Thousands of Cubans took to the streets on Sunday to rally against the communist government of Miguel Díaz-Canel. They shouted “fatherland and freedom” on a day that saw hundreds of arrests and violent clashes after the Cuban president urged his supporters (the pro-regime “revolutionaries”) to go out and “fight” the demonstrators.
Protests of this magnitude are rare in Cuba, where open dissent isn’t tolerated. In fact, nothing like it had been seen since the so-called “maleconazo” of August 1994. But with the pandemic apparently out of control and the population facing severe shortages of food, medicines, and other basic commodities, the country’s economic and health crisis has deepened.
The internet on the island was switched off only hours after the first anti-government rally had erupted, in an effort to keep protesters from sharing photos and videos on social media. However, this didn’t stop thousands of Cuban Americans from protesting in solidarity in Miami, marching down the streets of Little Havana and waving flags.
Díaz-Canel’s televised address to the nation followed the next morning. In his speech, the Cuban president accused the United States and social media “influencers” of stirring up public discontent and plotting the overthrow the Cuban regime. Although he conceded some protesters had legitimate concerns over food shortages and blackouts, Díaz-Canel blamed those problems on US sanctions.
In response to the accusations, President Joe Biden has called on Cuban leaders to hear its citizens’ “clarion call for freedom” rather than “enriching themselves”, and the White House has denied the US involvement in supporting or inciting the protests, while declining to comment on the impact of the country’s 60-year economic embargoes against the island nation.
If anything, the events on Sunday appear to confirm two things. The first is that Díaz-Canel, whom 90-year-old Raúl Castro anointed as his successor in April, is fully determined to keep a tight grip on Cuban life, harassing and imprisoning political dissenters. The second is that Cuba represents a not insignificant headache for President Biden, who is under pressure to reverse some of Donald Trump’s harsher measures and restore full diplomatic relations with Havana.
Washington’s inaction will come at a cost. As the humanitarian crisis deepens, many argue that the Biden administration is missing out on the opportunity to help improve the lives of ordinary Cubans and reopen substantive dialogue with the island nation.