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”.
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.
“We are going through really difficult times,” Miranda Lazara, 53, a dance teacher, who joined the thousands of protesters who marched through Havana. “We need a change of system."
Mr. Diaz-Canel, who also heads the Communist Party, blamed the unrest on old Cold War foe the U.S., which in recent years tightened its decades-old trade embargo on the island, in a televised speech on Sunday afternoon.
Mr. 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”.
President Joe Biden said the U.S. stands with the people of Cuba in their 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," Mr. Biden said in a statement.
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.
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.