By Patrick Oppmann and Tatiana Arias, CNN
Thousands of Cubans took to the streets on Sunday to protest a lack of food and medicine as the country undergoes a grave economic crisis aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic and US sanctions.
Demonstrators complained about a lack of freedom and the worsening economic situation during the rare protests, according to people who spoke to CNN and videos from multiple cities, including capital Havana.
Many chanted for “freedom” and called for President Miguel Díaz-Canel to step down.
Multiple protesters were arrested by police, who used tear gas to break up some demonstrations. In Havana, a CNN team witnessed demonstrators being forcibly arrested and thrown into the back of vans by police officers. There were also violent clashes, where protesters turned over a police car and threw rocks at officers.
In a nationally televised address, President Díaz-Canel said US trade sanctions had created economic misery on the communist-run island.
Díaz-Canel did not offer the protesters any concessions in his speech, but instead urged his supporters to physically confront them. “The order to combat has been given,” he said at the end of his appearance, “Revolutionaries need to be on the streets.”
In the city of San Antonio de los Baños, just outside Havana province, hundreds of people defied a heavy police presence to air their complaints.
One resident who did not wish to be identified told CNN that residents had been enduring power outages for a week and that had “detonated” the growing outrage.
Social media platforms are being restricted in Cuba, according to internet monitor NetBlocks.
NetBlocks tweeted on Monday that “Social media and messaging platforms restricted in #Cuba from Monday on state-run internet provider ETECSA; real-time network data corroborate reports of internet disruptions amid widening anti-government protests; incident ongoing #CubaSOS.”
The NetBlocks website said its metrics showed that WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram and some Telegram servers were being disrupted.
Videos uploaded to social media showed how the spontaneous protest movement has gained momentum, with streams appearing of other protests in a handful of cities and towns across the island.
In some of the videos, people shouted they “weren’t afraid” or that they wanted liberty or access to coronavirus vaccines.
President Díaz-Canel made an unplanned stop in San Antonio de los Baños on Sunday after police had cleared protesters, while Cuban government officials blamed the protests on “salaried agents” on Twitter.
Calls for restraint
On Monday, US President Joe Biden called on the Diàz-Canel government to “hear their people and serve their needs.”
“We stand with the Cuban people and their clarion call for freedom and relief from the tragic grip of the pandemic and from the decades of repression and economic suffering to which they have been subjected by Cuba’s authoritarian regime,” Biden said in a statement.
White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan also tweeted on Sunday night, “the U.S. supports freedom of expression and assembly across Cuba, and would strongly condemn any violence or targeting of peaceful protesters who are exercising their universal rights.”
Other US officials also urged for restraint, saying Cubans had the right to protest. “We are deeply concerned by “calls to combat” in #Cuba. We stand by the Cuban people’s right for peaceful assembly. We call for calm and condemn any violence,” Julie Chung, acting assistant secretary for the Department of State’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, tweeted Sunday.
“For decades, Cuba’s dictatorship has used violence and repression to silence its people, rather than permit the free exercise of democracy and their basic social rights,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez said in a statement.
“This must end. The world’s eyes are on Cuba tonight and the dictatorship must understand we will not tolerate the use of brute force to silence the aspirations of the Cuban people,” he added.
Other world leaders have also weighed in, with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro criticizing socialist regimes on the continent. People went on the streets to ask for “freedom,” and received “rubber bullets, beatings, and prison,” he said.
Strained US-Cuba relations
But statements from US leaders have prompted angry criticism from Cuban authorities, who argue that US sanctions are the cause of Cuba’s ailing economy.
US-Cuban relations are at their lowest point in years. The Trump administration enacted some of the toughest economic measures against Cuba in decades, and so far, the Biden administration seems reluctant to lift them.
The already struggling Cuban economy has been hit hard as tourism and good imports have dropped steeply during the pandemic. On Sunday, Cuban health officials reported a record single-day increase for new Covid-19 cases and deaths.
President Diàz-Canel criticized the protests, calling demonstrators vandals who “broke into the stores and stole [many] items.” He pointed to “restrictive measures” by the Trump administration that caused “a very rough period of time, where we were going to have many difficulties and economic scarcities.”
Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Bruno Rodriguez also criticized Sullivan’s statement on Monday, saying he had “no political or moral authority to speak about Cuba.”
“His government has allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to promote subversion in our country & implements a genocidal blockade, which is the main cause of economic scarcities,” Rodriguez added in a tweet.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador also called on the US to suspend their Cuba trade embargo as a humanitarian gesture. “No country in the world should be fenced in, blockaded — that’s the opposite of human rights,” he said.
When asked why Biden had not yet reversed Trump’s policies towards Cuba, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the US had continued to provide humanitarian assistance and medical supplies — but added, “I have nothing to preview for you in terms of a change of policy.”
In a statement on Sunday, US Secretary of State Tony Blinken pushed back against criticisms from the Cuban government, saying “it would be a grievous mistake for the Cuban regime to interpret what is happening in dozens of towns and cities across the island as the result or product of anything the United States has done.”
“That is what we are hearing and seeing in Cuba, and that is a reflection of the Cuban people, not of the United States or any other outside actor,” he said.
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