‘Call for freedom’: what has sparked Cuba’s anti-government protests?

High prices and food shortages trigger biggest demonstrations in decades

Protesters gather in Miami, Florida in solidarity with Cubans
(Image credit: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Thousands of Cubans have taken to the streets in the biggest outpouring of anger at the island’s communist government in decades.

Protesters massed in cities across the country, including the capital Havana, chanting “down with the dictatorship”, prompting security forces to detain and beat some demonstrators in scenes shared on social media.

Cuba is currently “experiencing its worst economic crisis in decades”, ITV reports, with “a resurgence in Covid cases” combining with “the effects of US sanctions imposed by the Trump administration” to create a fractious atmosphere in the one-party state.

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‘Calls to combat’

Footage of the protests shared on social media show demonstrators chanting “we have no fear” and “down with the dictatorship” as people gathered in cities from Havana to Santiago de Cuba in the island’s south.

Unauthorised public assembly is illegal in the communist state, prompting “special forces patrol cars with machine guns mounted on the back” to respond to the massing of protesters on Havana’s “iconic seafront boulevard”, The Times reports.

The number of demonstrators “grew to a few thousand in the vicinity of Galeano Avenue”, Al Jazeera says, with protesters pushing on with the march “despite a few charges by police officers and tear gas barrages.

“People standing on many balconies along the central artery in the Centro Habana neighbourhood applauded the protesters passing by,” the broadcaster adds, while the authorities quickly “shut down internet service” to stop the march being shared online.

Videos and photos posted online prior to the shutdown show “people overturning police cars and looting some state-owned shops which price their goods in foreign currencies”, the BBC reports. For many Cubans, the government shops are “the only way they can buy basic necessities but prices are high”, making them a focal point for protesters.

President Miguel Diaz-Canel said the demonstrations were caused by mercenaries hired by the US, adding in a televised address: “The order to fight has been given – into the street, revolutionaries.”

The US currently spends around $20m (£14.4m) a year in Cuba on “democracy promotion” projects.

Julie Chung, the most senior US diplomat for Latin America, denied US involvement in the protests, tweeting: “We are deeply concerned by ‘calls to combat’ in Cuba. We stand by the Cuban people’s right for peaceful assembly.”

“Peaceful protests are growing in Cuba as the Cuban people exercise their right to peaceful assembly to express concern about rising Covid cases/deaths [and] medicine shortages,” she added. “We commend the numerous efforts of the Cuban people mobilising donations to help neighbours in need.”

Social explosion

Cubans have grown increasingly angry at “the collapse of the economy” over the past 12 months, the BBC reports, “as well as by restrictions on civil liberties and the authorities’ handling of the pandemic”.

Many of the demonstrators were calling for “a faster coronavirus vaccination programme”, the broadcaster adds, “after Cuba reported a record of nearly 7,000 daily infections and 47 deaths on Sunday”.

The nation’s state-run economy has been battered by the pandemic, shrinking by 11%, its worst decline in almost three decades. This has been exacerbated by new sanctions imposed on the communist islands by former US president Donald Trump.

Cubans have been “worn down by months of shortages, power cuts, inflation, and in recent weeks fast-rising cases of Covid-19”, The Times says. It adds that “basic medicines are in short supply” and the government has refused “to lift restrictions on the amount of goods – including medicines – Cubans living abroad can send to their families”.

The protests are the largest since demonstrations in 1994 triggered by economic hardship caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the nation’s biggest benefactor. “That crisis led to tens of thousands of Cubans taking to sea in makeshift rafts” in an effort to reach the US, the paper adds.

“I’m here because of hunger, because there’s no medicine, because of power cuts – because there’s a lack of everything,” a man in his 40s who did not give his name for fear of reprisals told The Guardian. “I want a total change: a change of government, multiparty elections, and the end of communism.”

Also in Havana, Jorge Luis Gil, a Roman Catholic priest, told Al Jazzera: “The people came out to express themselves freely, and they are repressing and beating them.”

The demonstrators were met with a mixture of uniformed and plain clothes police officers, while “thousands of pro-government supporters also took to the streets” following President Diaz-Canel’s televised address, the BBC reports.

Pro-government supporters’ arrival on the streets of Havana saw a “game of cat and mouse” ensue, The Guardian says, with “young anti-government protesters” attempting to “occupy iconic parts of the capital, only to be blocked off by older government supporters, state security and the army”.

“We are the people and we have come out to support our conquests,” Aylin Guerrero told the paper, surrounded by thousands of government supporters, some bearing wooden clubs. “Even if we’re not communists, we’re patriots.”

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