Although she did not take part in the historic protests that rocked the entire island of Cuba on Sunday, Caridad Montes, 50, says she understands why they took place.

“It’s very simple,” said Montes, a Havana resident. “They are tired of the hardships and want changes for the better.” Cuba has been grappling with acute shortages of food and medicine throughout the pandemic. People make lines for blocks to buy whatever they can find at stores. Inflation and blackouts during the tropical summer heat have aggravated the situation.

Cuba’s government blames the economic crisis squarely on the decades-old U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, which was tightened by the Trump administration, as well as on the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic. In a speech Monday, President Miguel Díaz-Canel said the U.S. “politics of economic asphyxiation” was having a “cumulative effect” on Cuba.

But the embargo is not solely to blame for Cuba’s woes. One of the most important factors that has led to years of economic stagnation is the country’s Soviet-style, centrally planned economy and its hesitation to adopt market-oriented reforms that other remaining communist countries have taken.

“Reforms in Cuba do not depend on the embargo, and the embargo should be eliminated unilaterally, independently from reforms in Cuba. Both cause problems,” said Pavel Vidal, a former Cuban central bank economist who teaches at Javeriana University in Colombia.  

The 1980s were a period of little scarcity in Cuba, thanks to subsidies from the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, subsidies dried up, and Cuba struggled with extreme deprivation and massive food shortages, its economy contracting by over 35 percent. Many economists say Cuba never really recovered.

The U.S. embargo does have a negative impact on the economy, restricting imports and exports and making it riskier for investors to put money into Cuba, Vidal said.

But at the same time, Cuba has not heeded the advice of China and Vietnam in adopting economic reforms. During an official visit in 2018, the general secretary of Vietnam’s Communist Party, Nguyen Phu Trong, urged Cuba to embrace a market economy, as Vietnam did in the 1980s. During its period of rapid economic growth, 30 million Vietnamese were lifted out of poverty.

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