Advertisement

Thousands of Cubans take to streets in largest anti-government protest in decades

Click to play video: 'Massive anti-government protests in Cuba; president blames US for unrest' Massive anti-government protests in Cuba; president blames US for unrest
WATCH: Massive anti-government protests in Cuba; president blames US for unrest – Jul 12, 2021

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 former 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.

Thousands gathered in downtown Havana and along parts of the seaside drive, their shouts of “Diaz-Canel step down” drowning out groups of government supporters brandishing the Cuban flag and chanting “Fidel.”

Click to play video: 'Global National: April 17' Global National: April 17
Global National: April 17 – Apr 17, 2021

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

Story continues below advertisement

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

Diaz-Canel, who also heads the Communist Party, blamed the unrest on old Cold War foe the United States, which in recent years tightened its decades-old trade embargo on the island, in a televised speech on Sunday afternoon.

Read more: Tropical Storm Elsa to hit Florida Wednesday after sweeping across western Cuba

Diaz-Canel said many protesters were sincere but manipulated by U.S.-orchestrated social media campaigns and “mercenaries” on the ground, and warned that further “provocations” would not be tolerated, calling on supporters to confront such “provocations.”

Julie Chung, acting undersecretary of the U.S. State Department’s Office of Western Hemisphere Affairs, said it was deeply concerned by “calls to combat” in Cuba and stood by the Cuban people’s right for peaceful assembly.”

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

Click to play video: 'Canadian embassy staff warned to stay silent on ‘Havana Syndrome’' Canadian embassy staff warned to stay silent on ‘Havana Syndrome’
Canadian embassy staff warned to stay silent on ‘Havana Syndrome’ – Oct 25, 2020

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.

Story continues below advertisement

Some protesters said they went on 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.

NATIONWIDE PROTESTS

The Caribbean island nation of 11 million inhabitants where public dissident is usually restricted has seen a growing number of protests over the past year although nothing on this scale or simultaneously in so many cities.

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.

Read more: Raul Castro says he’s resigning as leader of Cuba’s Communist Party

Sunday’s demonstrations broke out in San Antonio de los Banos municipality in Artemisa Province, bordering Havana. Video on social media showed hundreds of residents chanting anti-government slogans and demanding everything from coronavirus vaccines to an end of daily blackouts.

“I just walked through town looking to buy some food and there were lots of people there, some with signs, protesting,” local resident Claris Ramirez said by phone. “They are protesting blackouts, that there is no medicine.”

Story continues below advertisement

President Diaz-Canel visited the town, later saying in his broadcast remarks: “We are calling on all the revolutionaries in the country, all the Communists, to hit the streets wherever there is an effort to produce these provocations.”

Click to play video: 'Cuban woman wears full-body cardboard suit to protect against coronavirus' Cuban woman wears full-body cardboard suit to protect against coronavirus
Cuban woman wears full-body cardboard suit to protect against coronavirus – Jun 19, 2020

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

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, local 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.

Story continues below advertisement
Click to play video: 'Cuba chooses first prime minister since 1970s' Cuba chooses first prime minister since 1970s
Cuba chooses first prime minister since 1970s – Dec 21, 2019

The economy contracted 10.9% last year, and 2% through June of 2021. The resulting cash crunch has spawned shortages that have forced Cubans to queue hours for basic goods throughout the pandemic.

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 a week prior, and hospitals in the worst affected province have been overwhelmed.

(Reporting by Marc Frank, Sarah Marsh and Reuters TV in Havana; Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Peter Cooney & Simon Cameron-Moore)

Advertisement

Sponsored content