Cuba blamed historic protests that took place over the weekend on U.S. “economic asphyxiation” and social media campaigns by a minority of U.S.-financed counter-revolutionaries, while U.S. President Joe Biden said he stood with the Cuban people.
The streets of Havana were quiet on Monday, although there was a heavy police presence. Outages in mobile internet – the only way many Cubans have of accessing the web – were frequent.
Chanting “freedom” and calling for President Miguel Diaz-Canel to step down, thousands of Cubans joined street protests from Havana to Santiago on Sunday in the biggest anti-government demonstrations on the Communist-run island in decades.
At least 80 protesters, activists, and independent journalists had been detained nationwide since Sunday, according to exiled rights group Cubalex.
“It’s becoming impossible to live here,” said Havana resident Maykel, 21, who declined to give his surname for fear of retaliation. “I don’t know if this can happen again, because at the moment, Havana is militarized.”
“Still, Cubans are losing their fear,” he said.
Others Reuters spoke to, however, said they hoped there would be no more protests, citing fears of violence, and saying they would prefer there to be more dialogue.
The protests erupted amid both Cuba’s deepest economic crisis since the fall of former ally the Soviet Union and a surge in COVID-19 infections that has pushed some hospitals to the edge of collapse in a country that prides itself on its healthcare system.
The tightening of decades-old U.S. sanctions under former U.S. President Donald Trump and the pandemic have exacerbated shortages of food and medicine, as well as power outages.
A minority of counter-revolutionaries were fomenting unrest, Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel said in a more than four-hour-long televised address alongside his Cabinet. Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez blamed U.S.-financed mercenaries. The U.S. State Department did not provide an immediate comment.
The protests followed the launch of an ‘SOS Cuba’ campaign on social media calling for humanitarian assistance, which the government said was a disguised attempt to sow unrest.
Diaz-Canel denounced vandalism that took place during the demonstrations.
“They threw stones at foreign currency shops, they stole items… and at police forces, they turned over cars – a totally vulgar, indecent and delinquent behavior,” he said.
But the president said pro-government supporters had finally restored order, after on Sunday instructing them to fight back and “defend the revolution” – orders that caused consternation among some Cubans.
Reuters witnesses saw protesters in Havana on Sunday confronted by smaller pro-government counter-rallies, while police officers stopped their attempt to march to Revolution Square.
Amnesty International said it had received with alarm reports of “internet blackouts, arbitrary arrests, excessive use of force – including police firing on demonstrators.” Reuters was unable to immediately independently verify the use of firearms.
Network monitoring company Kentik said it had observed the entire country go offline for less than 30 minutes at around 4pm on Sunday, followed by several hours of intermittent outages.
“Until very recently, large internet outages were very rare,” said Doug Madory, Kentik’s director of Internet analysis. “Internet shutdowns are new to Cuba in 2021.”
The United Nations said it was monitoring the protests and called for the rights of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly to be respected.
Some Cuban celebrities who have to date not touched on sensitive political issues publicly came out in support of the protesters.
“Their voices should be heard and their rights to express themselves respected,” said singer-songwriter Cimafunk, whose real name is Erik Rodriguez. “We need to unite and find the path forward together, peacefully.”
EMBARGO TO BLAME?
Biden on Monday said the United States stood with the people of Cuba.
“The Cuban people are bravely asserting fundamental and universal rights. Those rights, including the right of peaceful protest and the right to freely determine their own future, must be respected,” Biden said.
“The United States calls on the Cuban regime to hear their people and serve their needs at this vital moment rather than enriching themselves,” said Biden, who during his White House campaign promised to ease sanctions but has yet to do so.
The United States had tightened sanctions on Cuba under Trump, Biden’s predecessor, including restricting crucial remittances in the middle of the pandemic.
Diaz-Canel did not directly address the U.S. statement, issued during his address. But he attacked what he called Washington’s hypocrisy for expressing concern when it was fueling the crisis in Cuba with its trade embargo.
“Is it not very hypocritical and cynical that you block me… and you want to present yourself as the big savior?” he said. “Lift the blockade… and then we will see what this people… is capable of.”
He said the government had been fighting to keep the economy functioning “in the face of a policy of economic asphyxiation intended to provoke a social uprising.”
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador backed Cuba, saying the U.S. economic embargo should be ended.
“The truth is that if one wanted to help Cuba, the first thing that should be done is to suspend the blockade of Cuba as the majority of countries in the world are asking,” Lopez Obrador told a news conference.
Updated at 3:37 p.m.