian team leadership told her she had 40 minutes to pack her bags and go to the airport. When she got to the airport, she refused to board the flight and asked the Japanese police for protection. After spending the night at an airport hotel, she was issued a Polish humanitarian visa. The Belarusian sprinter said her husband had fled Belarus for Ukraine and that they plan to reconnect in Poland, saying she would never return home because she was afraid for her life.
In May, a Belarusian MiG-29 fighter jet ordered a Ryanair flight to land as it was flying over Belarus from Greece to Lithuania, claiming that they had received a bomb threat from Hamas stating that the bomb would detonate if it entered Lithuania. Belarusian authorities then arrested two of its passengers: Roman Protasevich, the founder of an opposition media outlet, and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega. Three other passengers declined to get back on the plane when it was cleared to resume flight, which has led to speculation that they were KGB agents. This incident prompted the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union and Canada to impose multiple sanctions on Belarus, including banning all flights to Belarus.
These incidents have once again put the spotlight on Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who was elected president for the sixth time last summer in an election that most countries considered fraudulent. Lukashenko has cracked down on multiple dissidents that have protested his 27-year term, particularly in the past year where thousands have been arrested. Many Belarusians like Shishov and Tsimanouskaya have fled the country looking for safety in the neighboring countries of Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine. Many still fear for their safety from Russian and Belarusian agents who all used to work under one Soviet umbrella. While the investigation is still underway, Shishovs death may be Lukashenko’s most recent message of intimidation to Belarusian exiles.
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