MIAMI — Communist Cuba erupted in its largest-scale demonstrations in decades on Sunday as thousands of people chanting “freedom” and “yes, we can” took to the streets from Havana to Santiago de Cuba in a major new challenge to an authoritarian government struggling to cope with increasingly severe blackouts, food shortages and a spiking coronavirus outbreak.
The protests, from Havana’s famous Malecon to small towns and the island nation’s eastern cities, spoke to the power of social media, as well as discontent that has bubbled to the surface in the worsening pandemic, during which Cuba has already witnessed growing political protests led by artists and musicians. They appear to have started in the city of San Antonio de los Baños and spread rapidly as demonstrators shared protests on Facebook Live.
The demonstrations were so large that President Miguel Díaz-Canel, who succeeded Raúl Castro this year as first secretary of the Communist Party, called on Cuba’s “revolutionary” citizens to take to the streets.
President Biden called on the “Cuban regime to hear their people and serve their needs at this vital moment rather than enriching themselves.”
“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,” he said in a statement Monday. “The Cuban people are bravely asserting fundamental and universal rights. Those rights, including the right of peaceful protest and the right to freely determine their own future, must be respected.”
On Monday morning, Diaz-Canel denounced the protesters as “vulgar criminals” who he claimed had attacked police and looted stores. But his tone was less bombastic than the day before.
At a news conference, he decried “those who seek to discredit the revolution and fracture the unity of our country,” and presented ministers who offered technical updates on citizens’ bread-and-butter concerns. Officials vowed to improve the response to the country’s worsening covid outbreak by turning schools and hotels into isolation centers and emergency hospitals. They said the energy problems that have caused worsening blackouts were being worked out.
Witnesses said Cuban security personnel deployed tear gas and other forms of force Sunday to disperse crowds and used vehicles to detain dozens of people. There were reports of multiple people wounded as security forces and pro-government counterdemonstrators clashed with protesters.
“I have never seen such a protest in my life,” Noel Alonso Ginoris, 26, a writer and member of Havana’s San Isidro artists movement that has sought to challenge government authority, said by phone.
He joined the protests in Havana about 1 p.m. Sunday after seeing videos of demonstrations across the island. In central Havana, he said he saw a clash between protesters and about 50 pro-government demonstrators who were being guarded by police.
“That’s when things got tense and violent,” he said.
The two groups, he said, started confronting each other until the police intervened.
“Everyone started running; it was like a movie scene,” he said. “I saw one man very close to me, an older man in a blue pullover. They threw him to the ground, tied his hands and arrested him because he shouted ‘Freedom.’ ”
On social media, images appeared of Cuban citizens confronting officials in the authoritarian state, standing on what appeared to be overturned police cars and talking into cameras, bloodied and defiant after melees with government loyalists and police.
The Associated Press reported that a pro-government group assaulted an AP cameraman, disabling his camera, while an AP photographer was injured by the police.
José Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas division, said his group had received reports that at least 20 people had been arrested. He added the organization had received reports of violence being used by Cuban forces, a claim echoed by social media users sharing videos of wounded protesters.
“This is pretty massive,” he said. “My sense is that this is a combination of social unrest based on a lack of freedoms, and covid, and economic conditions. The lack of access to electricity. The blackouts. … People are screaming for freedom.”
Norges Rodríguez, co-founder of YucaByte, a website on Cuban affairs, said the protests appeared to be the result of a spontaneous “domino effect” from San Antonio de los Baños, 16 miles from Havana, outward. Videos shared on social media from the scene showed Cuban security forces manhandling protesters.
The protests exceeded frustrations of food lines and power scarcities, venturing into a challenge to the police state itself. Protesters could be heard chanting “Patria y Vida” — Homeland and Life — a play on the communist slogan “Homeland or Death” that has become a social media phenomenon among Cuban artists, musicians and dissidents.
“There are thousands of people,” Rodríguez said. “This is big.”
The protests were among the largest since the Cuban revolution of 1959 and appeared broader based than the 1994 Maleconazo protest in Havana that precipitated Fidel Castro, the father of the Cuban revolution and then-leader, to allow thousands of Cubans to flee the country by boats and rafts.
Nidialys Acosta, 45, a rental car and delivery company owner who is among the small class of private entrepreneurs in Cuba, said by phone that she first heard about protests through a Telegram group.
“I could not believe the magnitude,” she said.
“People are tired,” she said. “It has been aggravated in recent weeks by blackouts. There are blackouts of six hours in a row in the countryside.”
Acosta and her husband started a delivery business after demand at their antique car rental business plummeted during the pandemic. The economy, she said, is worse than ever.
“The situation is complex and this year the problem with getting food had made it worse.”
Still, she said, protests in the middle of a pandemic are not the solution. “This is not the time to do it,” she said, “and Diaz-Canel inciting the revolutionaries to the streets is crazy. I don’t agree with either of them.”
During his news conference Monday, Diaz-Canel blamed the U.S. embargo for Cuba’s deepening woes. He denounced a “nonconventional war” and a digital space that has taken root in Cuba in recent years for challenging the revolution. He said agitators were trying to portray him as a “tyrant” when the real culprit in the acute food and fuel shortages, which in recent weeks reached some of the worse conditions ever seen on the island, was the U.S. government.
“This policy of sanctions that prevents any kind of fuel arriving in Cuba has put us in a very difficult situation,” Diaz-Canel said.
Cuban journalist Abraham Jiménez Enoa tweeted from Havana: “Cuba is an island ruled by the military for 62 years. Today there is no food, no medicine, and people are dying like flies from covid. People got tired. This country is losing even fear.”
The protests sparked a Twitter war across the Straits of Florida. Cuban American Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a sharp critic of the communist government, called on President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken to ask “members of the Cuban military to not fire on their own people.”
“The incompetent Communist Party of #Cuba cannot feed or protect the people from the virus,” Rubio tweeted. “Now those in the military must defend the people not the Communist Party.”
Julie Chung, acting assistant secretary for the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, tweeted: “We are deeply concerned by ‘calls to combat’ in #Cuba. We stand by the Cuban people’s right for peaceful assembly. We call for calm and condemn any violence.”
Carlos Fernandez de Cossio, head of U.S. affairs at the Cuban Foreign Ministry, said he warned the United States to refrain from igniting the situation.
“US State Department and its officials, involved to their necks in promoting social and political instability in #Cuba, should avoid expressing hypocritical concern for a situation they have been betting on,” he tweeted. “Cuba is and will continue to be a peaceful country, contrary to the US.”
The Cuban government shared footage later in the day of pro-government counterprotesters chanting in the streets.
Cuba is confronting its worst economic emergency since the “special period,” when the collapse of the Soviet Union, Havana’s principal patron, sparked years of hunger and desperation.
The protests underscore the risks the Cuban government took by opening the nation of 11 million more broadly to the Internet in 2019, when the country gained access to 3G mobile telephone service that made it easier to use social media.
Activists have used social media to amplify their dissent, particularly after the arrest last year of Denis Solís, a Havana rapper and government critic. Another musician, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, began a high-profile hunger strike; his protest echoed across Cuba and the world.
On Eighth Street in Miami — the heart of the city’s Little Havana neighborhood — hundreds of Cuban Americans gathered in what many described as an act of solidarity with friends and family members on the island.
One man drove through the neighboring streets while tugging a boat with a large “Patria y Vida” sign. Many vehicles blared the song that has become an anthem for those demanding change on the island. Young men and women waved giant Cuban flags.
“We’ve come here to support our people,” said Lucy Febles, 57, a cleaner at the University of Miami who insisted on stopping by after finishing work at 10 p.m. She said her relatives had marched earlier in the day on the island. “I’m very hopeful. We haven’t seen this before. People are tired.”
Alexander Otaola, a social media influencer, spoke to the crowd through a bullhorn.
“Today we are an example of courage to the world,” he said in Spanish to cheers. “Long live a free Cuba!”
Ana Vanessa Herrero in Caracas, Venezuela, and Christine Armario in Miami contributed to this report.