A war of words has erupted between the United States and Cuba, as the Cuban people stage their biggest protests in decades against the country’s authoritarian government.
Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets on Sunday, chanting: “Down with the dictatorship!” Dozens were arrested.
The anti-government rallies erupted spontaneously in several cities.
Cuba is enduring its worst economic crisis in 30 years, with chronic shortages of electricity, food and medicine, and a recent worsening of the coronavirus pandemic. The country of 11 million people just reported a new daily record of almost 7000 infections and 47 deaths.
The only authorised gatherings in Cuba are usually events of the ruling Communist Party, but according to the data journalism site Inventario, a total of 40 protests took place on Sunday.
President Miguel Diaz-Canel reacted by blaming the US, accusing it of imposing a “policy of economic suffocation to provoke social unrest”. Cuba has been under US sanctions since 1962.
In a public address, Mr Diaz-Canel said the US was pushing for “regime change”.
Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodriquez Parrilla claimed a “genocidal blockade” from the US was the cause of his country’s economic troubles.
The US, meanwhile, said the mass protests were in response to “decades of repression” in the one-party state, which has been ruled by the Communist Party since 1965.
“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,” US President Joe Biden said.
“The United States stands firmly with the people of Cuba as they assert their universal rights. We call on the government of Cuba to refrain from violence or attempts to silence the voice of the people.”
In a more formal, written statement earlier on Monday, Mr Biden hailed the Cuban people’s “clarion call for freedom”.
“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,” he said.
“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.
“The United States calls on the Cuban regime to hear their people and serve their needs at this vital moment rather than enriching themselves.”
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken directly responded to President Diaz-Canel.
“It would be a grievous mistake for the Cuban regime to interpret what is happening in dozens of towns and cities across the island as a result or product of anything the United States has done,” Mr Blinken told reporters.
“They are simply not hearing the voices and will of the Cuban people – people deeply, deeply, deeply tired of repression that has gone on for far too long.”
He said the Cubans were responding to the regime’s “mismanagement” of the economy and the coronavirus pandemic.
US-Cuba relations have been fraught for decades, but have been particularly tense since former president Donald Trump tightened sanctions, reversing a brief easing under Barack Obama between 2014 and 2016.
The tougher measures, which Mr Biden has not changed, contributed to Cuba’s economy shrinking by 11 per cent in 2020. The collapse of tourism due to the pandemic was another factor.
Mr Trump also issued a statement today.
“I stand with the Cuban people 100 per cent in their fight for freedom,” he said.
On Sunday, AFP reporters heard protesters in Havana chanting: “We want liberty!” Police officers sprayed tear gas and beat demonstrators with plastic pipes.
“What we want is change,” said Yamila Monte, a 54-year-old domestic worker.
“I have had enough,” she told AFP, describing the difficulty she and other Cubans have making ends meet.
Social media showed scenes of rallies around the country despite the mobile internet – only introduced to Cuba in 2018 – being mostly offline on Sunday afternoon. It remained offline on Monday.
The last major protests in Cuba, and the first since the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power in 1959, were also against economic hardship. But those protests were only in Havana, and stopped quickly.
The US isn’t the only foreign power applying diplomatic pressure to the regime. Today the United Nations and European Union called for Cuba to respect freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
“I would like to call on the government there to allow peaceful demonstrations and to listen to the discontent being expressed by the demonstrators,” said Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs.
There were no protesters left in public on Monday, as police and soldiers patrolled the streets.
– with AFP