Thousands rally against government as Cuban economy struggles

Thousands of Cubans have risked jail by joining the biggest protests for decades against the island’s Communist government.

“There is no food, no medicine, there is no freedom. They do not let us live,” one of Sunday’s protesters named only as Alejandro told BBC Mundo.

The protests are significant, because government critics face harsh punishments for dissent in Cuba.

The island’s president called for his supporters to “fight” the protesters.

Cuba is in the midst of an economic crisis and has been hit hard by US sanctions and Covid.

Cubans have been angered by the collapse of the economy, food and medicine shortages, price hikes and the government’s handling of the pandemic.

Protesters shouted “freedom” and “down with the dictatorship” in demonstrations across Cuba, including the capital Havana.

“We are not afraid. We want change, we do not want any more dictatorship,” an unnamed protester in San Antonio told the BBC.

Dozens of anti-government protesters were arrested by security forces who were assisted by plain clothes officers, Reuters news agency reports. Images on social media showed what appeared to be security forces detaining, beating and pepper-spraying some of the protesters.

There were reports of internet blackouts across the island and a photographer with Associated Press was injured after a confrontation with security forces.

In response to the rare unrest, President Miguel Díaz-Canel addressed the nation in a TV broadcast and blamed the US for the turmoil. He called its tight sanctions on Cuba – which have been in place in various forms since 1962 – a “policy of economic suffocation”.

Mr Díaz-Canel said the protesters were mercenaries hired by the US to destabilise the country, and called for his supporters to go out and defend the revolution – referring to the 1959 uprising which ushered in Communist rule.

“The order to fight has been given – into the street, revolutionaries!” he announced.

The top US diplomat for Latin America, Julie Chung, tweeted: “We are deeply concerned by ‘calls to combat’ in Cuba.”

The US – which has a decades-old history of hostilities with Cuba – has said it stands with Cubans, and called on those in government to refrain from violence and listen to its people.

“The Cuban people are bravely asserting fundamental and universal rights,” US President Joe Biden said in a statement.