Cuba leader denies repression, says blackouts and US embargo led to massive protests

A crowd of mostly Cuban Americans in Tampa, Florida show solidarity with Cuban demonstrators, July 11, 2021. (Photo by Luis Santana, TNS)

Without making any acknowledgment of the deep discontent with his government shown by protesters chanting “down with the dictatorship” across the island on Sunday, Cuban leader Miguel Díaz-Canel said Monday the massive uprisings were the “cumulative” result of U.S. policies.

He said the majority of people participating in the huge protests across the island Sunday, which he referred to as “events” and “provocations” rather than protests, were unhappy with the power blackouts proliferating during the hot Cuban summer and the lack of food and other necessities, all because of the U.S. embargo.

Díaz-Canel said U.S. financial sanctions had made it almost impossible to pay for goods abroad, just when the COVID-19 pandemic has stretched resources to the limit.

“All this discontent, these feelings of dissatisfaction, what is the ultimate cause of all that? It’s the blockade,” Díaz-Canel said during a news conference that was broadcast live on Cuban TV and livestreamed on YouTube on Monday. “This is part of the U.S. playbook to destabilize us, to generate chaos, to break our will and spirit.” He said social media has allowed the U.S. to amplify its “genocidal” campaign against Cuba.

He denied the existence of government repression on the island, saying critics “have already come up with this, that in Cuba we repress, we murder … Where are the murders, where is the Cuban repression, the disappeared? Why don’t they worry about the massive murders that take place every day in Latin American countries. Why don’t they care about the disappeared in the region?”

The Cuban leader said the U.S. and what he called members of the “Cuban mafia in Miami” were deploying the same tools of “nonconventional war” that they used against Nicolas Maduro’s regime in Venezuela, especially the “manipulation of feelings” through social media. He mentioned that Maduro called him Sunday to express his “solidarity.”

Díaz-Canel called the Monday morning press conference after thousands of people marched in several cities across the island Sunday to demand the end of Cuba’s authoritarian regime and denounce the lack of food and medicine.

The unprecedented demonstrations spontaneously grew as the day progressed and were met with a large number of Cuba’s special forces in certain areas. Several videos of violent arrests were posted on social media — including some with audio that appeared to be of gunshots — but the Cuban leader denied the police used force against the demonstrators.

“Where is the repression?” he asked, adding that he didn’t call for violence but rather that “the people reacted to the violence to defend their rights.”

New videos of the Sunday protests circulating Monday show police and military officers arresting, beating and even reportedly shooting at demonstrators. In one video, a man can be heard yelling, “Don’t shoot, that’s worse.”

Human rights activists Monday said arrests were still being made and that some of those detained, like a priest from the province of Camagüey, were taken to undisclosed locations. Two contributors at independent newspaper 14ymedio who had been detained Sunday were freed Monday, according to the outlet’s Twitter account.

Amnesty International said that human rights organizations and activists on the island have compiled a list of 109 people who have been arbitrarily detained, some of whom have been taken to undisclosed locations without any contact with family members. The names include Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, the leader of the San Isidro Movement, a collective of artists protesting against political repression on the island, as well as artist Amaury Pacheco and activist Orelvis Cabrera, who has exposed the collapse of the public health system in Matanzas, home to more than half of the island’s COVID-19 cases.

“We have heard accounts of excessive violence being used during these arbitrary arrests, and we’ve heard about several people who have been taken away without a trace; their family members don’t have any information about where they are,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International. She said local activists reported that two people were taken to hospitals with gunshot wounds.

Díaz-Canel said that Cubans have the right to protest and voice their opinions as long as they do it in a peaceful way. He said the few instances of confrontation with the police on Sunday were due to a few “delinquents” who stole appliances and electronics from stores that sell goods in dollars, and a group who overturned a police car.

Responding to a question about the increasingly disruptive blackouts, Díaz-Canel said the “economic asphyxiation” created by the tightening of the embargo under former President Donald Trump led to energy shortfalls as power plants were forced to go offline due to difficulties in purchasing replacement parts. He said the situation was made worse by higher demand in the summer, when electricity use is traditionally heavier.

While the news conference was still going in the afternoon, the U.S. diplomat in charge of Latin American affairs tweeted U.S. support for the demonstrators. Earlier in the day, president Joe Biden had called the uprising “a clarion call for freedom.”

“Cuba’s people continue to bravely express yearning for freedom in the face of repression,” State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary Julie Chung wrote on Twitter. “We call on Cuba’s government to refrain from violence. Listen to their citizens’ demands. Respect protester & journalist rights. The Cuban people have waited long enough for Libertad!”

On Monday, the information coming out of Cuba was limited, because the government has been shutting down access to the internet. Washington Post columnist Abraham Jimenez Enoa, who is in Havana, tweeted Monday morning that he heard protests were ongoing in some Havana suburbs. The Miami Herald spoke to people in different neighborhoods in Havana who confirmed there was calm in most of the city, but in the afternoon, a Facebook user identified as Luis Yaunnel livestreamed video of a protest in La Guinera, a poor neighborhood in the outskirts of Havana.

It was impossible to determine whether there were protests anywhere else on the island because of the lack of internet service.

“At 4:05 p.m. local yesterday, we saw the entire country of Cuba go offline for less than 30 minutes. Afterwards we saw several hours of intermittent but large (by traffic volume) outages,” said Doug Madory, an analyst tracking internet outages worldwide.

“Until very recently, large internet outages were very rare. Internet shutdowns are new to Cuba in 2021, but yesterday’s wasn’t the first. There was an outage in January just for mobile service,” Madory told the Herald. A group called Tor’s Open Observatory has documented censorship targeting the apps Signal, Telegram and Whatsapp, he added.

All day Monday family members tried unsuccessfully to get information about their loved ones detained by Cuban police.

Ariel Falcon, who first posted images of a protest in the Malecón, was arrested and his whereabouts are unknown, his brother Arnaldo Falcon, who lives in Madrid, told the Herald.

“My brother was part of the young people who came out to demonstrate in a peaceful and spontaneous way yesterday. After a while, we no longer heard from him since he was violently detained by three people wearing civilian clothes,” Arnaldo Falcon said. “They took the phone from him and threw it to the ground violently.”

Falcon said he learned of the details because his brother was able to briefly get a hold of another phone while being detained at a police station in Zanja, in Havana. His brother was then moved to another police station in El Cerro, another Havana neighborhood, where he spent the night. His parents were told to come back on Monday morning to see him, but then they were told he had been moved again to an undisclosed prison.

“They don´t want to tell us where he is,” Falcon said.


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