Thousands of Cubans took to the streets this weekend in 90-degree heat to protest the country’s communist regime in a shocking display of public rage not seen since 1994. Though discontentment with the government has simmered since the beginning of the pandemic, recent food and medicine shortages, coupled with the newest surge in COVID-19 infections, prompted the latest protests, a rare sight on the communist island.
“They’re cutting off the electricity in poor areas for almost 12 hours a day. There are places where the lights haven’t been on for three days. We’re exhausted,” a supporter in Centro Habana told VICE World News by phone.
Protests against the regime in December consisted of a few dozen artists standing in front of the Ministry of Culture in Havana quietly demanding freedom of expression. But this time around over 10,000 people demonstrated in at least 19 Cuban cities, shouting, looting, and throwing rocks at police officers. Protesters who spoke with VICE World News said chants such as “We are not afraid!” became louder and louder as the streets filled and people felt the safety of numbers.
The combination of the pandemic and the United States embargo has suffocated Cuba’s ability to procure enough basic goods to keep the population fed and healthy. Waiting in line to receive rations of bread, rice, and chicken often takes all day, and food at many government supermarkets is far too expensive for the average Cuban and is only sold for U.S. dollars. Public pleas to citizens from institutions like the University of Havana to donate unused goods in recent days suggest medicine shortages, and could mean COVID patients in some provinces have not received adequate care. Though Cuban immunologists created two effective coronavirus vaccines, only 15 percent of the population has been vaccinated, according to government tallies.
Once the surge in COVID cases became a public health emergency, Cubans began sharing the hashtag SOSCuba on Facebook, Whatsapp, and Instagram, a message of solidarity that morphed into the largest protest movement in decades. Yomil, a popular Cuban rapper, was one of the first public figures to urge followers to take to the streets. “We were so hungry, we ate our fear,” he wrote on Twitter. Yomil was one of dozens arrested during the protests, but was released several hours later.
Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel responded to the protests by telling his supporters to fight the demonstrators. “The order for combat has been given- to the streets revolutionaries!” he said. Eventually, Diaz-Canel visited one of the protests just outside Havana, ringed by security personnel. Protesters screamed “down with the dictatorship!” and Diaz-Canel said, “In Cuba? What dictatorship?”
In several cities, counter protesters arrived to aid the police, shouting “Viva, Fidel!” Several government sources claimed the protesters were paid, while the Cuban government newspaper, Granma, conceded that some well meaning, yet misled Cubans were probably there as well. The government turned off internet access across the island in a vain attempt to quell communication between protesters. While eyes were fixated on the protests, several prominent Cuban activists and journalists disappeared, and some have not been heard from since. Those still missing include anti-government activists like Luís Manuel Otero Alcalá, who is often detained - and subsequently released - by police.
Throughout the day, police officers dragged protesters into police cars kicking and screaming, as other protesters attempted to rescue their compatriots, creating tangles of skinny arms and legs. Videos of altercations between protesters and police in various cities show police hitting civilians with batons and with their fists. In one video, a woman screams, “They hit us! They hit us! They hit a girl!” over and over again, as if in disbelief. A photographer for the Associated Press was dealt a bloody blow in the face by a police officer in Havana. In several cities, the military was mobilized to assist police.
Once news of the protests reached Florida, local politicians, including Francis Suárez, the mayor of Miami, encouraged international intervention to assist in toppling the regime. “They’re changing the meaning of all of this. They’re taking advantage of the situation,” a protestor told VICE World News, explaining that “down with the dictatorship” does not imply a desire for United States military intervention.
This morning, U.S President Joe Biden released a statement in support of the protesters, saying the Cuban government should “hear their people and serve their needs at this vital moment rather than enriching themselves.”
As the protests dwindled in Havana, military and police blockades were stationed in areas that just hours before had been filled with shouting and thousands of exhausted, marching feet. According to local activist groups on social media, a strike is planned for today, with the hope that mass absences from work will attract even more attention from the regime.
In Camagüey, police beat two adolescents with batons while a crowd watched in horror. However, in another video taken in Cárdenas, a police officer does not lift a finger in opposition as protesters flip his car upside down and the windshield crunches. In Santiago de Cuba, protesters documented several police officers giving in to the current of the marchers, grins on their faces.