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Is there a humanitarian crisis in Cuba?

In DIARIO DE CUBA, three experts discuss the aptness of the term to describe the situation on the island.

A woman in Cuba.
A woman in Cuba. Diario de Cuba

Since 2021, when the shortage of basic products worsened in Cuba and the Covid-19 pandemic overwhelmed the health system, independent media sources have often stated that the island is suffering a humanitarian crisis.

In DIARIO DE CUBA, three experts weigh in on the extent to which this description of the country's situation is fitting, taking into account the features characterizing such a crisis.

"We speak of a humanitarian crisis when a given country, area, or population region, due to armed conflicts, natural disasters or the deterioration of the economy, suffers widespread crises such as high levels of mortality and malnutrition, the spread of diseases or epidemics, health emergencies, and a lack of drinking water and food security. This situation leads to insecurity, inequality, widespread poverty, an atmosphere of violence, and constant shortcomings in basic services," said former Cuban judge Edel González Jiménez.

"In the face of such deterioration, and when the country suffering from the crisis is not capable of mitigating it, humanitarian aid or intervention is essential to meet the needs of the population at risk: food distribution, health care, the reconstruction of infrastructures of all kinds, etc.," he added.

Regarding the situation on the island, González Jiménez points to "the hunger and malnutrition of millions of Cubans, overcrowding, a lack of resources to access or maintain decent housing, social insecurity due to the growing devaluation of money, inequality, violations of the law and values, the flight of young emigrants, the return of eradicated diseases, and the lack of means to combat existing ones, as well as the negative child mortality figures."

According to the jurist, Cuba is not going through a humanitarian crisis, despite all the ills that plague it, "but it is moving in that direction."

Yaxis Cires, Strategy Director at the Cuban Human Rights Observatory (OCDH), is if a different opinion. "There is a humanitarian crisis in Cuba," he says.

"88% of Cuban families are living in extreme poverty, according to our 6th Study of Social Rights in Cuba. It is difficult to find an area of national life not affected by the humanitarian crisis that Cuba is suffering," argues the Cuban lawyer.

"At the end of 2019 we began sounding the alarm, with data in hand, that a serious humanitarian crisis was looming, largely due to the rapid increase in poverty and the inefficiency of essential systems, such as health, education, aqueducts, energy, etc.; and even due to the growing climate of violence," he said. 

"Abroad, we found people who rejected our data and paid more attention to the information provided by the Cuban government and some international organizations. The regime hid this information because it wanted to continue exporting doctors and building hotels. The pandemic's arrival in 2020 accelerated the crisis and laid bare a country that was falling apart. In fact, while the world is currently recovering, little by little, from the effects of the pandemic years, Cuba remains bogged down and with a bad prognosis," Cires explains.

Peruvian researcher Arístides Vara Horna, the Academic Coordinator of the independent Cubadata project, agrees with the OCDH's Strategy Director.

"Cuba is currently facing a situation that could be described as a humanitarian crisis," says the director of the Research Institute at the University of San Martín de Porres’ School of Administrative Sciences and Human Resources, taking into account the studies carried out by the Cubadata polling firm.

"Reports indicate serious difficulties on the island, especially as regards access to food, adequate medical care, citizen security, and housing, as well as severe restrictions on the exercise of civil and political rights. These problems are exacerbated by growing government repression. In addition, the situation seems to be steadily deteriorating, which increases the urgency of an effective intervention," he explained.

As regards what the Cuban government should do to reverse the situation in the country, the three interviewees agree.

González Jiménez believes that the island's authorities must adopt "radical transition measures as soon as possible."

Cires believes that it will be impossible to reverse the humanitarian crisis "if the Cuban regime does not take bold measures. A country's ability to cope with a crisis like the current one depends largely on its economic stability, the government's ability to raise funds on the international financial market, institutional credibility, and the prosperity of families (which have functioned elsewhere as support networks) among other factors, which are currently  negative."

"Cuba needs an urgent liberalization of private initiative, a true engine of prosperity; a process that must be combined with urgent policies in favor of the poorest, because the situation of destitution is so serious that there are those who cannot wait. The regime, instead, has opted to raise the costs of essential public services, eliminate subsidies, increase the price of fuel, and continue with an economy based on state monopolies run by the privileged. There is no plan to stimulate economic growth and combat hunger," he concluded.

"The Cuban government faces an urgent need to implement significant and urgent economic and political reforms. These reforms must not only address the immediate causes of the crisis, such as food shortages and health problems, but also ensure decent housing and the protection of fundamental rights. The Government's current policies, however, are proving to be ineffective and improvised, suggesting that profound changes are required in the management of public policies," said Vara Horna.

The researcher believes that, in addition to domestic measures, the situation in Cuba requires "a coordinated and committed response by the international community." 

"It is critical that immediate humanitarian assistance be provided to mitigate food shortages and health concerns. At the same time, it is vital that diplomatic pressure be exerted on the Cuban Government to improve living conditions and promote respect for human rights. In addition, the international community can play a key role by providing technical and economic support to facilitate sustainable and effective reform," he said.

Cires, for his part, stated that "it is the Cuban regime that has the power to reverse the situation, but it does not want to pay the political price for doing so. Throughout human history there are examples of countries that have taken advantage of international aid to build free and prosperous systems, with some standing out as welfare states. In the Cuban case this has not worked out, despite the flow of money that the regime has received; first, from the USSR; then, from Venezuela; and even, albeit to a lesser extent, from the exiles themselves. "

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