Canada calls for 'inclusive dialogue' after Biden expresses support for Cuban protesters
Cuba's leader, Miguel Diaz-Canel, blames U.S. sanctions for discontent. Canada expresses concern
The United States stands with the people of Cuba in their call for freedom and relief from the coronavirus pandemic and decades of repression, President Joe Biden said on Monday as the streets of Havana appeared quiet a day after rare public protests.
Global Affairs Canada, meanwhile, said it is "closely monitoring the situation in Cuba" and "concerned by recent events."
"Canada supports the right to freedom of expression and assembly and calls on all parties to uphold this fundamental right," a Global Affairs spokesperson told CBC News via email.
"Global Affairs Canada urges all sides to exercise restraint and encourages all parties involved in the crisis to engage in peaceful and inclusive dialogue."
Chanting "freedom" and calling for President Miguel Diaz-Canel to step down, thousands of Cubans joined street protests from Havana to Santiago on Sunday in the biggest anti-government demonstrations on the Communist-run island in decades.
The protests erupted amid Cuba's worst economic crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union, its old ally, and a record surge in coronavirus infections, with people voicing anger over shortages of basic goods, curbs on civil liberties and the authorities' handling of the pandemic.
"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," Biden said in a statement. "The United States calls on the Cuban regime to hear their people and serve their needs at this vital moment rather than enriching themselves."
Diaz-Canel in a nationally televised address on Monday morning blamed U.S. sanctions, tightened in recent years, for the economic woes like medicine shortages and power outages that fuelled unusual protests this weekend.
The sanctions were tightened under the administration of former president Donald Trump after his predecessor, Barack Obama, took steps to normalize U.S. relations with Cuba after decades of acrimony between the countries.
"In the last few weeks the campaign against the Cuban revolution has increased in social media, drawing on the problems and shortages we are living," said Diaz-Canel.
He described vandalism seen in some cities as "vulgar, indecent and delinquent behaviour."
At least 100 protesters, activists and independent journalists had been detained nationwide since Sunday, according to exiled rights group Cubalex — some at the protests but others as they tried to leave their homes.
Jose Daniel, the leader of Cuba's largest opposition group, the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), was arrested as he left home to join the protest in Santiago de Cuba in the east of the country on Sunday. His whereabouts is unknown, UNPACU activist Zaqueo Baez told Reuters.
Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara and Amaury Pacheco, two members of a dissident artists' collective that has made headlines spearheading a broader protest movement in Cuba in recent years, were arrested on their way to protest in Havana, Pacheco's partner Iris Ruiz told Reuters. Otero Alcantara was in jail while Pacheco's whereabouts were unknown.
In Washington, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki rejected Diaz-Canel's characterization of the cause of the unrest.
"There's every indication that yesterday's protests were spontaneous expressions of people who are exhausted with the Cuban government's economic mismanagement and repression," she said.
Sporadic incidents, largely peaceful protests
Appearing alongside his cabinet in a televised national address, Diaz-Canel reiterated the people's right to defend its system.
Thousands took to the streets in various parts of Havana on Sunday including the historic centre, drowning out groups of government supporters waving the Cuban flag and chanting "Fidel."
Special forces jeeps, with machine guns mounted on the back were seen throughout the capital and the police presence was heavy even long after most protesters had gone home.
"We are going through really difficult times," Miranda Lazara, 53, a dance teacher, who joined the thousands of protesters who marched through Havana. "We need a change of system."
Reuters witnesses in Havana protests saw security forces, aided by suspected plain clothes officers, arrest about two dozen protesters. Police used pepper spray and hit some protesters as well as a photographer working for the Associated Press.
In one area of Havana, protesters took out their anger on an empty police car, rolling it over and then throwing stones at it. Elsewhere, they chanted "repressors" at riot police.
Economic, pandemic woes
Some protesters said they took to the streets to join in after seeing what was happening on social media, which has become an increasingly important factor since the introduction of mobile internet two and a half years ago, although connections were patchy on Sunday.
Amnesty International said it had received with alarm reports of "internet blackouts, arbitrary arrests, excessive use of force" including police firing on demonstrators." Reuters was unable to immediately independently verify the use of firearms.
The anti-government demonstrations were the largest since the summer of 1994, said Michael Bustamante, an assistant professor of Latin American history at Florida International University.
"Only now, they weren't limited to the capital; they didn't even start there, it seems," he said.
Cuba has been experiencing a worsening economic crisis for two years. A combination of sanctions, inefficiencies and the pandemic has shut down tourism and slowed other foreign revenue flows in a country dependent on them to import the bulk of its food, fuel and inputs for agriculture and manufacturing.
The economy contracted 10.9 per cent last year, and two per cent through June. The resulting cash crunch has spawned shortages that have forced Cubans to queue for hours for basic goods throughout the pandemic.
Cuba's president blamed Washington for economic problems, saying his government has been fighting to keep the economy functioning "in the face of a policy of economic asphyxiation intended to provoke a social uprising."
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador backed Cuba, saying the U.S. economic embargo should be ended.
"The truth is that if one wanted to help Cuba, the first thing that should be done is to suspend the blockade of Cuba as the majority of countries in the world are asking," Lopez Obrador told a news conference on Monday.
Reaction from Democratic House Speaker, Cuban-American Republican senator:
The call for freedom and basic rights by the people of Cuba peacefully taking to the streets and marching is an act of great courage. I support the Cuban people in their pursuit of liberty and condemn any violence or targeting of those exercising their rights.—@SpeakerPelosi
Protests in <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Cuba?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Cuba</a> aren’t simply about “shortages” <br><br>Socialism promises guaranteed food,medicine & income if you give up your freedom<br><br>When, as always, it fails to deliver you don’t get your freedom back<br><br>That’s why the protestors are chanting “Libertad” <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/SoSCuba?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#SoSCuba</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/PatriaYVida?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#PatriaYVida</a>—@marcorubio
Cuba has begun a mass vaccination campaign, with 1.7 million of its 11.2 million residents vaccinated to date and twice that many have received at least one shot in the three-shot process.
Still, the arrival of the delta variant has prompted cases to surge, with health authorities reporting a record 6,923 cases and 47 deaths on Sunday — twice as many as the previous week.
Global Affairs said "Canada has provided funding to several projects to help Cuba respond to the pandemic and its impact on vulnerable segments of the population." Most recently, Canada has provided $1 million to the UN's World Food Program to support vulnerable people in Cuba, Global Affairs said.
With files from CBC News and The Associated Press