‘Freedom!’ Thousands of Cubans take to the streets to demand the end of dictatorship

In an unprecedented display of anger and frustration, thousands of people took to the streets Sunday in cities and towns across Cuba, including Havana, to call for the end of the decades-old dictatorship and demand food and vaccines, as shortages of basic necessities have reached crisis proportions and COVID-19 cases have soared.

From the Malecón, Havana’s famous seawall near the old city, to small towns in Artemisa province and Palma Soriano, the second-largest city in Santiago de Cuba province, videos live-streamed on Facebook showed thousands of people walking and riding bikes and motorcycles along streets while chanting “Freedom!” “Down with Communism!” and “Patria y Vida” — Homeland and Life — which has become a battle cry among activists after a viral music video turned the revolutionary slogan “Homeland or Death” on its head.

“We are not afraid!” chanted Samantha Regalado while she recorded hundreds of people walking along a narrow street in Palma Soriano.

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During the day, protests erupted in several cities, including the island’s biggest — Havana, Santiago, Santa Clara, Matanzas, Cienfuegos and Holguín — but also in smaller towns like Palma Soriano, Cárdenas, Colón, Guira de Melena, Artemisa and others. Inventario, a website specializing in Cuban data, tracked at least 25 protests in different locations throughout the island.

Last time Cubans took to the streets to protest against the communist government was in 1994 and Fidel Castro was alive. But the uprising, known as the Maleconazo, only took place in Havana and didn’t last long, as the former Cuban leader quickly turned the demonstrations into a massive exodus after he opened Cuba’s maritime borders. Thousands of Cubans left the island in makeshift boats and rickety rafts, in what became known as the balsero crisis.

Video streamed on Facebook by Antonio Miguel Cobas Jalowayski around 1 p.m. in Palma Soriano showed hundreds of protesters calling for freedom and shouting, “Down with the dictatorship” and “Down with Díaz-Canel,” a reference to Cuban leader Miguel Diaz-Canel. The protesters also demanded medicine, COVID vaccines and “the end of hunger.” A crowd is seen pushing a police car and shouting “the dictators just arrived,” in reference to the police. Later, one protester is heard saying, “This is a peaceful demonstration.”

Facebook user Carlos Alberto Ceballos Brito published a video around the same time showing a crowd gathering in Alquizar, a town in Artemisa province near Havana, also protesting against the government and chanting “Down with Diaz-Canel” and “Patria y Vida”. Another video published on Facebook shows a similar protest in nearby Güira de Melena. In all cases, the crowd used strong language to refer to Díaz-Canel, whose popularity is sharply falling as life on the island deteriorates.

In an impromptu televised address later in the afternoon, Díaz-Canel blamed the protests on U.S. efforts to tighten the embargo, with the alleged intention to “provoke a social uprising” that would justify a military intervention.

Visibly upset and raising his voice, the Cuban leader warned that protesters would face a strong response and called “all revolutionaries” to confront them on the streets “with firmness and courage.”

“We are not going to hand over the sovereignty or the independence of the people,” he said. “There are many revolutionaries in this country who are willing to give our lives, we are willing to do anything, and we will be in the streets fighting.”

Cuba is in the throes of its worst economic contraction in over three decades, as chronic inefficiencies and paralyzing bureaucracy have gradually eroded the country’s production capacity, including the essential food and agriculture sectors. Trump-era sanctions have reduced access to vital economic lifelines like remittances, and foreign investment has plunged. Painful currency reforms this year have sent inflation soaring, and long lines for food have again become commonplace.

Now Cuba is struggling to control transmission of the coronavirus and has been setting record highs almost daily in the past few weeks. Cuba decided to make its own COVID-19 vaccine and didn’t seek to buy shots from other countries. But plans to immunize the population with a homegrown vaccine has been plagued by delays.

COVID-19 cases in Cuba soared to a record 6,422 on Friday, nearly twice the number registered just earlier in the week, while deaths reached 28 as the island struggles to contain the virus in high-transmission areas and in the capital Havana.

Last week calls for the government to accept humanitarian aid increased as Cubans began documenting on social media the collapse of the health system in the province of Matanzas, the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in the island.

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The government responded by sending more doctors to the province and setting up a bank account to receive aid, but the account is in a Cuban bank under U.S. sanctions. Although Cuban officials said this week the country is open for donations, historically, the government has refused or seized the humanitarian aid coming from Cuban exiles.

In a separate video posted on Facebook on Sunday, activist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara called on Cubans to head to the Malecón to protest against the island’s authoritarian regime.

“I’m going to the street, I’m going to the Malecón, no matter the cost,” he said.

Otero Alcántara went on hunger strike earlier this year to draw international attention to increased repression of artists and activists, who have stepped up calls for more civil liberties. He was forcibly removed from his home and hospitalized.

Later in the afternoon, Cubans were sharing videos of the police response. A Facebook video posted by user AntenaCubana shows people in Palma Soriano throwing stones at the police while a person is heard saying the police had been beating the demonstrators. Another video showed several trucks carrying special-forces police officers reportedly arriving in San Antonio de los Baños, where Cuban president Díaz-Canel showed up to speak to residents, a gesture that mimicked Castro’s response to the Maleconazo in 1994.

On Twitter, Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodríguez suggested the protests were orchestrated by the US.

“President @DiazCanelB is in San Antonio de los Baños with the revolutionary people that are mobilized against the imperialist campaign and its salaried agents,” he wrote. “We appreciate the international solidarity and support of Cubans living abroad #EliminatetheBlockade.”

But as news of the protests around the country spread on social media — despite reports of the government shutting down internet access — Cubans in the capital also took to the Malecon to demand the end of the regime.

Videos posted around 3 p.m. on Facebook showed a crowd chanting “Patria y vida.” Cuban journalist Abraham Jiménez Enoa reported that the police were detaining protesters gathered around 23 and L streets, at the heart of the city of Havana.

In Miami, Mayor Francis Suarez called an impromptu press conference to say this is the moment for an international intervention led by the United States to help the Cuban people achieve democracy and prevent “a blood bath” on the island.

“We are asking the federal government to do everything possible and not waste this moment,” he said.

Suarez also said the unprecedented protests in “more than 14 cities across Cuba” have the potential to trigger demands for change in authoritarian regimes in the entire hemisphere.

“The implications of this moment can mean freedom to so many in the hemisphere, from Nicaraguans to those who suffer under the Maduro regime in Venezuela,” he said.

Miami Republican U.S. Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar and Republican state Sen. Ileana Garcia echoed his comments and asked the Biden administration to intervene by tightening the embargo against the regime, but by also sending humanitarian aid to Cuba.

Julie Chung, the State Department’s Acting Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, said Cubans are exercising “their right to peaceful assembly to express concern about rising COVID cases/deaths & medicine shortages.”

“We commend the numerous efforts of the Cuban people mobilizing donations to help neighbors in need,” she wrote on Twitter.

Erika Guevara-Rosas, Amnesty International director for the Americas, called the spontaneous protests “incredible and powerful.”

“The fear is over!” she tweeted.

Despite Díaz-Canel warnings, the uprising continued during into the early evening.

Videos circulating on social media showed crowds of demonstrators walking through streets near the Malecón in Central Havana, around the Capitol building and in the town of Regla, across Havana bay.

A video broadcast on the YouTube channel of an influencer known as Paparazzi Cubano seems to show protesters in Camagüey throwing stones at a police car and several police officers, while sounds of what appear to be gunshots can be heard.

El Nuevo Herald reporter Carlos Martinez contributed to this report.