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Cuba police out in force as social media blocked in bid to end protest

Cuban riot cops are out in force and authorities block social media in a bid to end food shortage protests which President Biden called ‘a call for freedom’

  • Riot police clad in black body armour while carrying batons were seen arresting dozens of protesters
  • Thousands of Cubans took to the streets on Sunday to protest against the Communist government and its handling of the economy and the pandemic 
  • People in Cuba are voicing anger over shortages of basic goods and curbs on civil liberties
  • Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel has accused Cuban Americans of using social media to spur protests
  • In response, the authorities were blocking Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Telegram on Monday

Cuban riot police are out in force on the country’s streets as the authorities block social media networks in a bid to end ‘unprecedented’ protests over high prices and food shortages. 

Thousands of Cubans took to the streets from Havana to Santiago on Sunday chanting ‘down with the dictatorship’ in the biggest anti-government demonstrations on the Communist-run island in decades. 

Riot police who were clad in black body armour and helmets while carrying batons and shields were seen arresting dozens of demonstrators who had gone out to protest again on Monday. 

The move by the Cuban authorities to fill the streets with armed police in a bid to quell the protests comes after U.S. President Joe Biden described the demonstrations as ‘a call for freedom’ and urged Cuba’s communist government to end ‘decades of repression and economic suffering’. 

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel on Monday accused Cuban Americans of using social media to spur the rare outpouring of weekend protests. 

In response, the Communist authorities were blocking Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Telegram, said Alp Toker, director of Netblocks, a London-based internet monitoring company. 

‘This does seem to be a response to social media-fuelled protest,’ he said.

Twitter did not appear to be blocked, though Mr Toker noted that Cuba has the ability to cut it off if it wants to.

Cubans marched on Havana’s Malecon promenade and elsewhere on the island to protest food shortages, restrictions on civil liberties, the government’s handling of the pandemic and soaring inflation, which some economists believe could hit 900 per cent this year.

On Sunday, many young people took part in the afternoon protest in the capital, which disrupted traffic until police moved in after several hours and broke up the march when a few protesters threw rocks. 

Cuban riot police are out in force on the country’s streets as the authorities block social media networks in a bid to end ‘unprecedented’ protests over high prices and food shortages

Riot police who were clad in black body armour and helmets while carrying batons and shields were seen arresting dozens of demonstrators who had gone out to protest again on Monday

Riot police walk the streets of Havana on Monday as protesters carry wooden bats 

Scores of riot police are seen walking the streets of Havana on Monday after anti-government protests took place

Thousands of Cubans took to the streets from Havana to Santiago on Sunday chanting ‘down with the dictatorship’ in the biggest anti-government demonstrations on the Communist-run island in decades

U.S. President Joe Biden described the demonstrations as ‘a call for freedom’ and urged Cuba’s communist government to end ‘decades of repression and economic suffering’

Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of Cuba in ‘unprecedented’ demonstrations. 

On the Communist-run island, mass protests are rare as public dissent is usually restricted and demonstrators risk ending up in prison. 

But in the past year or so, Cuba has seen a growing number of protests – although nothing on this scale or simultaneously in so many cities. 

In November last year, a group of around 300 members and allies of a dissident artists collective in Havana protested against restrictions on civil liberties, the island’s economic crisis and growing inequality.

But the protests were quelled by Cuba’s government after the Culture Ministry accused the artists of being financed by the United States and providing ‘propaganda support’ for the country. 

In June last year, a group of Cubans said that state security agents had staked out their homes to prevent them from attending planned protests over the police killing of a young black man.  

No would-be protesters appeared able to make it to the site of what was supposed to be the main demonstration against the killing of 27-year-old Hansel Hernandez in Havana which was full of security forces at the time.  

Ahead of the planned protest, Cuban authorities harassed and detained scores of people, and accused some of the crime of ‘spreading an epidemic’, reports Human Rights Watch. 

The current anti-government demonstrations are the largest since the summer of 1994, said Michael Bustamante, an assistant professor of Latin American history at Florida International University.

‘Only now, they weren’t limited to the capital; they didn’t even start there, it seems,’ Bustamante said, as the protests broke out on Sunday in the San Antonio de los Banos municipality in Artemisa Province, bordering Havana.

On Sunday, protesters chanted ‘Freedom’, ‘Enough’ and ‘Unite’. 

And almost 27 years ago, on August 5, 1994, hundreds of Cubans marched through the streets of Havana chanted the same slogan of ‘Freedom’. 

The police and paramilitaries shot unarmed protesters and beat them down with batons, according to the NGO Cuba Center.  

Cuban authorities are often quick to shut down protests while politicians and the island’s official state media often discredit anti-government protesters by saying they are supporters of the United States. 

But on Sunday, the protests saw an unprecedented number of demonstrators taking to the streets simultaneously. 

US Senator Marco Rubio tweeted that Sunday was ‘a historic day of unprecedented protests going on against socialism in Cuba’.  

The Republican later shared a video of hundreds of people in front of the National Capitol building in Havana and said: ‘We have never seen a day like today in Cuba. 

’62 years of misery, repression and lies boiling over into organic, grassroots protests in over 32 cities.’    

Special forces vehicles, with machine guns mounted on the back, were seen throughout the capital and the police presence was heavy even long after most protesters had gone home by the 9pm curfew in place due to the pandemic.

Police initially trailed behind as protesters chanted ‘Freedom,’ ‘Enough’ and ‘Unite.’ One motorcyclist pulled out a US flag, but it was snatched from him by others. 

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

More than a dozen protesters were detained, including a leading Cuban dissident who was arrested trying to attend a march in the city of Santiago, 559 miles east.

Internet service was patchy, possibly indicating a bid to stop protesters communicating with each other.

Although many people tried to take out mobile phones and broadcast the protest live, Cuban authorities shut down internet service throughout the afternoon on Sunday. 

‘We’ve seen how the campaign against Cuba was growing on social media in the past few weeks,’ Mr Díaz-Canel said in a nationally televised appearance on Monday at which his entire Cabinet was present.

‘That’s the way it’s done: Try to create inconformity, dissatisfaction by manipulating emotions and feelings.’

On the Communist-run island, mass protests are rare as public dissent is usually restricted and demonstrators risk ending up in prison. 

But Sunday’s protest is being described as ‘unprecedented’ due to the thousands demonstrating and how many protests occurred simultaneously in so many cities. 

On Monday, Biden urged Cuba’s government to end ‘decades of repression and economic suffering’.    

But the Cuban government has blamed the island’s worsening economic crisis on U.S. sanctions, while Russia and Mexico have condemned ‘outside interference’ in an apparent swipe against Biden’s administration. 

The images of protests in Cuba that went viral on social media on Sunday prompted officials in the U.S. to call for an American-led intervention to topple the ruling government in Havana.  

Biden has since urged Cuba’s communist government to ‘hear’ the protesters and said the U.S. stands with the Cuban people and their 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 on Monday.

‘The Cuban people are bravely asserting fundamental and universal rights. Those rights, including the right of peaceful protest and the right to freely determine their own future, must be respected. 

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

The strongly worded statement was sure to anger Cuba’s leaders, who claim Washington is stirring up the rare mass street protests in the authoritarian country.

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel on Monday said US economic sanctions, which have been tightened in recent years, were cause of the island’s turmoil, calling it a ‘policy of economic suffocation to provoke social unrest in the country.’

Appearing alongside his Cabinet in a televised address, Diaz-Cannel accused the U.S. of causing the shortages of food, medicines and power outages.

He also blamed a social media campaign for weaponizing the shortages against what he called Communist-run Cuba’s revolution.

Meanwhile, Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador rushed to support Diaz-Canel and warned against an ‘interventionist approach’ to the protests, while demanding the US economic embargo of Cuba be ended to help its people.

He appeared to accuse Biden’s administration of not wanting to help Cubans in their economic turmoil. 

‘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. 

‘That would be a truly humanitarian gesture,’ he added. ‘No country in the world should be fenced in, blockaded.’

A man is arrested during a demonstration against the government of Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel in Havana on Sunday

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel denounced vandalism across various cities on Sunday in Cuba’s biggest anti-government demonstrations in decades as some protesters overturned police cars in Havana

US President Joe Biden has since urged Cuba’s communist government to ‘hear’ the protesters and said the U.S. stands with the Cuban people and their call for freedom

SANCTIONS AND COVID CAUSE ECONOMY TO FREEFALL 

Cubans are now taking to the streets to protest against the island’s economic crisis, restrictions on civil liberties and the government’s handling of the pandemic.  

The Caribbean island has been experiencing a worsening economic crisis for two years, which the government blames mostly on U.S. sanctions imposed by the Trump administration 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.

The economy contracted 10.9 per cent last year, and 2 per cent through June of 2021. The resulting cash crunch has spawned shortages that have forced Cubans to queue for hours for basic goods such as food and medicine throughout the pandemic.

The acute supply shortages further stressed an already weak economy. In 2020, the government officials called on Cubans to grow more of their food, reports Amnesty International. 

The American economic embargo of Cuba has been blamed for the island’s worsening economic crisis – and the coronavirus pandemic has made this worse. 

The Trump administration imposed policies that tightened economic, commercial and financial sanctions and restricted travel by U.S. citizens in a blow to Cuba’s tourism sector, which caused the country to record losses estimated at around $5 billion. 

Last month, the U.S. voted against a UN resolution that overwhelmingly condemned the American economic embargo of Cuba. 

Before the vote, the U.S. Mission’s political coordinator, Rodney Hunter, told the assembly that the Biden administration voted ‘no’ because the United States believes sanctions are key to advancing democracy and human rights which ‘remain at the core of our policy efforts toward Cuba.’  

The economic embargo was imposed in 1960 following the revolution led by Fidel Castro and the nationalization of properties belonging to U.S. citizens and corporations. Two years later it was strengthened.

Former Cuban President Raul Castro and then-President Barack Obama officially restored relations in July 2016, and that year the U.S. abstained on the resolution calling for an end to the embargo for the first time. 

But Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, sharply criticized Cuba’s human rights record, and in 2017 the U.S. again voted against the resolution.

The move by Biden last month now means the government will maintain the Trump administration’s opposition.

 

Lopez Obrador, one of the most prominent leftists in Latin America, expressed his solidarity with the Cuban people and urged countries not to intervene in the Communist-run country, nor to exploit the situation for political ends.

Urging a peaceful resolution to the protests, Lopez Obrador said Mexico would be ready to send medicines, vaccines and food to Cuba if its government requested it.

Russia on Monday also warned against any ‘outside interference’ in Cuba in apparent swipe at the U.S.     

‘We consider it unacceptable for there to be outside interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state or any destructive actions that would encourage the destabilisation of the situation on the island,’ foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a statement.

She did not explain who might be trying to interfere in Cuba, but the warning appeared directed at the U.S., which has urged Cuba not to target protesters and where thousands of Cuban-Americans have taken to the streets to support the demonstrations.

‘We are closely following the development of the situation in and around Cuba,’ Zakharova said.

‘We are convinced that Cuban authorities are taking all necessary measures to restore public order in the interests of the country’s citizens and within the framework of the Constitution.’

Cuba was an important Cold War ally of the Soviet Union and Moscow has continued to have good diplomatic relations with Havana since the 1991 collapse of the USSR. 

The demonstration in Havana 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. 

People standing on many balconies along the central artery in the Centro Habana neighborhood applauded the protesters passing by. Others joined in the march. 

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

About two-and-a-half 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. 

A group of government supporters also arrived in the area shouting slogans in favor of the late President Fidel Castro and the revolution. Some of them assaulted a cameraman and an AP photographer. 

The protests broke out in San Antonio de los Banos municipality in Artemisa Province, bordering Havana, with video on social media showing hundreds of residents chanting anti-government slogans and demanding everything from coronavirus vaccines to an end to daily blackouts.

‘I just walked through town looking to buy some food and there were lots of people there, some with signs, protesting,’ local resident Claris Ramirez said by phone.

‘They are protesting blackouts, that there is no medicine,’ she added. 

Diaz-Canel, who had just returned from San Antonio de los Banos, said many protesters were sincere but manipulated by US-orchestrated social media campaigns and ‘mercenaries’ on the ground, and warned that further ‘provocations’ would not be tolerated.

‘As if pandemic outbreaks had not existed all over the world, the Cuban-American mafia, paying very well on social networks to influencers and Youtubers, has created a whole campaign… and has called for demonstrations across the country,’ Diaz-Canel told reporters. 

There were protests later on Sunday hundreds of miles to the east in Palma Soriano, Santiago de Cuba, where social media video showed hundreds marching through the streets, again confirmed by a local resident.

‘They are protesting the crisis, that there is no food or medicine, that you have to buy everything at the foreign currency stores, and on and on the list goes,’ Claudia Perez said.

‘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,’ Diaz-Canel said in his broadcast remarks.

Plainclothes police officers detain a person during protests outside the Capitol building in Havana on Sunday

Cuban demonstrators face down members of the security services in Havana on Sunday

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel (center) walks accompanied by supporters in San Antonio de los Banos on Sunday

Thousands of Cubans took part in rare protests Sunday against the Communist government, marching through a town chanting ‘Down with the dictatorship’ and ‘We want liberty’. The image above shows Cubans in Havana on Sunday

A man is arrested during a demonstration against the government of Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel in Havana on Sunday

UN spokesman Farhan Haq on Monday stressed the organisation’s position ‘on the need for freedom of expression and peaceful assembly to be respected fully, and we expect that that will be the case’.

In an address to the country, President Diaz-Canel blamed the US for stoking anger, and said: ‘We are prepared to do anything. We will be battling in the streets.’ 

Cuba is going through its worst economic crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union, along with a resurgence of coronavirus cases, as it suffers the consequences of US sanctions imposed by the Trump administration. 

It comes months after six decades of the Castro family dominating Cuban politics ended with 89-year-old Raul Castro relinquishing the country’s most powerful position – that of party first secretary – to Miguel Diaz-Canel, Cuba’s president. 

Diaz-Canel denounced vandalism across various cities on Sunday in Cuba’s biggest anti-government demonstrations in decades.

‘They threw stones at foreign currency shops, they stole items… and at police forces, they turned over cars – a totally vulgar, indecent and delinquent behavior,’ he said.  

Security forces loyal to the government detain a protester in Havana, Cuba, on Sunday

Demonstrators are seen above protesting on the streets of Havana on Sunday

A pro-government protester is seen during a demonstration against the government of Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel in Havana on Sunday

Cuban police detain an anti-government demonstrator during a protest in Havana on Sunday

The government blames the crisis on U.S. sanctions and the pandemic, while its detractors cite incompetence and a Soviet-style one-party system. 

The Caribbean island has been experiencing a worsening economic crisis for two years, which the government blames mostly on U.S. sanctions imposed by the Trump administration 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.

The economy contracted 10.9 per cent last year, and 2 per cent through June of 2021. The resulting cash crunch has spawned shortages that have forced Cubans to queue for hours for basic goods such as food and medicine throughout the pandemic.

The acute supply shortages further stressed an already weak economy. In 2020, the government officials called on Cubans to grow more of their food, reports Amnesty International. 

The American economic embargo of Cuba has been blamed for the island’s worsening economic crisis – and the coronavirus pandemic has made this worse. 

The Trump administration imposed policies that tightened economic, commercial and financial sanctions and restricted travel by U.S. citizens in a blow to Cuba’s tourism sector, which caused the country to record losses estimated at around $5 billion. 

Last month, the U.S. voted against a UN resolution that overwhelmingly condemned the American economic embargo of Cuba. 

Before the vote, the U.S. Mission’s political coordinator, Rodney Hunter, told the assembly that the Biden administration voted ‘no’ because the United States believes sanctions are key to advancing democracy and human rights which ‘remain at the core of our policy efforts toward Cuba.’  

Diaz-Canel called on his supporters to take to the streets as a response to the protest against his government

Thousands are seen marching in the streets of the Cuban capital on Sunday

A man is arrested during a demonstration against the government of Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel in Havana on Sunday

Cubans under the effects of tear gas take part in a demonstration against the government of Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel in front of Havana’s Capitol

The economic embargo was imposed in 1960 following the revolution led by Fidel Castro and the nationalization of properties belonging to U.S. citizens and corporations. Two years later it was strengthened.

Former Cuban President Raul Castro and then-President Barack Obama officially restored relations in July 2016, and that year the U.S. abstained on the resolution calling for an end to the embargo for the first time. 

But Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, sharply criticized Cuba’s human rights record, and in 2017 the U.S. again voted against the resolution.

The move by Biden last month now means the government will maintain the Trump administration’s opposition. 

Sunday’s protest is rare for Cuba, where mass demonstrations and public dissent is usually restricted and demonstrators risk ending up in prison. 

But in the past year or so, Cuba has seen a growing number of protests – although nothing on this scale or simultaneously in so many cities. 

In November last year, a group of around 300 members and allies of a dissident artists collective in Havana protested against restrictions on civil liberties, the island’s economic crisis and growing inequality.

But the protests were quelled by Cuba’s government after the Culture Ministry accused the artists of being financed by the United States and providing ‘propaganda support’ for the country. 

In June last year, a group of Cubans said that state security agents had staked out their homes to prevent them from attending planned protests over the police killing of a young black man.  

No would-be protesters appeared able to make it to the site of what was supposed to be the main demonstration against the killing of 27-year-old Hansel Hernandez in Havana which was full of security forces at the time.  

Ahead of the planned protest, Cuban authorities harassed and detained scores of people, and accused some of the crime of ‘spreading an epidemic’, reports Human Rights Watch. 

The current anti-government demonstrations are the largest since the summer of 1994, said Michael Bustamante, an assistant professor of Latin American history at Florida International University.

‘Only now, they weren’t limited to the capital; they didn’t even start there, it seems,’ Bustamante said, as the protests broke out on Sunday in the San Antonio de los Banos municipality in Artemisa Province, bordering Havana.

On Sunday, protesters chanted ‘Freedom’, ‘Enough’ and ‘Unite’. 

And almost 27 years ago, on August 5, 1994, hundreds of Cubans marched through the streets of Havana chanted the same slogan of ‘Freedom’. 

The police and paramilitaries shot unarmed protesters and beat them down with batons, according to the NGO Cuba Center.  

Cuban authorities are often quick to shut down protests while politicians and the island’s official state media often discredit anti-government protesters by saying they are supporters of the United States. 

But on Sunday, the protests saw an unprecedented number of demonstrators taking to the streets simultaneously. 

US Senator Marco Rubio tweeted that Sunday was ‘a historic day of unprecedented protests going on against socialism in Cuba’.  

The Republican later shared a video of hundreds of people in front of the National Capitol building in Havana and said: ‘We have never seen a day like today in Cuba. 

’62 years of misery, repression and lies boiling over into organic, grassroots protests in over 32 cities.’       

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