President Joe Biden on Monday backed protests in Cuba sparked by the country’s economic crisis and coronavirus response, The New York Times reports.
Thousands of people marched in Havana on Sunday to protest food and medicine shortages. Some people were seen looting government-run stores that “sell wildly overpriced items in currencies most Cubans do not possess,” according to the report.
Sunday marked the first mass protest in the country since at least 1994, though activists called it the largest demonstration since Fidel Catro took power in the 1950s.
The country faces a worsening economic crisis after the pandemic cut off the flow of tourism dollars. Many have been unable to work for months as restaurants and other businesses remain locked down.
The Cuban government has blamed the US trade embargo for its economic problems but they have been exacerbated by the pandemic. The country recorded its higher number of new cases on Sunday and only about 15% of the population is fully vaccinated.
Biden stands with protesters:
"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," Biden said in a statement on Monday. "The United States calls on the Cuban regime to hear their people and serve their needs at this vital moment rather than enriching themselves."
Biden said the US stands "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."
Cuba blames US:
Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel on Monday accused the US of a "policy of economic suffocation to provoke social unrest in the country.”
He went on to blame the ongoing crisis on trade restrictions and sanctions imposed by the Trump administration that the Biden administration has kept in place despite a softening stance toward Cuba under the Obama administration.
The government has also alleged that “salaried” protesters are leading the demonstrations in an attempt to provoke authorities.
“Celebrating what they orchestrated today in San Antonio de los Baños only uncovers the worst nature of people,” the Cuban president said.
He called for his supporters to go into the streets and confront the protesters. Activists reported that the internet was cut off and anti-riot squads had arrested numerous demonstrators.
“This is no longer a question of freedom of expression; it’s a question of hunger,” Adonis Milán, a theater director in Havana, told the Times. “People are hitting the street. They are asking for an end to this government, to one-party rule, to repression and the misery we have lived through for 60 years.”