THOUSANDS of Cubans have joined the biggest protests for decades against the island’s Communist government.
They marched in cities including the capital Havana, shouting, “Down with the dictatorship!”.
Images on social media showed what appear to be security forces detaining and beating some of the protesters.
Cubans have been angered by the collapse of the economy, as well as by restrictions on civil liberties and the authorities’ handling of the pandemic.
The protesters were demanding a faster coronavirus vaccination programme after Cuba reported a record of nearly 7,000 daily infections and 47 deaths on Sunday.
Last year, Cuba’s largely state-controlled economy shrank by 11%, its worst decline in almost three decades. It was hit hard by the pandemic and US sanctions.
Thousands of pro-government supporters also took to the streets after the president went on television to urge them to defend the revolution – referring to the 1959 uprising which ushered in decades of Communist rule.
President Miguel Díaz-Canel said the protests were a provocation by mercenaries hired by the US to destabilise the country.
“The order to fight has been given – into the street, revolutionaries!” he said in an address on TV.
The top US diplomat for Latin America, Julie Chung, tweeted: “We are deeply concerned by ‘calls to combat’ in Cuba.”
“We stand by the Cuban people’s right for peaceful assembly. We call for calm and condemn any violence.”
‘There is no freedom’
The anti-government protests began with a demonstration in the city of San Antonio de los Baños, southwest of Havana, but soon spread throughout the country.
Many of them were broadcast live on social networks, which showed marchers shouting slogans against the government and the president, and calling for change.
“This is the day. We can’t take it anymore. There is no food, there is no medicine, there is no freedom. They do not let us live. We are already tired,” one of the protesters, who gave his name only as Alejandro, told the BBC.
Posts on social media showed people overturning police cars and looting some state-owned shops which price their goods in foreign currencies. For many Cubans, these shops are the only way they can buy basic necessities but prices are high.
While the crowds of protesters do not look particularly large, the significance of thousands of Cubans taking to the streets across the country can hardly be overstated.
Shouting “Freedom!” and “Down with Communism!” may be considered tame in other parts of the world, but doing so on the tightly controlled Communist-run island can easily land you in jail.
The fact that people are daring to do so in small towns where they can be easily identified by the Communist authorities shows the levels of anger fuelling these protests.
And with protesters live-streaming footage on social media sites, the government is finding it hard to hide evidence of the discontent.
A video uploaded by the Cuban foreign minister showing government loyalists marching and shouting “These streets belong to Fidel [Castro, the late Cuban revolutionary leader]” was quickly countered by government critics sharing footage of the protests.