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Anti-government protesters gather at the Maximo Gomez monument in Havana, Cuba on Sunday. Photo: AP

ExplainerCauses of the protests in Cuba

  • Last weekend saw the first mass anti-government protests in decades
  • Cuba’s president has blamed the United States for the unrest
The street protests that erupted over the weekend in Cuba were the biggest at least since those a quarter century ago, when then-President Fidel Castro personally went into the streets to calm crowds of thousands furious over dire shortages that gripped the island following the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had long backed its socialist ally.

What are the protesters demanding?

Many expressed anger over long lines and shortages of food and medicines, as well as repeated electricity outages. Some demanded a faster pace of vaccination against Covid-19. But there were also calls for political change in a country governed by the Communist Party for some six decades. Some demonstrators chanted “Liberty!” “Down with the dictatorship!” and “Fatherland and life!” – a twist on the revolutionary slogan, “Fatherland or death!”

“It’s time for things to change. The situation is critical,” said Cristian Veliz, a 22-year-old construction worker.

03:05

Cuba sees largest anti-government protests in decades over coronavirus pandemic and economic woes

Cuba sees largest anti-government protests in decades over coronavirus pandemic and economic woes

What set off the protests?

Cuba’s government blames hardships on US sanctions that it calculates cost the island US$5.5 billion last year, though the figure is strongly disputed by its critics. It also claims the US government and its enemies in the US of using social media tools such as Twitter to send messages organising the street protests.

Critics blame the government’s failure to shake up the eternally dismal state-run economy. While the government has created a series of broader openings for small-scale private businesses, they remain tightly controlled and limited. Cuba also has relied in recent years on tourism – income that has been devastated by the global pandemic – and on aid from ally Venezuela, which has declined along with Venezuela’s own economy.

A move this year to combine the country’s two sorts of currency into one also caused sharp inflation.

A man being detained during anti-government protests in Havana, Cuba on Sunday. Photo: AFP

What was the role of social media?

Many protesters did learn of the demonstrations over social media platforms that have only recently become widespread in Cuba. They also used their phones to take images that were transmitted at home and abroad. The government responded by shutting down mobile data services by the state-run phone monopoly, effectively cutting off social media. Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said officials detected the use of so-called “bots” based in the US to bombard Cuban phones with messages. Social media services began to become widespread only in 2018.

Dozens arrested in Cuba protest crackdown: ‘they took my daughter’

How did the government respond?

When protests broke out Sunday in the town of San Antonio de los Banos near Havana, President Miguel Diaz-Canel quickly went to speak with residents. He also broadcast a call for “revolutionaries” to take to the streets in support of the government. Police moved in and arrested dozens of protesters, sometimes violently. A heavy police presence has continued in areas such as the seafront Malecon boulevard, the capital building and the sprawling Plaza of the Revolution in Havana. Smaller protests also occurred on Monday, and officials reported at least one death.

Cuba announced on Wednesday said it was temporarily lifting restrictions on the amount of food and medicine travellers could bring into the country in an apparent small concession to demands by protesters who took to the streets last weekend.

Rodriguez, the foreign minister, has demanded the US accept its role in fomenting unrest.

01:28

Joe Biden says US stands with Cuban people after biggest anti-government protests in decades

Joe Biden says US stands with Cuban people after biggest anti-government protests in decades

How has the US responded?

US President Joe Biden issued a statement of support for the protesters, saying: “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”. But the protests create a challenge for him, with political ramifications in Florida, a key electoral battleground that is home to many of the Cuban-Americans who left the island because of the Communist government there, as well as other people who fled from leftist regimes in Latin America. Republican lawmakers in particular are pushing for the administration to increase support for the demonstrators. So far, Biden has responded cautiously while officials continue with a review of US Cuba policy. So far he has not embraced the political and economic opening to Cuba carried out by the Obama administration – which was largely rolled back by former president Donald Trump.

How has China responded?

China has called on the US to end its economic embargo of Cuba and expressed support for the communist-run island.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian on Tuesday said that “as the Cuban side has pointed out, the US embargo is the root cause of Cuba’s shortages of medicine and energy”. He noted that the Cuban leader had gone to see the protesters “and listened to the voices of the people”.

Additional reporting by Reuters

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