More than 100 people have been arrested or are reported to be missing after police in Cuba put down the country’s largest protests in decades.
Fuelled by anger at the failing economy, woeful pandemic response and rolling blackouts, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets on Sunday.
Cuba stands at a precarious tipping point with the clamour for personal freedoms growing louder, and the message spreading fast on social media.
Joe Biden, the US President has been urged to intervene, but Russia has warned him not to.
The communist nation in the Caribbean has once again become a foreign policy sticking point for the rest of the world, while people on the ground are suffering.
The unrest was the largest seen in decades
Credit: YAMIL LAGE / AFP
The repressed Caribbean nation of 11 million people has not seen widespread protests as big as this in decades, if ever, but the unrest has been brewing.
This year there have been demonstrations, hunger strikes and even clashes with police as an underground opposition movement has increasingly ventured into the open.
Sunday’s protest broke out in San Antonio de los Banos, outside of Havana and quickly spread across the country.
Increasingly, Cubans are gaining access to the internet and weaponising it against the government by raising their plight with the hashtag #SOSCuba.
For months, videos of spontaneous demonstrations and arrests have reached the rest of the world through Instagram, Facebook and other social media sites.
"We’ve seen how the campaign against Cuba was growing on social media in the past few weeks,” said Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz-Canel.
"That’s the way it’s done: Try to create inconformity, dissatisfaction by manipulating emotions and feelings."
The government has launched rolling internet blackouts in response to the unrest.
#SOSCuba #Cuba many of our people are marching on the streets all over the country. This is the first time in 60 years we have ever been able to do this. pic.twitter.com/MEY6KF6ENb
— 🇨🇺Internet Man🇨🇺 (@GumBoio) July 12, 2021
Videos filmed before the shutdown showed hundreds of residents chanting anti-government slogans and demanding coronavirus vaccines and an end to daily blackouts.
Cuba has been experiencing a worsening economic crisis for two years, which the government blames mainly on US sanctions and the pandemic, while its detractors cite incompetence and a Soviet-style one-party system.
A combination of sanctions, local 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 2 per cent this year so far. The resulting cash crunch has spawned shortages that have forced Cubans to queue hours for basic goods throughout the pandemic.
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 a week prior, and hospitals in the worst affected province have been overwhelmed.
But the problems go deeper…
The average salary in Cuba is around $30 a month. Some 17,000 people leave the country for good each year, and by 2030, a third of the population will be 60 or over.
For the first time in more than six decades years, a Castro is not ruling Cuba, with Raúl, brother of Fidel, stepping down as head of the country’s all-powerful Communist Party in April.
Mr Diaz-Canal, his replacement, is a bicycle-riding, jean-wearing Beatles fan who has previously championed LGBT rights and advocated for a freer society.
But a movement, led predominantly by young people, has seized on the transition to make their voices heard.
Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara, leader of the San Isidro Movement
Credit: Yander Zamora/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
“The exit of Raul Castro is an important symbol. This is going to be a radical change,” Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, head of the San Isidro Movement told the Telegraph in April.
“He is the last Castro to take power, one of the last revolutionaries, and now there is a big power vacuum."
The Telegraph attempted to reach him this week, but understands that he has been arrested. His whereabouts is currently unknown.
The San Isidro Movement is a collective of artists who have been leading protests against the Government’s censorship rules, and sparked into life with the rollout of mobile internet across the country in 2018.
Its members include journalists, singers and academics, who share their pictures of their work on Instagram and live stream their arrests on Facebook.
Police officers and their vehicles were targeted by protesters
Credit: YAMIL LAGE/AFP via Getty Images
At first they just advocated to be allowed to perform or publish without state approval, but now, they are demanding the end of communist rule and a transition to democracy.
The last big anti-government protests took place in 1994. Outside of Havana, many Cubans had no idea there was an uprising because there was no social media.
These days, the messages spread quickly, and more than 40 separate protests were reported on Sunday.
What the Government is saying
President Miguel Diaz-Canel has blamed the discontent on the United States pursuing a "policy of economic suffocation to provoke social unrest in the country."
The president delivered a combative television address Sunday, saying: "The order to fight has been given – into the street, revolutionaries!"
He called on "all communists to go out in the streets where these provocations occur… and to face them in a decisive, firm and courageous way."
Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel, centre, encouraged his supporters to counter the protesters
Credit: Yander Zamora/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said that US-financed mercenaries had fomented unrest ahead of this weekend’s protests with a media strategy disguised as a social media campaign calling for humanitarian aid.
"Yesterday in Cuba there was no social uprising, yesterday in Cuba there was disorder, disturbances caused by a communicational operation that had been prepared for some time and to which millions had been dedicated," he said on Monday.
On Twitter, Mr Rodriguez said: “The resurgence of the economic siege policy in the midst of the pandemic, together with interventionist operations and misinformation by the US government are the main threats to the integrity of the Cuban people.”
He also hit out at Uruguay and Brazil for their messages of support for the protesters.
More than 100 people are thought to have been arrested
Credit: AMIL LAGE / AFP
What the rest of the world is saying
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro expressed "all support" on Monday to the Cuban administration.
"All support to President Miguel Diaz-Canel, all support to the people of Cuba, to the revolutionary government of Cuba," Maduro, a staunch ally of the Cuban leadership, said in a televised meeting with lawmakers.
"From here, from Venezuela, (we are) brothers in good times and bad, and Cuba will move forward."
But his was a lone voice of support for the regime.
Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, himself under fire at home for his handling of the pandemic, expressed "solidarity" with protesters seeking "an end to a cruel dictatorship."
The demonstrators have received messages of support from leaders around the world
Credit: YAMIL LAGE / AFP
US President Joe Biden called the protests "remarkable" and a "clarion call for freedom."
"The Cuban people are demanding their freedom from an authoritarian regime. I don’t think we’ve seen anything like this protest in a long long time, if, quite frankly, ever," Mr Biden said on Monday.
"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," Mr Biden said.
Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador warned Monday against an "interventionist" approach to unprecedented protests in Cuba, and offered to send aid to the communist island.
Mexico could "help with medicines, with (coronavirus) vaccines, with what is needed and with food because health and food are fundamental rights" that do not require "interventionist political management," he said.
The European Union’s top diplomat Josep Borrell said that Cubans must have the right to protest.
"It’s been a protest to show discontent on a scale we haven’t seen since 1994," said Mr Borrell.
"I want to express the right of the Cuban people to voice their opinions peacefully, and I want to ask the government to listen to these protests of discontent."
What next for the country?
The unrest has been put down for now.
Amnesty International has received reports of “internet blackouts, arbitrary arrests, excessive use of force – including police firing on demonstrators & reports of a long list of missing persons.”
It is thought that more than 100 people have been arrested. The exact whereabouts of many of them is unknown.
Cuban police are out in force on the country’s streets.
The demonstrators managed to disrupt traffic in the capital for several hours on Sunday until some threw rocks and police moved in and broke them up.
Police are patrolling the streets to quell any further unrest
Credit: Photo by YAMIL LAGE/AFP via Getty Images
Cuban authorities have now blocked Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Telegram, said Alp Toker, director of Netblocks, a London-based internet monitoring firm.
"This does seem to be a response to social media-fueled protest," he said. Twitter did not appear to be blocked, though Toker noted Cuba has the ability to cut it off if it wants to.
Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares called on Cuba to immediately release Camila Acosta, a journalist detained in Havana while covering civil unrest in the country for Spanish newspaper ABC.
"Spain defends the right to demonstrate freely and peacefully and asks the Cuban authorities to respect it…We demand the immediate release of Camila Acosta," said Mr Albares.
Cuba’s government cracked down on activists on Monday night after mass protests drew thousands to the streets over the weekend in the biggest anti-government demonstrations seen on the Communist-ruled island in decades.
Madrid has demanded the release of Camila Acosta
Acosta, who describes herself on Twitter as an independent Cuban journalist, had been writing for ABC and uploading photos of the unrest to social media.
ABC said Cuba planned to charge Acosta with alleged "crimes against state security", and called on Madrid to put diplomatic pressure on Havana to secure her release.
The US is facing international pressure to act.
In Florida, where the largest Cuban population outside of Cuba exists, Governor Ron DeSantis is due to hold a roundtable with the "who’s who of the Cuban American community" and will make a statement in response to the protests throughout Cuba.
But Russia has warned of any foreign intervention.
"We consider it unacceptable for there to be outside interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state or any destructive actions that would encourage the destabilisation of the situation on the island," foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a statement.