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Large police presence in Cuban capital day after thousands protest

A defiant Cuban president lashed out at the U.S. embargo in response to protests over economic shortages during the pandemic.

A day after thousands of demonstrators took to Cuba's streets in rare protest of the island nation's economic crisis, large contingents of police were dispatched to patrol in the capital of Havana and the island nation's president blamed a U.S. embargo for the widespread shortages of food, fuel, medicine and other goods during the pandemic.

President Miguel Díaz-Canel said Monday that a "politics of economic asphyxiation" was having a “cumulative effect” throughout Cuba.

He and representatives from his government said U.S. sanctions against Cuba had contributed to power outages and limited access to food and medical supplies during the pandemic.

Speaking of the economic issues in Cuban society and the reasons some have been protesting, Díaz-Canel said, "What is their origin, what is their cause? It is the blockade."

Díaz-Canel said the Cuban protests were the result of a U.S. and social media campaign to manipulate people while the island is facing hardship during the pandemic.

Thousands of Cubans took to the streets across the country on Sunday, shouting slogans against the government such as, “We want freedom” and “We are no longer afraid.”

Rights groups and opposition activists reported dozens were unaccounted for or detained on Monday following the protests. But outages in internet connectivity made it difficult to determine the scope of arrests.

Cuban police patrolled in the capital of Havana in large numbers on Monday, according to The Associated Press.

A man is arrested during a demonstration against the government of Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel in Havana on Sunday.Yamil Lage / AFP - Getty Images

Díaz-Canel said it was legitimate "to have dissatisfactions, but also we have to be capable to visualize, to define when we're being manipulated, where they want to separate us."

He said forces that want to appear as “saviors” to Cuba “are not interested in the health of the people.”

“They want to change a system, or a regime they call it, to impose what type of government and what type of regime in Cuba? The privatization of public services. The kind that gives more possibility to the rich minority and not the majority."

Cuba's health minister said that the embargo has impacted Cuba's ability to combat the virus through restrictions on medications and supplies to make medicines, as well as equipment such as ventilators.

Díaz-Canel also denounced what he called the “Cuban mafia” in Miami, referring to Cuban American community members and legislators opposed to the Communist government.

Cuba is currently facing its worst economic crisis in decades, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, worsened by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic drove tourism, which was a critical driver of the island economy, to a halt. The country has since seen food shortages, power outages and mounting coronavirus cases.

It has also seen 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.

Plainclothes police detain a protester in Havana on Sunday.Ramon Espinosa / AP

In Havana, protests disrupted traffic on Sunday until police moved in after several hours and broke up the march when a few protesters threw rocks, according to the AP.

“We are fed up with the queues, the shortages. That’s why I’m here,” one middle-aged protester told the AP. He declined to identify himself for fear of being arrested later.

Later, about 300 pro-government protesters arrived with a large Cuban flag, shouting slogans in favor of the late President Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution, the AP reported. Some assaulted an AP videojournalist, smashing his camera. AP photojournalist Ramón Espinosa was then beaten by a group of police officers in uniforms and civilian clothes; he suffered a broken nose and an eye injury.

The demonstration grew to a few thousand in the vicinity of Galeano Avenue and the marchers pressed on despite a few charges by police officers and tear gas barrages, the AP reported.

Although many people tried to take out their cellphones and broadcast the protest live, Cuban authorities shut down internet service throughout the afternoon.

More than two hours into the march, some protesters pulled up cobblestones and threw them at police, at which point officers began arresting people and the marchers dispersed.

AP journalists counted at least 20 people who were taken away in police cars or by individuals in civilian clothes.

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,” Miami resident Darío Suárez said.

Díaz-Canel appeared on national television earlier to call on the army to confront the protesters: “The order to fight has been given,” he said.

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.”

U.S. President Joe Biden on Monday said he recognized the "remarkable protests in Cuba" and that such demonstrations had not been seen in a long time, "frankly ever."

Biden said the U.S. stands "firmly with the people of Cuba as they assert their universal rights" and called on the government to "refrain from violence" or "attempts to silence" the protesters.

Earlier Monday, Biden said in a statement the Cuban protests were a "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," Biden said in a statement.

"The United States calls on the Cuban regime to hear their people and serve their needs at this vital moment rather than enriching themselves," he added.

Also on Monday, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador called for the U.S. embargo of Cuba to end.

"The truth is that if one wanted to help Cuba, the first thing that should be done is to suspend the blockade of Cuba as the majority of countries in the world are asking," Lopez Obrador told a news conference, according to Reuters.