President Joe Biden said Monday that the United States stands with the Cuban people, as thousands protest against food and medicine shortages amid the coronavirus pandemic. It has been said to be the biggest anti-government protest in 30 years.
“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,” Biden said in a statement.
The president also called on the Cuban regime to “hear their people and serve their needs at this vital moment rather than enriching themselves.”
“The Cuban people are bravely asserting fundamental and universal rights,” Biden said in a statement. “Those rights, including the right of peaceful protest and the right to freely determine their own future, must be respected.”
Thousands of Cubans took part in protests around the country Sunday.
Protesters, many of them young people, chanted, "We want freedom" and "We want vaccines" as they marched on Havana, the island's capital. Cuba is going through its worst economic crisis in decades, exacerbated by a surge in coronavirus cases coupled with a low vaccination rate.
“We are fed up with the queues, the shortage. That’s why I’m here,” one middle-age protester told The Associated Press. He declined to identify himself for fear of being arrested later.
Outside of Havana, hundreds of people marched through cities like San Antonio de los Baños and Palma Soriano, and throughout the province of Artemisa. Protests even extended as far as the U.S. in Miami, which has a sizeable Cuban and Cuban-American population.
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Although many people tried to take out their cellphones and broadcast the protests live, Cuban authorities shut down internet service throughout the afternoon. Officers also charged protesters, barraging them with tear gas and arresting some.
“As if pandemic outbreaks had not existed all over the world, the Cuban-American mafia, paying very well on social networks to influencers and YouTubers, has created a whole campaign ... and has called for demonstrations across the country,” President Miguel Díaz-Canel told reporters.
In an impromptu televised address, he blamed the protests on U.S. efforts to provoke a social uprising by tightening the embargo and warned that protesters would face a strong response.
"We are not going to hand over the sovereignty or the independence of the people," he said, reported the Miami Herald.
In Miami, Mayor Francis Suarez said at a news conference Sunday that "Cubans are worthy and ready to rule themselves without tyranny."
"It can end today and it must end today," he said, reported NBC-6. "The implications of this moment can mean freedom for millions of people in the hemisphere, from Nicaraguans and Venezuelans and so many more."
Contributing: The Associated Press.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cubans demonstrate against food shortages; Biden offers support