Biden calls Cuba protests ‘clarion call for freedom’
By Oscar López and Ernesto Londoño
As the largest protest movement in decades swept Cuba, President Joe Biden on Monday called on the Cuban government to heed the demands of thousands of citizens who took to the streets on Sunday to protest power outages, food shortages and a worrying lack of medicine.
“We stand with the Cuban people and their clarion call for freedom,” 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.”
His comments followed a day of astonishing demonstrations in Cuba. In a country known for quashing dissent, remarkable scenes emerged around the nation Sunday, with thousands of Cubans taking to the streets in a surge of protests not seen in nearly 30 years.
Shouting phrases like “freedom” and “the people are dying of hunger,” protesters overturned a police car in Cardenas, 90 miles east of Havana. Another video showed people looting from a government-run store — acts of open defiance in a nation with a long and effective history of repressive crackdowns on expressions of opposition.
Cuba’s president, Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, spoke out on national television Monday, calling the demonstrations a consequence of an underhanded campaign by Washington to exploit peoples’ “emotions” at a time when the island is facing food scarcity, power cuts and a growing number of COVID-19 deaths.
“We must make clear to our people that one can be dissatisfied, that’s legitimate, but we must be able to see clearly when we’re being manipulated,” Díaz-Canel said. “They want to change a system, to impose what type of government in Cuba?”
Biden’s comments represented something of a shift in tone from that of former President Barack Obama, who had emphasized sweeping aside decades of animosity between the two countries and cutting loose “the shackles of the past.” Obama made restoring relations with Cuba a focal point of his foreign policy and significantly expanded ties between the two countries — a détente that the Trump administration quickly moved to strip away.
But the protests in Cuba on Sunday offered a rare moment of bipartisanship in the United States, with Democrats and Republicans alike speaking out in support of the demonstrations.
“America stands with the oppressed Cuban people assembling for their birthright of #Libertad,” former Vice President Mike Pence wrote on Twitter. “America stands for a free and democratic Cuba!”
Others, however, blamed the American trade embargo for the protests and the deprivation driving them, a position the Cuban government took on Sunday when the demonstrations erupted.
“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,” Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, told reporters Monday. “That would be a truly humanitarian gesture.”
But some Cuban activists in the United States, including those who oppose the embargo, were quick to challenge that narrative.
“There’s no food, there’s no medicine, there’s nothing, and this isn’t a product of the American embargo, which I do not support,” said Ramón Saúl Sánchez, president of the Movimiento Democracia advocacy group in Miami. He noted that the embargo does allow Cuba to buy food from the United States, though restrictions on financing present significant barriers to the amount.
The size of Sunday’s demonstrations, which played out across the country, stunned longtime Cuba analysts. It reflects how dire life in Cuba has become in recent months, as the pandemic deprives the island of vital tourism revenue and strains the health system, the electricity grid falters, and the prices of basic food staples like rice and beans soar.
“There are tremendously long lines to get into supermarkets,” which these days only accept dollars, said Katrin Hansing, an anthropologist at Baruch College in New York who spent much of the past year doing research in Havana. “The same can be said for medicine. There is nothing: There is no penicillin, there’s no antibiotics, there’s no aspirin. There’s nothing, really.”
On social media, videos of protesters decrying the lack of electricity and basic supplies circulated widely on Monday.
“I took to the streets because I’m tired of being hungry,” said Sara Naranjo, in a video shared on Twitter. “I don’t have water, I don’t have anything,” she said, adding, “you get bored, you get tired, we are going crazy.”
Some observers called the mass demonstrations on Sunday inspiring, but also feared a crackdown, with Díaz-Canel calling on his supporters to take to the streets as well. Others said that Cubans had become increasingly emboldened to criticize their government, which typically puts down acts of dissent with ruthless efficiency.
“The basic economic situation is what’s pushing people to go out and raise their voices,” Hansing said. “But there’s also a loss of fear, and once that barrier is broken and more and more people see a significant number of people have lost their fear, more and more start getting encouraged.”
“I managed to escape,” he said.