On July 11th, thousands went to Cuba’s streets to protest against the government and call for the first-ever civilian President Miguel Diaz-Canel to step down.
The protests erupted amid Cuba’s worst economic crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union 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 took to the streets in various parts of Havana including the historic centre, their shouts of “Diaz-Canel step down” drowning out groups of government supporters waving the Cuban flag and chanting “Fidel.”
Special forces jeeps, with machine guns mounted on the back were seen throughout the capital and the police presence was heavy even after protesters had returned home following the 21:00 curfew imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Diaz-Canel, who also heads the Communist Party, blamed the unrest on old Cold War foe the United States, which in recent years tightened its decades-old trade embargo on the island, in a televised speech.
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 “provocations.”
The President is expected to make another address on July 12th at 21:00 local time.
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.
Some protesters said they went on to the streets to join in after seeing what was happening on social media, which has become an increasingly important factor since the introduction of mobile internet two and a half years ago, although connections were patchy.
The protests initially began in San Antonio de los Banos municipality in Artemisa Province, bordering Havana. Video on social media showed hundreds of residents chanting anti-government slogans and demanding everything from coronavirus vaccines to an end of daily blackouts.
President Diaz-Canel visited the town, later saying in his broadcast remarks: “We are calling on all the revolutionaries in the country, all the Communists, to hit the streets wherever there is an effort to produce these provocations”.
Julie Chung, acting undersecretary of the U.S. State Department’s Office of Western Hemisphere Affairs, said it was deeply concerned by “calls to combat” in Cuba and stood by the Cuban people’s right for peaceful assembly.”
“The US supports freedom of expression and assembly across Cuba, and would strongly condemn any violence or targeting of peaceful protesters who are exercising their universal rights,” US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on Twitter.
Cuba has been experiencing a worsening economic crisis for two years, which the government blames mainly on U.S. sanctions and the pandemic, while its detractors cite incompetence and a Soviet-style one-party system.
A combination of sanctions, inefficiencies and the pandemic has shut down tourism and slowed other foreign revenue flows in a country dependent on them to import the bulk of its food, fuel and inputs for agriculture and manufacturing.
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