An anti-government protester is arrested during a pro-government rally in Havana on Sunday. Photo by Ernesto Mastrascusa/EPA-EFE
July 11 (UPI) -- The communist island nation of Cuba erupted into anti-government protests on Sunday as people took to the streets against a deepening economic crisis amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The protests, the largest seen in decades, saw thousands march the streets from its famed Malecon in Havana to Santiago de Cuba at the nation's southeastern tip as people chanted "freedom" and "yes, we can" in opposition to increasing blackouts and food and medical shortages, The Washington Post reported.
The protests seemingly started in the central Cuban city of San Antonio de los Banos before spreading islandwide and streamed online. According to Inventario, a website dedicated to data about Cuba, more than 50 protests were counted in towns and cities as of late Sunday.
Bruno Rodriguez, Cuba's foreign minister, said President Miguel Diaz-Canel had traveled to San Antonio de los Banos in response to the protests.
The Cuban government was quick to accuse the United States as a foreign agitator and the minister blamed the unrest on foreign "imperialist" countries and "salaried" protesters.
"We Cubans know perfectly well that the U.S. government is the main responsible for the current situation in Cuba," the president said, according to a Cuban government Twitter account. "Cuba and its streets belong to the revolutionaries."
Jose Miguel Vivanco, the executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch, said it has received complaints of arbitrary arrests of protesters as well as possible Internet outages.
"Thousands of Cubans want to live better and with basic freedoms," he said. "Faced with that fair claim, it seems that, once again, [Diaz-Canel] is only capable of responding with repression."
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights said it has also received reports of use of force, arrests and attacks on protesters and journalists, as well as cuts to the Internet.
The protests erupted amid a contracting economy hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.
According to its health ministry, there have been 238,491 COVID-19 infections with more than 32,000 active cases, and its death toll sits at 1,537.
However, it has repeatedly set and then broken daily records in both categories since early last month, according to Johns Hopkins University's live tracker of the disease.
The protracting pandemic has seen all-important tourist dollars dry up, impacting food supplies and causing businesses, such as restaurants to shutter, The New York Times reported.
People now wait in long lines to purchase essential goods, and the situation has forced people to flee.
The U.S. Coast Guard said it has intercepted 554 Cubans since Oct. 1, 2020, compared to 49 for all of last year.
On Saturday, the service said it intercepted 23 Cubans at sea some 15 miles south of Big Pine Key, Fla. In late May, a ship heading to the United States from Cuba capsized off Key West, resulting in two dead, 10 missing and eight rescued.
In the United States, politicians from both parties aisle took to Twitter to show their support for the Cuban demonstrators.
"Florida supports the people of Cuba as they take to the streets against the tyrannical regime in Havana," Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said. "The Cuban dictatorship has repressed the people of Cuba for decades & is now trying to silence those who have the courage to speak out against its disastrous policies."
U.S. Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., said the United States supports freedom and stands with the Cuban protesters.
"The White House must move swiftly," she said. "Freedom shall and must prevail."
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., also had sharp criticism on the silence from the White House, saying that while the people of Cuba have taken to the streets against 62 years of "socialist tyranny" President Joe Biden "has yet to say a word about it."
Julie Chung, acting assistant secretary for the U.S. State Department, issued a statement of support for the Cuban people's right to peaceful assembly.
"We commend the numerous efforts of the Cuban people mobilizing donations to help neighbors in need," she said.
However, Carlos F. de Cossio, Cuba's director for U.S. affairs, accused the U.S. State Department of sowing political instability and "should avoid hypocritical concern for a situation they have been betting on."
"Cuba is and will continue to be a peaceful country, contrary to the U.S.," he said.