Thousands of Cubans took to the streets in several provinces around the Caribbean island this 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 protests come as Cuba faces the worst economic crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union, increased crackdown on political opponents and a strained healthcare system during a critical phase of the COVID pandemic . Health officials have reported nearly 7,000 new cases and 47 deaths – a new record of infections and deaths on the island of just over 11 million people.
In Miami, hundreds of people gathered on SW 8th Street in Little Havana, in solidarity with the growing protests in Cuba. “I know my family in Cuba is in trouble, people are dying. It’s terrible, ”said Christian Guzmán, a Miami resident, speaking to local NBC station WTVJ.
“Right now it’s difficult. There is no food, there is no medicine. The COVID epidemic. The whole country is on the streets, ”said Darío Suárez.
In Cuba, protests began in the early afternoon in the municipality of San Antonio de los Baños, in the province of Artemisa, adjacent to Havana. A few hours later, they had spread to the east of the country, to provinces like Santiago de Cuba.
The central Malecón of the capital, where in August 1994 Cubans staged a historic demonstration against former leader Fidel Castro who was violently suppressed, also saw hundreds of demonstrators gathering on Sunday.
Cubans in several provinces contacted by Noticias Telemundo confirmed that the government, which controls the island’s sole internet provider, has caused service outages to prevent live broadcasts.
“They don’t want the world to see what’s going on in Cuba,” said a Havana resident who asked not to be identified for fear of the regime’s reprisals.
President Miguel Díaz-Canel appeared on national television to call on the army to confront the demonstrators: “The order to fight has been given,” he said.
In Cuba, videos posted on social networks, which could be verified by Noticias Telemundo, show special agents known in Cuba as Black Berets, deployed in certain localities and violently detaining civilians who demonstrated and sang peacefully.
Díaz-Canel also called “all the revolutionaries of the country, all the communists, to take to the streets and to go to the places where these provocations are going to take place”.
In recent days, Cuban exiles and prominent figures have joined the #SOSCuba campaign to demand that the island’s authorities open a humanitarian channel allowing the entry of medicines and supplies to treat the nearly 240,000 coronavirus patients.
Authorities mocked the initiative on national television and described it as an attempt to discredit the government’s handling of the health crisis that is putting hospitals on the island on the brink.
Cubans whose relatives have died of the coronavirus in recent days have taken to social networks to discuss the severity of the health crisis, which currently has its epicenter in the province of Matanzas, known for the tourist pole of Varadero beach.
“My mother has just died. We were isolated for four days. Four days of calling the SIUM (Integrated Medical Emergency System) to pick her up. Four days and the SIUM has not arrived, ”Cuban Magdiel Matos said outside a hospital in Matanzas.
Meanwhile, opposition artists and independent journalists have denounced for weeks that the government maintains police patrols stationed in front of their homes, as reports persist that patients could not be transferred in time to the hospitals. hospitals due to lack of transport and resources.
“Take these patrols to transport the sick, open hotels to accommodate them, facilitate the arrival of donated drugs and medical utensils,” said poet and activist Katherine Bisquet from Havana, pointing to a police car parked in the basement of the building.
Cuba has not joined COVAX, the World Health Organization which seeks to disseminate Covid vaccines in the poorest countries, betting instead on the production of its own vaccines.
One of those five vaccine candidates, Abdala, received approval for emergency use this week. The government said the vaccine, the first product in Latin America, is 92.8% effective after three doses, but has not released any data on clinical studies and has not received approval from any health organization. international.
In Miami, Florida, where the largest community of Cuban exiles is located, Congresswoman of Cuban descent María Elvira Salazar said: “We have not seen in recent years a popular uprising as big as this. this.
Mass protests are rare on the island and when they do occur they are quickly quelled. Cuban politicians and the official press, the only one authorized by law in Cuba, often discredit dissidents by saying that they are serving the interests of the United States and that they receive funds for subversion.
US State Department’s Western Hemisphere Affairs Office Acting Assistant Secretary Julie Chung defended the protests on Twitter, saying peaceful protests escalated as people exercised their right to peaceful assembly to express their concern over the increase in Covid cases and deaths.
The coronavirus crisis, which has caused airport closures and slowed tourism by more than 80% – Cuba’s second-largest source of income after its medical missions – has exacerbated the shortage and fueled popular discontent.
The Cuban government attributes the economic crisis to the US embargo against Cuba and the sanctions, which former President Donald Trump has stepped up. The Biden administration has shown no sign of wanting to reverse the sanctions, instead demanding that the government release political prisoners and respect dissenting voices on several occasions.
An earlier version of this story was first published in Noticias Telemundo.