Thousands of Cubans took part in rare protests on Sunday against the island’s communist government, chanting “down with the dictatorship” as President Miguel Diaz-Canel called on his supporters to confront the demonstrators.
The anti-government rallies started spontaneously in several cities. The country is enduring its worst economic crisis in 30 years, with chronic shortages of electricity and food.
Protesters marched through the capital Havana shouting “We want liberty”, with a heavy military and police presence deployed after demonstrators massed outside the Capitol building.
Police used tear gas to disperse crowds, and at least 10 people were arrested, while officers used plastic pipes to beat demonstrators, AFP reported.
Several thousand protesters – mainly young people – also took to the streets of San Antonio de los Banos, a town 30 kilometres south-west of the capital, Havana.
Security forces arrived soon after the protests began, and Mr Diaz-Canel later visited the town himself surrounded by party activists as residents heckled him, according to videos posted online.
The president lashed out in a television address, saying: “The order to fight has been given – into the street, revolutionaries!”
“We call on all revolutionaries of the country, all communists, to go out in the streets where these provocations occur, from now on and in the next few days, and to face them in a decisive, firm and courageous way.”
Government supporters held some counter-demonstrations in Havana.
On Monday, US President Joe Biden threw his support behind the protests.
"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," Mr Biden said.
He called on Havana to respect "the right of peaceful protest and the right to freely determine their own future," and called on the Cuban leadership to serve the needs of their people "rather than enriching themselves."
Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tweeted in support of protesters.
Social media showed several anti-government protests around the country, and mobile internet – introduced in Cuba since 2018 – was largely cut off on Sunday afternoon.
One local in San Antonio de los Banos, on condition of anonymity, told AFP that she participated in the demonstration because she was exasperated by “the situation with electricity and food”.
Public anger has been driven by long food queues, worsening power shortages for several hours a day and a critical shortage of medicines since the start of the Covid-19 epidemic, with Cuba under US sanctions.
The island is experiencing its toughest phase yet of the coronavirus epidemic, and on Sunday reported a new daily record of infections and deaths.
“The energy situation seems to have produced some reaction,” Mr Diaz-Canel told reporters in San Antonio de los Banos, blaming US sanctions imposed by Donald Trump and left unchanged by President Joe Biden.
He accused “a Cuban-American mafia” of whipping up the protests on social media.
“People have come to express their dissatisfaction with the situation they are living in,” he acknowledged.
The only authorised gatherings in Cuba are normally Communist Party events.
The country of 11.2 million people was left relatively unscathed in the first months of the Covid outbreak but has reported a recent surge of infections.
A new record of 6,923 daily cases was reported on Sunday, as were 47 deaths. The number of fatalities was also the highest to date, and took the total to 1,537.
“These are alarming numbers which are increasing daily,” said Francisco Duran, head of epidemiology in the health ministry.
Calls for assistance have multiplied on social media, with citizens and music stars alike using hashtags such as #SOSCuba and urging the government to make it possible for foreign donations to enter the country.
An opposition group called Saturday for the creation of a “humanitarian corridor”, an initiative the government rejected by saying Cuba was not a conflict zone.
Ernesto Soberon, a foreign affairs official, denounced a “campaign” he said sought to “portray an image of total chaos in the country which does not correspond to the situation”.