Havana — Thousands of Cubans marched on Havana's Malecon promenade and elsewhere on the island Sunday to protest food shortages and high prices amid the coronavirus crisis, in one of biggest anti-government demonstrations in memory. Many young people took part in the afternoon protest in the capital, which disrupted traffic until police moved in after several hours and broke up the march when a few protesters threw rocks.
Police initially trailed behind as protesters chanted "Freedom," "Enough" and "Unite." One motorcyclist pulled out a U.S. flag, but it was snatched from him by others.
"We are fed up with the queues, the shortages. That's why I'm here," one middle-age protester told The Associated Press. He declined to identify himself for fear of being arrested later.
Cuba is going through its worst economic crisis in decades, along with a resurgence of coronavirus cases, as it suffers the consequences of U.S. sanctions imposed by the Trump administration.
An official in the Biden administration tweeted support for Sunday's demonstrations.
"Peaceful protests are growing in #Cuba as the Cuban people exercise 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," tweeted Julie Chung, acting assistant secretary for state for Western Hemisphere affairs.
Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel appeared on television to condemn the protests, and he called on supporters of the government to take to the streets in response.
"We're calling on all of the revolutionaries in the country, all of the communists, to come out onto the streets and to go to the places where these provocations are going to take place," Díaz-Canel said. "The combat order is given: To the streets, revolutionaries."
His words drew another tweet from Chung in the U.S., who said the American government was "deeply concerned by 'calls to combat' in #Cuba." She reiterated the American government's support for the Cuban people's right to protest peacefully, and added: "We call for calm and condemn any violence."
Cuba's director general for U.S. affairs, Carlos F. de Cossio, dismissed her remarks in his own tweet: "US State Department and its officials, involved to their necks in promoting social and political instability in #Cuba, should avoid expressing hypocritical concern for a situation they have been betting on. Cuba is and will continue to be a peaceful country, contrary to the US."
The demonstration grew to a few thousand in the vicinity of Galeano Avenue and the marchers pressed on despite a few charges by police officers and tear gas barrages. People standing on many balconies along the central artery in the Centro Habana neighborhood applauded the protesters passing by. Others joined in the march.
Although many people tried to take out their cellphones and broadcast the protest live, Cuban authorities shut down internet service throughout the afternoon.
About 2 1/2 hours into the march, some protesters pulled up cobblestones and threw them at police, at which point officers began arresting people and the marchers dispersed.
AP journalists counted at least 20 people who were taken away in police cars or by individuals in civilian clothes.
"The people came out to express themselves freely, and they are repressing and beating them," Rev. Jorge Luis Gil, a Roman Catholic priest, said while standing at a street corner in Centro Habana.
About 300 people close to the government then arrived with a large Cuban flag shouting slogans in favor of the late President Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution. Some people from the group assaulted an AP cameraman, disabling his camera, while an AP photographer was injured by the police.
Demonstrations were also held elsewhere on the island, including the small town of San Antonio de los Banos, where people protested power outages and were visited by Díaz-Canel. He entered a few homes, where he took questions from residents.
Afterward, though, he accused Cuban Americans of stirring up trouble.
"As if pandemic outbreaks had not existed all over the world, the Cuban-American mafia, paying very well on social networks to influencers and Youtubers, has created a whole campaign... and has called for demonstrations across the country," Diaz-Canel told reporters.
Cuba and the U.S.
Many Cubans werewhen the Biden administration declined an opportunity to reverse the harsher policy instituted against their nation by former President Donald Trump. The Biden White House has not lifted a flurry of by Mr. Trump on Cuba right before he left office, and the U.S. stood almost alone on June 23 in voting against a United Nations resolution condemning Washington's six-decade embargo on the island.
As CBS News producer Portia Siegelbaum reported, many Cubans — including doctors and nurses who say their ability to respond to the coronavirus pandemic has been hamstrung by American sanctions — had hoped to see the Biden administration abstain from the U.N. vote,in 2016. Instead, the U.S. voted "No" again, as it did under former President Trump.
In total, 184 nations voted in favor of the resolution condemning the U.S. embargo on Cuba. The same resolution has passed easily every year since it first came up in 1992.
The statement given by the U.S. delegation defending its vote at the U.N. in June was a strong indication of where the Biden administration stands on lifting existing sanctions against Cuba, CBS News' Pamela Falk reported from U.N. headquarters.
"The United States stands with the Cuban people and seeks to support their pursuit of freedom, prosperity, and a future of greater dignity," Rodney Hunter, the Political Coordinator for the U.S. Mission to the U.N., told diplomats at the General Assembly. "Sanctions are one set of tools in our broader effort toward Cuba to advance democracy, promote respect for human rights, and help the Cuban people exercise the fundamental freedoms enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."
"We are engaging directly with a large swath of Cuban civil society, empowering the Cuban people to determine their own futures. We are also engaging directly with the Cuban government to denounce abuses and push for reform," Hunter added. "The United States stands with all who defend freedom in Cuba. Cubans, as all people, deserve the right to freedom of expression, assembly, and culture. No government should silence its critics through violations of their human rights."
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