The Cuban government held a massive rally in the early hours of Saturday morning on Havana’s Malecon, the city’s famed corniche, at the end of a week of unrest that spurred a slew of international criticism.
Crowds for the “Act of Revolutionary Reaffirmation” rally in the Cuban capital, which the government said numbered 100,000, arrived before the sun rose and spilled onto the highway near the United States embassy. Other rallies were held across the country.
People had travelled in by buses and trucks and were met by the music of Silvio Rodriguez, one of the few famous Cuban musicians not to criticise the government’s fierce response to the protests last week.
“I’m here to support the Cuban revolution,” Yilian Llanes told Al Jazeera. “To give my support as a representative of young Cubans, and to express my discontent with the violent protests that took place in our country.”
Those protests began last Sunday in the town of San Antonio de los Banos. Residents were furious with hours-long blackouts but people quickly spilled onto streets across the island due to anger over months of food and medicine shortages.
Police cars were turned over, a few hated MLC stores – where necessities can only be purchased in foreign currencies – were looted, and clashes with police and government supporters broke out.
The state’s response – arresting hundreds, including protesters who were pulled from the crowds and detained without having their families informed of where they were – earned a rebuke from the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights on Friday.
“All those detained for exercising their rights must be promptly released,” Michelle Bachelet said.
People began being bused to Havana’s Vedado neighbourhood from local party headquarters from 4:30am (08:30 GMT) on Saturday for the rally. They carried party flags, banners and placards showing revolutionary heroes such as Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.
Raul Castro, the 90-year-old brother of Fidel who stepped down as the first secretary of the Communist Party in April, made an appearance but did not speak. Instead, the microphone was given to his successor, Miguel Diaz-Canel.
“Viva Cuba Libre,” shouted Diaz-Canel, before launching into an attack on social media, access to which the government had restricted for much of the last week.
“Hate robs us of the time to love. We have experienced that in the last week on social media. The owners of these networks, the dictators of those algorithms, have opened their platforms to hatred, without the slightest ethical concern,” he said.
“It is a hatred that fractures friends, families, society and threatens to make many of our values useless.”
In contrast to last weekend’s protests, the crowd on Saturday was older. People had been called up by their workplaces and many wore the T-shirts of state industries, such as oil distributor CUPET. Others wore pro-Cuba slogans.
Still, young people participated in the rally, including 27-year-old Kenneth Fowler, who told Al Jazeera he is a professor at the University of Havana and had come with students from the chemistry faculty.
“Last weekend we had an attempt against the safety of our society,” he said. “It was part of a much greater attack by the US government and the capitalist system. The president called for people to come forward and defend our achievements. So that’s why I’m here.”
On Thursday night, during a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, US president Joe Biden made it clear that he would continue Donald Trump’s policy of denying Cubans money by continuing to block remittances sent by relatives abroad. The UN’s Bachelet also criticised the 60-year US embargo.
Meanwhile, news of the rally spurred criticism from those who have been watching COVID-19 flood every corner of the island. The average daily number of new cases has risen above 6,000 and hospitals are being overwhelmed in several provinces.
Amilcar Perez Riverol, a post-doctoral fellow in molecular biology at Sao Paulo State University in Brazil and a veteran of Cuba’s laboratories, has been a staunch supporter of Cuba’s health workers and scientists as they have fought the virus and developed homegrown vaccines.
He tweeted that for a country that is currently fifth in the world and first in Latin America in terms of infections per capita, the decision to rally seemed disastrous.
“These rallies aren’t good news for the control of the current surge in Cuba. Not only because of the potential infections during the rallies but for the message they send,” Perez Riverol told Al Jazeera on Saturday.
But on the Malecon, Fowler said a show of unity was too important to worry about the further spread of the virus. “We need to show our decision to fight together, I think that is more important,” he said. “And you know what? I didn’t hear anyone telling that to the protesters last weekend.”