Thousands of people have taken to the streets in rare anti-government protests in Cuba, where the coronavirus pandemic and an economic crisis are spurring frustrations, with some demonstrators chanting “down with the dictatorship” and “we want liberty.”
At a protest on Sunday in San Antonio de los Banos, a town of some 50,000 people southwest of Havana, mainly young people shouted insults against President Miguel Diaz-Canel, according to videos posted online.
“We are not afraid,” some said.
“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 told the Reuters news agency by phone.
“They are protesting blackouts, that there is no medicine,” she added.
Thousands of people also gathered in downtown Havana and along parts of the seaside drive amid a heavy police presence, while protests took place later in the day in Palma Soriano, Santiago de Cuba.
The demonstrations came as Cuba is experiencing its toughest phase yet of the coronavirus crisis, and the same day it reported a new daily record of infections and deaths.
Social anger has been driven by long food lines and a critical shortage of medicines since the start of the COVID-19 epidemic, with Cuba under United States sanctions.
Diaz-Canel late on Sunday afternoon addressed the nation, accusing the US of being responsible for the unrest.
He warned that further “provocations” would not be tolerated.
Havana-based journalist Ed Augustin said there was a heavy police presence in the capital. He said Diaz-Canel in his speech to the country called on people who support the Cuban revolution to come out to defend it.
“These are the biggest protests in Cuba for decades,” Augustin told Al Jazeera.
President Miguel Díaz-Canel responds, calls it a provocation and calls on supporters of the revolution to take to the streets.
“The US supports freedom of expression and assembly across Cuba, and would strongly condemn any violence or targeting of peaceful protesters who are exercising their universal rights,” US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on Twitter.
Cuba was left relatively unscathed in the first months of the coronavirus outbreak, but it has seen a recent increase in infections.
A new record of 6,923 daily cases was reported on Sunday, along with 47 additional deaths. “These are alarming numbers which are increasing daily,” said Francisco Duran, head of epidemiology in the health ministry.
The country has been developing five of its own COVID-19 vaccines and last month said one of them, called Abdalla, showed 92 percent efficiency.
Cuban doctors and nurses have been fanning out across the capital in an effort to encourage jabs, hoping inoculations will help stem the rising infection numbers.