HAVANA, Cuba: In the largest demonstrations in Communist Cuba in decades, thousands of Cubans took to the streets in Havana and other cities on Sunday to call for President Miguel Diaz-Canel to step down, while chanting "freedom."
The protests come during Cuba's worst economic crisis since the fall of its ally, the Soviet Union, along with a record surge in coronavirus infections. Those marching voiced anger over shortages of basic goods, curbs on civil liberties and the authorities' handling of the pandemic.
Thousands of protesters were seen in the streets in parts of Havana, with their shouts drowning out groups of government supporters waving the Cuban flag and chanting "Fidel."
In Havana, special forces jeeps, with mounted machine guns, patrolled streets. The police were visible on streets long after people had returned home due to the 9 pm Covid curfew.
"We are going through really difficult times," said Miranda Lazara, 53, a dance teacher who joined thousands of protesters who marched through Havana. "We need a change of systems."
Diaz-Canel, who also heads the Communist Party, said protesters were being manipulated by U.S.-orchestrated social media campaigns and "mercenaries" on the ground. He also said that further "provocations" would not be tolerated, calling on supporters to confront "provocations."
Meanwhile, Julie Chung, acting undersecretary of the U.S. State Department's Office of Western Hemisphere Affairs, said the U.S. was "deeply concerned by 'calls to combat' in Cuba and stood by the Cuban people's right for peaceful assembly," according to Reuters.
Reuters reported watching as some two dozen protesters in Havana were arrested. Police used pepper spray and hit some protesters, as well as a photographer working for the Associated Press.
In one area of Havana, protesters overturned an empty police car, chanting "repressors" at riot police.
Some protesters reported joining the protests after being informed of the marches on social media.
Cuba only allowed the transmission of mobile media in 2018.
With the collapse of tourism due to the Covid virus, tens of thousands of Cubans have lost their jobs.
Also, only 15 percent of all Cubans have received the Covid vaccination, as the country suffers an upsurge in infections.
The demonstrations were the largest since 1994, according to 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, according to Reuters.
"I just walked through town looking to buy some food and there were lots of people there, some with signs, protesting," resident Claris Ramirez said by phone. "They are protesting blackouts, that there is no medicine", as reported by Reuters.
President Diaz-Canel visited the town, later saying in broadcast remarks, "We are calling on all the revolutionaries in the country, all the Communists, to hit the streets wherever there is an effort to produce these provocations".
There were also protests in Palma Soriano, Santiago de Cuba, where streaming video showed hundreds marching through the streets.
"They are protesting the crisis, that there is no food or medicine, that you have to buy everything at the foreign currency stores, and on and on the list goes," a resident, Claudia Perez, said, as reported by Reuters.
Cuba's economy fell by 10.9 percent last year, and another 2 percent through June of 2021. There are shortages that have forced Cubans to queue for hours for basic goods throughout the pandemic.
Cuban officials reported a record 6,923 new Covid cases and 47 deaths on Sunday, which is twice as many as the previous week.