Demonstrations across Cuba, which started over the weekend, saw protestors shouting “freedom” and “down with the dictatorship”. The protests reportedly began as a response to the government’s dire economic crisis and handling of the coronavirus crisis but spiralled into a full-blown call to end communism and the crippling economic situation, made worse since former US President Donald Trump tightened decades-old sanctions on the island.
Security forces were assisted by plainclothes officers in arresting protestors, and images on social media have shown security forces beating and pepper-spraying anti-government activists.
Havana resident Maykel, 21, who declined to give his surname for fear of retaliation, said: “It’s becoming impossible to live here.
“I don’t know if this can happen again, because at the moment, Havana is militarized. Still, Cubans are losing their fear.”
Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel called for his supporters to “fight” the protesters.
These protests might not seem particularly dramatic on a global scale, but in tightly controlled Cuba they are revolutionary.
The fact that people are willing to defy their government openly and face likely arrest shows the growing anger among the populace.
And there is one thing the government is struggling to control which has led to this: the internet.
Under the leadership of former president Raúl Castro, Cuba took liberalising steps that led to greater internet connectivity on the island.
Before this, it was easy for the government to hide small pockets of uprising from the rest of the country.
Now, however, social networks mean the population have access to one another’s information and news.
Today, a large part of the population – mainly young people – have access to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, which are their main sources of information from state and independent media.
These social networks have become platforms for artists, journalists and intellectuals to demand their rights or call for protests.
Indeed, Sunday’s protests were partly organised on social media, where news of them spread.
The Cuban government says social networks are used by “enemies of the revolution” to create “destabilisation strategies” that follow CIA manuals.
Internet blackouts were reported across the island after the protests as the government grappled to get the situation under control.
The very root of the issue leading to these protests, however, is the acute economic and health crises facing the island nation.
Cuba had managed to keep Covid under control in 2020, but recent weeks have seen an explosion in infections.
On Sunday, the island officially reported 6,750 cases and 31 deaths, although many opposition groups say the true figures are likely to be far higher.
Horrific reports have emerged of people dying in their homes, unable to access medical care.
The pandemic has compounded an already severe economic crisis, with tourism – one of the key elements of the Cuban economy – paralysed by Covid.
At the beginning of the year, the government proposed a new package of economic reforms that, while increasing wages, triggered a spike in prices.
Growing inflation, blackouts, and shortages of food, medicine and basic products all followed.
And Covid isn’t the only health problem – the lack of medical care and shortages in pharmacies have seen outbreaks of scabies and other infectious diseases.
The government has blamed US sanctions for the country’s ongoing failings.
In his TV address after the protests, President Díaz-Canel said sanctions were “the main problem that threatens the health and development of our people”.
Cuba is under a decades-old US trade embargo, as well as stiffer sanctions imposed by the Trump administration.
The sanctions, a bipartisan effort dating back to 1962, are aimed at destabilizing an authoritarian regime long led by Fidel Castro.
In response to the protests, US President Joe Biden said in a statement: “We stand with the Cuban people and their clarion call for freedom and relief from the tragic grip of the pandemic and from the decades of repression and economic suffering to which they have been subjected by Cuba’s authoritarian regime.
“The Cuban people are bravely asserting fundamental and universal rights.
“Those rights, including the right of peaceful protest and the right to freely determine their own future, must be respected.
“The United States calls on the Cuban regime to hear their people and serve their needs at this vital moment rather than enriching themselves.”