In an eruption not seen in nearly three decades, thousands of people took to the streets across Cuba on Sunday, staging a rare protest against the communist government over food shortages and high prices amidst the coronavirus pandemic in the country.
The demonstrations, which erupted in several cities across the island nation, from the capital Havana to Santiago, came as the country faced its worst economic crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Many protesters called for “freedom” and “democracy” as they voiced their anger over shortages of basic goods as well as vaccines to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.
Attempts to upload photos and videos of the protests to social media were curbed by the Cuban authorities, who shut down internet services throughout the afternoon in Havana.
“We are fed up with the queues, the shortages. That’s why I’m here,” a protester told reporters, declining to identify himself for fear of arrest.
About two-and-a-half hours into the protest in Havana, some of those taking part began pulling up cobblestones and throwing them at police, after which arrests began.
About 20 people were taken away in police cars, or by individuals in civilian clothes. Police used pepper spray on a few protesters and charged some with batons, but did not directly confront the thousands who were chanting “Freedom”.
Soon after, about 300 government supporters reached protest sites and began shouting slogans in favour of former president Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution.
In a nationally televised speech, president Miguel Diaz-Canel blamed the US for the unrest as he called on the supporters of the government to confront “provocations”.
“We call on all revolutionaries of the country, all communists, to go out in the streets where these provocations occur ... and to face them in a decisive, firm and courageous way,” said President Diaz-Canel.
The protesters received support from an official in the Biden administration.
“Peaceful protests are growing in [Cuba] as the Cuban people exercise their right to peaceful assembly to express concern about rising Covid cases/deaths & medicine shortages,” tweeted Julie Chung, acting assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs. “We commend the numerous efforts of the Cuban people mobilising donations to help neighbours in need,” she added.
Carlos F de Cossio, Cuba’s director-general for US affairs, slammed the remarks, accusing the US Department of State of “expressing hypocritical concern for a situation they have been betting on”.
“US State Department and its officials, involved to their necks in promoting social and political instability in [Cuba], should avoid expressing hypocritical concern. Cuba is and will continue to be a peaceful country, contrary to the US,” he said.
Cuba has been reeling under an economic crisis for two years, which the government blames on trade embargoes by the US government as well as the coronavirus pandemic. The government’s critics, however, say the crisis is the result of its own incompetence in tackling the country’s economic problems.
According to the Ministry of Health website, there are about 32,000 active coronavirus cases in the country, which has a population of 11 million. On Sunday, Cuba reported 6,923 daily cases and 47 deaths.
Additional reporting from agencies
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