Thousands of Cubans took to the streets across the country on Sunday in an unusual protest in which civilians shouted slogans against the Communist government, such as “We want freedom” and “We are no longer afraid.”
The demonstrations came at a time when Cuba faces the worst economic crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union, an increase in repression against political opponents and a strained health system during a critical stage of the pandemic. Health authorities reported almost 7,000 new cases and 47 deaths — a record for infections and deaths on the Caribbean island of just over 11 million people.
In Miami, hundreds of people gathered in the Little Havana neighborhood in solidarity with the growing protests in Cuba. “I know my family in Cuba is struggling, people are dying. It’s terrible,” Miami resident Christian Guzmán told NBC station WTVJ.
“Right now it’s hard. There’s no food, there’s no medicine. The Covid outbreak. The whole country is in the streets,” another Miami resident, Darío Suárez, said.
In Cuba, the protests began early Sunday afternoon in the municipality of San Antonio de los Baños, in the Artemisa province, adjacent to Havana. A few hours later they had spread to the east of the country, in provinces such as Santiago de Cuba.
The central Malecón of the capital, where in August 1994 Cubans staged a historic protest against then-leader Fidel Castro that was violently repressed, also saw hundreds of protesters gather on Sunday.
Cubans in several provinces contacted by Noticias Telemundo confirmed that the government, which controls the only internet provider company on the island, has caused service outages to prevent live broadcasts.
“They do not want the world to see what is happening in Cuba,” said a resident from Havana who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals from the regime.
President Miguel Díaz-Canel appeared on national television to call on the Army to confront the protesters: “The order to fight has been given,” he said.
In Cuba, videos broadcast on social networks, which could be verified by Noticias Telemundo, show special agents known in Cuba as Black Berets, being deployed in some localities and violently detaining civilians who protested and sang peacefully.
Díaz-Canel also called “all the revolutionaries in the country, all the communists, to take to the streets and go to the places where these provocations are going to take place.”
In recent days, Cuban exiles and high-profile personalities have joined the #SOSCuba campaign to demand that the island’s authorities open a humanitarian channel that allows the entry of medicines and supplies to treat the almost 240,000 patients with coronavirus.
The authorities have mocked the initiative on national television and described it as an attempt to discredit the government’s management of the health crisis, which has the island’s hospitals on the edge.
Cubans whose relatives have died from coronavirus in recent days have gone on social networks to talk about the seriousness of the health crisis, which currently has its epicenter in the province of Matanzas, known for Varadero, a popular beach resort town.
“My mother just died. We were in isolation for four days. Four days calling the SIUM (Integrated System of Medical Emergencies) to come and look for her. Four days and the SIUM did not arrive,” said Magdiel Matos outside a hospital in Matanzas.
Opposition artists and independent journalists have said for weeks that the government has maintained police patrols outside their homes, while reports persist of patients who could not be transferred to hospitals on time due to lack of transportation and resources.
“Take these patrols to transport the sick, open the hotels to house them, facilitate the arrival of donated medicines and medical utensils,” poet and activist Katherine Bisquet said from Havana, pointing out a police car stationed in the basement of the building.
Cuba did not join COVAX, the World Health Organization agency that seeks to disseminate Covid-19 vaccines in poorer countries, instead betting on the production of its own vaccines.
One of those five vaccine candidates, Abdala, received approval for emergency use this week. The government has stated that the vaccine, the first produced in Latin America, is 92.8 percent effective after three doses, but has not published data on clinical studies and it hasn't received the approval of any international health organization.
In Miami, with the largest community of Cuban exiles in the U.S., Cuban-born congresswoman María Elvira Salazar said, “We have not seen in recent years a popular uprising as big as this one.”
Mass protests are rare on the island and, when they do occur, they are quickly put down. Cuban politicians and the official press, the only one allowed by law in Cuba, often discredit dissidents by saying that they respond to the interests of the United States and that they receive funding for subversion.
The acting deputy secretary of the U.S. State Department’s Office of Western Hemisphere Affairs, Julie Chung, defended the protests on Twitter, saying that peaceful protests were growing as people exercise their right to peaceful assembly to express their concern over the increase in Covid-19 cases and deaths.
The coronavirus crisis, which caused the closure of airports and slowed tourism by more than 80 percent — Cuba’s second source of income after its medical missions — has exacerbated the shortage and fueled popular discontent.
The Cuban government attributes the economic crisis to U.S. embargo against Cuba and sanctions, which former President Donald Trump intensified. The Biden Administration has shown no signs of wanting to roll back sanctions, instead demanding that the government release political prisoners and respect dissenting voices.