Biden expresses support for Cuban protesters after rare island demonstrations

The United States stands with the people of Cuba in their call for freedom and relief from the coronavirus pandemic and decades of repression, President Joe Biden said on Monday.

“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 in a statement. “The United States calls on the Cuban regime to hear their people and serve their needs at this vital moment rather than enriching themselves.”

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.

The protests erupted amid Cuba’s worst economic crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union, its old ally, and a record surge in coronavirus infections, with people voicing anger over shortages of basic goods, curbs on civil liberties and the authorities’ handling of the pandemic.

Diaz-Canel in a nationally televised address on Monday morning blamed U.S. sanctions, tightened in recent years, for the economic woes like medicine shortages and power outages that fuelled unusual protests this weekend.

The sanctions were tightened under the administration of former president Donald Trump after his predecessor, Barack Obama, took steps to normalize U.S. relations with Cuba after decades of acrimony between the countries.

Hundreds rallied on Sunday in Miami, home to a large Cuban population, in support of the protesters on the Caribbean island nation of 11 million inhabitants.

Emigres in Little Havana in Miami expressed solidarity on Sunday after hearing of reports of protests in Cuba. (Maria Alejandra Cardona/Reuters)

Sporadic incidents, largely peaceful protests

Appearing alongside his cabinet in a televised national address, Diaz-Canel reiterated the peoples’ right to defend its system.

Thousands took to the streets in various parts of Havana on Sunday including the historic centre, drowning out groups of government supporters waving the Cuban flag and chanting “Fidel.”

The protests in Havana started around 3 p.m. and fizzled out around 8 p.m., with some protesters giving up after security forces thwarted their attempt to reach Revolution Square

Special forces jeeps, with machine guns mounted on the back were seen throughout the capital and the police presence was heavy even long after most protesters had gone home.

“We are going through really difficult times,” Miranda Lazara, 53, a dance teacher, who joined the thousands of protesters who marched through Havana. “We need a change of system.”

A person is detained during protests in Havana on Sunday. The protests also brought out those who support the Cuban government. (Reuters)

Reuters witnesses in Havana protests saw security forces, aided by suspected plain clothes officers, arrest about two dozen protesters. Police used pepper spray and hit some protesters as well as a photographer working for the Associated Press.

In one area of Havana, protesters took out their anger on an empty police car, rolling it over and then throwing stones at it. Elsewhere, they chanted “repressors” at riot police.

There were protests later on Sunday hundreds of miles to the east in Palma Soriano, Santiago de Cuba, where social media video showed hundreds marching through the streets, again confirmed by a resident.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan said the U.S. “would strongly condemn any violence or targeting of peaceful protesters who are exercising their universal rights.”

Some protesters said they took to the streets to join in after seeing what was happening on social media, which has become an increasingly important factor since the introduction of mobile internet two and a half years ago, although connections were patchy on Sunday.

The anti-government demonstrations were the largest since the summer of 1994, said Michael Bustamante, an assistant professor of Latin American history at Florida International University.

“Only now, they weren’t limited to the capital; they didn’t even start there, it seems,” he said.

Pandemic, economic woes

Cuba has been experiencing a worsening economic crisis for two years, which the government blames mainly on U.S. sanctions and the pandemic, while its detractors cite incompetence and a Soviet-style one-party system.

A combination of sanctions, inefficiencies and the pandemic has shut down tourism and slowed other foreign revenue flows in a country dependent on them to import the bulk of its food, fuel and inputs for agriculture and manufacturing.

The economy contracted 10.9 per cent last year, and two per cent through June. The resulting cash crunch has spawned shortages that have forced Cubans to queue for hours for basic goods throughout the pandemic.

Reaction from Democratic House Speaker, Cuban-American Republican senator:

Cuba has begun a mass vaccination campaign, with 1.7 million of its 11.2 million residents vaccinated to date and twice that many have received at least one shot in the three-shot process.

Still, the arrival of the delta variant has prompted cases to surge, with health authorities reporting a record 6,923 cases and 47 deaths on Sunday — twice as many as the previous week.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said on Monday the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba should be ended to help its people.

“That would be a truly humanitarian gesture,” he said. “No country in the world should be fenced in, blockaded.”