Cuban Canadians watch with anxiety after anti-government protests, COVID-19 rates spike

Canadians with loved ones in Cuba are watching with anxiety after thousands took to the streets of Havana and elsewhere in the country in some of the largest displays of anti-government sentiment in decades on Sunday, followed by quiet on the streets on Monday.

'I'm scared for my family, my friends, but I'm scared for all Cubans right now'

People shout anti-government slogans during a protest on Sunday in Havana, Cuba. (Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters)

Canadians with loved ones in Cuba are watching with anxiety after thousands took to the streets of Havana and elsewhere in the country on Sunday, in some of the largest displays of anti-government sentiment in decades, followed by quiet on the streets on Monday.

Cuban Canadians have been glued to social media, hoping to get whatever information they can amid widespread internet outages that have interrupted the flow of information out of the country. 

"They don't have internet since last night but people are asking for freedom," said Yanislaydy Betancourt, a Cuban resident in Toronto. 

"Cuban people are tired of being isolated; they are tired of living in a dictatorship," she said.

"I'm scared for my family, my friends, but I'm scared for all Cubans right now," she added. "It is really hard for me to see people in my country living the way they are. They don't have medicine, they don't have food. They are dying."

'Economic asphyxiation'

Protesters took to the streets to demand better access to food, medicine and rights as Cuba faces crushing rates of COVID-19, reporting some 6,900 new cases Monday — the largest single-day increase in new infections since the start of the pandemic. The country of 11 million has more than 32,000 active cases with an average of 4,892 new infections reported daily.

That situation is only compounding what is the worst economic crisis in Cuba since the 1990s as the country faces a decline in exports taken by China and Venezuela amid the pandemic, and the impact of decades-old U.S. sanctions tightened under the Trump administration.

Yanislaydy Betancourt says she worries not only for friends and family in Cuba but for all Cubans, saying residents are tired of living under what she sees as a dictatorship. (CBC)

Cuba has blamed the protests over the weekend on U.S. "economic asphyxiation" and social media campaigns on a minority of U.S.-financed counter-revolutionaries, while President Joe Biden declared his support for the protesters.

"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," Biden said in a statement Monday.

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel did not directly address the U.S. statement, issued during his address, but pointed to what he called Washington's hypocrisy for expressing concern over the situation Cuba while contributing to it with a trade embargo.

"Is it not very hypocritical and cynical that you block me... and you want to present yourself as the big saviour?" he said. "Lift the blockade … and then we will see what this people … is capable of."

WATCH | Crushing poverty, coronavirus prompt protests:

Crushing poverty, coronavirus prompt protests in Cuba

1 year ago
Duration 1:06
In a rare show of defiance, thousands of Cubans flocked to the streets in several cities on Sunday with bitter complaints about poverty and rousing demands for freedom.

'What Cuba needs is help and solidarity'

A friend of Betancourt's is collecting aid to ship to Cuba and calling on the Canadian government to help. Ottawa has said it is "closely monitoring" the situation.

But another group, also working on an aid shipment, supports Cuba's government, blaming the U.S. embargo for its situation.

"They are trying to present Cuba as a failed state and trying to present Cuba as having lost control of the pandemic. Neither are true," said Julio Fonseca, president of the Association of Cubans resident in Toronto.

"What Cuba needs is help and solidarity," he said.

Their shipment will include goods collected by a Canadian missionary to Cuba, Jennifer Raymer, who is based in London, Ont.

"I'm really emotional, I've had a love for Cuban people for many years and I know there's a struggle there and they hurt, so I hurt," Raymer said. 

WATCH | Cuban Canadians react:

Cuban Canadians react to weekend protests, high COVID-19 case counts

1 year ago
Duration 2:27
Thousands of Cubans protested in cities from Havana to Santiago on Sunday, calling for more freedoms and better access to food and medical supplies. Lorenda Reddekopp spoke to Cuban Canadians living in the GTA who are looking for ways to help.

Raymer was supposed to by flying to Cuba at the end of the month to deliver a shipment of humanitarian and medical supplies, but the trip was called off due to the growing COVID-19 crisis in the country.

Still, her stockpile of syringes, needles, medication and vitamin C is growing — something she says is boosting her spirits.

"It kind of feels like it's Christmas," she told CBC News as she pointed to the stockpile growing in her home.

Raymer says her group has secured a way to ship the goods by air, with a flight possibly leaving as soon as this weekend. 

As for what comes next, Judith Teichman, a professor of political science and international development at the University of Toronto, says that remains to be seen.

"I would hope that the U.S. would remove its embargo so that Cuba could trade with whomever it can trade with, which would produce greater prosperity in Cuba ... This would allow Cuban politics and economics to evolve in the way that it would naturally evolve," she said.

"Now, I don't think it would evolve in a way that is necessarily going to be seen in a positive light by the U.S. government because Cubans are very nationalistic. Cuba will not be a replica of U.S. individualistic democracy.

"But I think we could hope for much better things if the blockade were removed."

With files from Lorenda Reddekopp and Reuters