Cubans take to the streets in rare anti-government protest

The nation is facing its worst economic crisis in 30 years, with chronic shortages of electricity and food

Thousands of Cubans took part in rare protests on Sunday against the 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 as the country endures its worst economic crisis in 30 years, with chronic shortages of electricity and food.

The 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 ten people were arrested, while officers used plastic pipes to beat protesters, AFP reported.

Several thousand protesters -- mainly young people -- also took to the streets of San Antonio de los Banos, a town 30 kilometers (20 miles) southwest of 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 protestors- in short remarks to reporters.

"The Cuban people are demanding their freedom from an authoritarian regime. I don’t think we’ve seen anything like these protests in a long long time if, quite frankly ever,” he said.

“We call on the government of Cuba to refrain from violence in their attempt to silence the voices of the people of Cuba.”

His public comments confirm what he said in an earlier written statement.

"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 wrote.

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, also tweeted in support of the protestors on Sunday night.

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.

Boiling public anger

One local in San Antonio de los Banos, on condition of anonymity, told AFP that she participated in the demonstration as she was exasperated by "the situation with electricity and food."

Public anger has been driven by long food lines, 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.

Cuba 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," 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 authorized 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 seen a recent hike in infections, with a new record of 6,923 daily cases reported Sunday and 47 deaths for a total of 1,537.

"These are alarming numbers which are increasing daily," said Francisco Duran, head of epidemiology in the health ministry.

Under hashtags such as #SOSCuba, calls for assistance have multiplied on social media, with citizens and music stars alike urging the government to make it possible for much-needed 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."

Updated: July 12th 2021, 6:18 PM
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