On July 11, Cubans took to the streets in the largest anti-government demonstrations the country has seen in decades protesting the absence of democratic rights under the country’s authoritarian regime, as well as worsening economic conditions amid the COVID-19 pandemic that led to food and medicine shortages.
Thousands of protesters gathered in the island’s capital Havana, holding banners bearing such slogans as “freedom” and “exhausted,” and demanding the resignation of President Miguel Díaz-Canel.
U.S. President Joe Biden took to social media to voice support for the Cuban people and their right to peacefully demonstrate and protest.
“We stand with the Cuban people as they bravely assert their fundamental and universal rights, and as they all call for freedom and relief from the tragic grip of the pandemic and from the decades of repression and economic suffering,” Biden said.
Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi tweeted:
“The call for freedom and basic rights by the people of Cuba peacefully taking to the streets and marching is an act of great courage. I support the Cuban people in their pursuit of liberty and condemn any violence or targeting of those exercising their rights.”
Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez clapped back in defense of the Cuban government:
“Madam Speaker, unfortunately, you seem to have been misguided. No one who peacefully protested yesterday in #Cuba feared or had reason to fear for his or her security. It is no secret that US policy against Cuba aims at generating hardships and social discontent,” he tweeted.
The statement is false.
The Cuban government violently cracked down on the protesters. More than 100 demonstrators, activists and journalists have reportedly been arrested or gone missing since the protests erupted.
NBC reported on July 14 that a “popular YouTuber, Dina Stars, was detained by authorities during a live interview with a Spanish television news show.” She tweeted about being back home late Wednesday (July 14).
Cuba’s San Isidro free speech movement tweeted a list of 144 people who, the group said, are either being held by the police or were missing as of Monday (July 12) evening.
Videos surfaced on social media showing protesters being forced into police vans.
Business Insider reported on July 12 that Associated Press photographer Ramon Espinosa was “left bloodied after an altercation with the police during the protests in Cuba.” It posted a photograph of the bloodied reporter still holding a camera and recording the protests.
Camila Acosta, a correspondent for the Spanish daily ABC, was one of the many journalists detained by the police while covering the protests. Spain demanded her immediate release.
According to the SBS News website, family members, friends and relatives of demonstrators who are missing gathered at a Havana police station to find out whether they had been arrested. Their questions remain unanswered, SBS reported.
In addition to violent arrests and detentions, the Cuban government has imposed restrictions on internet access. “Instagram, Telegram, WhatsApp and Facebook have been restricted,'' said Alp Toker, director of Netblocks, a London-based internet monitoring firm.
Like other Cuban officials, Foreign Minister Rodriguez appeared to be trying to shift the blame for the conditions that sparked the protests by implying that U.S. sanctions on Cuba are the main reason for the country’s “economic suffocation” and catastrophic depletion of resources.
Those sanctions date back to 1963, when then U.S. President John F. Kennedy imposed an embargo on Cuba with an executive order banning “importation into the United States of all goods of Cuban origin and all goods imported from or through Cuba the import of Cuban products.” It also banned the export of any U.S. products to Cuba except for medical supplies and food.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also delivered a devastating blow to both Cuba’s economy, by shutting down its tourism industry, and to its healthcare system. “As tourism dried up, and with it the hard currency many had come to depend on, the country suffered its worst food and medicine shortages since the fall of the Soviet Union,” TIME magazine wrote on June 12.
While Cuba’s government blamed the United States for the dire state of the country’s economy, protesters were heard on July 11 calling for an end to Cuba’s six-decade-long communist regime.
President Díaz-Canel, who initially dismissed the protests and called on “revolutionaries” to take back the streets, has since softened his rhetoric, taking some responsibility for what he called the “disturbances.”
“We have to gain experience from the disturbances,” The Associated Press quoted him as saying on July 13. “We also have to carry out a critical analysis of our problems in order to act and overcome and avoid their repetition,” Díaz-Canel said.