Cuba blames unrest on U.S. ‘asphyxiation’ as Biden backs protests

Cuba's President Miguel Diaz-Canel talks to the media, in San Antonio de los Banos
FILE PHOTO: Cuba’s President Miguel Diaz-Canel talks to the media, in San Antonio de los Banos, Cuba July 11, 2021. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

July 12, 2021

By Sarah Marsh and Marc Frank

HAVANA (Reuters) -Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel on Monday blamed historic protests this weekend on U.S. “economic asphyxiation” and social media campaigns by a minority of counter-revolutionaries while U.S. President Joe Biden said he stood with the Cuban people.

The protests erupted amid Communist-run Cuba’s worst economic crisis since the fall of former ally Soviet Union, with the tightening of decades-old U.S. sanctions exacerbating shortages of food and medicine as well as power outages amid a surge in COVID-19 infections.

“In the last few weeks the campaign against the Cuban revolution has increased in social media, drawing on the problems and shortages we are living,” Diaz-Canel said in a televised address alongside his Cabinet.

A minority of counter-revolutionaries were fomenting unrest, he said, denouncing vandalism that took place across various cities on Sunday in Cuba’s biggest anti-government demonstrations in decades.

“They threw stones at foreign currency shops, they stole items … and at police forces, they turned over cars – a totally vulgar, indecent and delinquent behavior,” he said.

The streets of Havana appeared quiet on Monday morning, although special forces patrolled its seafront boulevard.

Biden in a statement on Monday said the United States stands with the people of Cuba in their call for freedom and relief from the coronavirus pandemic and decades of repression.

“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,” Biden said.

“The United States calls on the Cuban regime to hear their people and serve their needs at this vital moment rather than enriching themselves,” said Biden, who during his White House campaign promised to ease sanctions but has yet to do so.

The United States had tightened sanctions on Cuba under Donald Trump, Biden’s predecessor, including restricting key remittances in the middle of the pandemic.

Diaz-Canel did not directly address the U.S. statement, issued during his address. But he attacked what he called Washington’s hypocrisy for expressing concern when it was fueling the crisis in Cuba with its trade embargo.

“Is it not very hypocritical and cynical that you block me … and you want to present yourself as the big savior?” he said. “Lift the blockade .. and then we will see what this people, that has achieved an immense social work despite what is practically a war economy, is capable of.”

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador gave Cuba backing on Monday, saying the U.S. economic embargo on the island should be ended to help its people.

“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,” Lopez Obrador told a news conference.

(Reporting by Sarah Marsh and Marc Frank in Havana; Editing by Howard Goller)

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