"The people came out to express themselves freely, and they are repressing and beating them," said a priest in Havana.
In a country where publicly questioning communism or Fidel Castro’s revolution could land a person in jail, thousands of people took to the streets across Cuba Sunday, chanting “Liberty!” “Down with communism!” and “Down with the dictatorship!”
What began as a demonstration in San Antonio de los Baños, southwest of Havana, soon spread throughout the country. In spite of the government pulling the plug on an already-inadequate internet, word had already spread enough through social media to ignite more protests.
Demonstrators were angry about the economy — which is largely state-controlled — which shrank by 11% last year, its worst decline in almost three decades. The economy has taken a couple of big hits, including the drop in the vital tourist industry because of the pandemic, and a poor sugar harvest.
“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 BBC reported.
As protests spread, President Miguel Díaz-Canel went on television saying it was due to provocation by mercenaries hired by the US to destabilize the country. He urged government supporters to defend Castro’s revolution. And counter-protests sprang up.
According to Vanessa Buschschluter, the BBC’s Latin America and Caribbean editor, a very poor sugar harvest, which is usually mostly exported, meant that Cuba fell short of foreign currency, so the government could not buy imported goods to supplement shortages. Most people have to wait on long lines for food.
“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,” a protesters told the BBC.
There were reports of police beating protestors, using tear gas, and possibly using rubber bullets and attack dogs.
“The people came out to express themselves freely, and they are repressing and beating them,” Rev. Jorge Luis Gil, a Catholic priest in Havana, told the Associated Press.
Catholic News Agency reported that the Christian Liberation Movement, known by its initials in Spanish as MCL, called on Cubans to continue to pressure authorities to hold general elections.
Protesters in some regions marched with the image of Our Lady of Charity, the patroness of Cuba.
Eduardo Cardet Concepción, National Coordinator of MCL, said in a statement that demonstrators were demanding freedom “and an end to repression and misery.” They are doing so “in order for the tyranny to end.”
Catholic News Agency said the MCL statement demands “the release of political prisoners, the annulment of the repressive laws against freedom, recognition of economic rights of free enterprise for Cubans, recognition of each Cuban’s — inside and outside the island — right to vote and to be elected.”