World

Fiji’s health system is overwhelmed by latest Covid-19 outbreak. The arrest of former president Jacob Zuma leads to growing violence in South Africa. The mystery of Haitian leader Jovenel Moïse’s assassination.

By Jonathan Pearlman.

Protests erupt against Cuban government

A man is arrested during a demonstration in Havana against the government of Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel.
Credit: Yamil Lage / AFP

Great power rivalry

Cuba: In San Antonio de los Baños, a town about 30 kilometres from Havana, hundreds of people took to the streets last Sunday to protest against the government’s failure to address severe shortages of food, medicine and electricity. Soon, the protests spread across the country, marking the largest demonstrations against communist rule in at least three decades.

“What I saw today was people seeing freedom for the first time,” Andy Ruiz, a protester in Havana, told The New York Times.

But the government quickly struck back. Police beat and arrested demonstrators. The president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, interrupted television programming to blame the United States for weakening Cuba’s economy and encouraging the protests.

The protests present a serious challenge to the Communist Party, which has become increasingly unpopular as the economy suffers due to the pandemic and the loss of tourists, as well as US sanctions.

But the protests are also posing a challenge to US President Joe Biden and his approach to Cuba. Biden has so far retained the restrictions on travel and commercial ties imposed by Donald Trump, who reversed Barack Obama’s steps towards normalisation. Biden is reviewing Trump’s approach and promised during the 2020 election campaign to reinstate full diplomatic relations.

But Republicans are demanding Biden retain Trump’s policies, saying engagement has failed to lead to political change in Cuba.

As voters in other southern states increasingly support Democrats, Florida, which has a large Cuban–American population, has backed Republicans. At the 2020 election, Trump beat Biden in Florida, increasing his margin from 2016 after winning the votes of about 60 per cent of Cuban Americans.

On Monday, Biden described the protests as a “clarion call for freedom”.

Asked about the Cuba review, the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, said: “We’re looking carefully and closely at what has just happened.”

The neighbourhood

Fiji: Hospitals have been overwhelmed in Fiji as the country faced a severe Covid-19 outbreak involving 10,033 active cases.

On Monday, the Pacific nation, which has about 900,000 residents, reported a record 873 new cases, equivalent to Australia recording 25,000 cases in a day. On Tuesday, a further 647 cases were reported.

Authorities had reported 69 deaths as of Thursday, including that of a 15-year-old girl. All but two of the deaths occurred during the current outbreak, which began in April.

Frank Bainimarama, Fiji’s prime minister, has refused to introduce a nationwide lockdown due to concerns about the economic costs. Instead, he has introduced a “no jab, no job” policy that requires all workers to be vaccinated.

“Our experts tell us it [a lockdown] would not kill off the virus but it would kill jobs and it would kill our country’s future,” he said in an address last week.

Australia, New Zealand and India have all donated vaccine supplies, giving the country enough doses to cover the entire population. About 62 per cent of adults have received a vaccine dose, and more than 12 per cent have been fully vaccinated.

Democracy in retreat

South Africa: Jacob Zuma, a veteran of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, spent years in jail alongside Nelson Mandela and went into exile before returning and becoming the nation’s president in 2009.

Yet his career has been marred by scandals and controversies, including a growing set of corruption charges involving billions of dollars. Last week Zuma, who reluctantly resigned as president in 2018, was jailed for 15 months after refusing to appear before a commission investigating corruption during his presidency.

The arrest of Zuma, who claims he is the victim of a conspiracy, has sparked some of the most violent protests since the end of apartheid, particularly in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal. By Wednesday, at least 72 people had died and more than 1200 people had been arrested. Troops were deployed as looting, arson and riots caused widespread damage and disrupted the Covid-19 vaccination rollout.

The president, Cyril Ramaphosa, said in a televised address on Monday that the nation was facing violence “rarely seen before in the history of our democracy”. He accused opportunistic criminals of causing chaos as a cover for looting and theft.

“This is not who we are as South Africans,” he said. “This is not us.”

South Africa’s domestic spy agency said it was investigating whether former agents who supported Zuma had fomented the unrest. But much of the violence is believed to be due to broader grievances over high levels of unemployment, poverty and inequality, which have all worsened during the pandemic. South Africa’s unemployment rate is about 33 per cent. The youth unemployment rate is 63 per cent, one of the highest in the world.

Spotlight: Murder in Haiti

The murder of Jovenel Moïse, Haiti’s president, by a team of assassins last week has plunged the Caribbean nation into chaos as questions swirled around who ordered the killing and why.

Moïse, who had been president since 2017, was shot and killed before dawn in his villa in a gated community in the hills above the capital, Port-au-Prince. His wife, Martine, was injured, yet no bodyguards were apparently shot.

Authorities say the killing was conducted by about 28 mercenaries, including two US–Haitian citizens from Florida and about 20 former Colombian soldiers. Seventeen of the suspects have since been arrested and several killed.

According to The New York Times, the Colombians were recruited through a group text message sent to military veterans, saying: “Gentlemen, there is an American company that needs special forces, commandos with experience, for a job in Central America.”

The text was reportedly sent by CTU Security, a Florida-based firm run by Antonio Intriago, a Venezuelan American. Reporters from the Miami Herald visited the firm’s offices, but a man there refused to comment. The newspaper reported: “There is nothing in Intriago’s public footprint to indicate that he had either the money or the scope to train dozens of private soldiers to [kill] the Haitian president.”

Moïse was increasingly unpopular, particularly due to widespread corruption and his failure to hold elections.

Authorities in Haiti have accused a Haitian-born, Florida-based pastor, Christian Emmanuel Sanon, of being at the centre of the assassination. Police arrested Sanon at his home in Haiti and said they found weapons, shooting targets and US Drug Enforcement Administration gear similar to that reportedly used by the assassins. Sanon had reportedly told some associates he planned to replace Moïse.

Haitian authorities have said other unnamed figures may be involved and have begun questioning Moïse’s political opponents. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 17, 2021 as "Protests erupt against Cuban government ".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.