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Politics

Thousands In Cuba Protest Over The Worsening Economy

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Cuba is one of the most tightly-controlled countries in the world, which is why yesterday's demonstrations were astonishing. Across the island, thousands of people took to the streets in what appeared to be spontaneous protests. They were furious about the lack of food and medicine and power outages.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) Libertad, libertad, libertad, libertad, libertad.

CORNISH: The chant was libertad, which in Spanish, means freedom. NPR's Carrie Kahn has covered Cuba for many years. She joins us now from Mexico City. And Carrie, to start, as we said, people haven't seen this kind of public protest, this kind of display for almost three decades. How is the government responding?

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Well, like you said, yesterday, thousands were in the street in many cities throughout the country, not just in Havana, and it was overwhelming, to say the least. I've never seen anything like it. There were multiple arrests, but many huge protests went on for hours. It was just - it was unprecedented. President Miguel Diaz-Canel interrupted state TV yesterday and was very defiant. He urged Cubans to take to the streets and defend the revolution against what he said were paid demonstrators. Today, he was back on state TV, and I heard more of a conciliatory tone. He was clearly still defiant and went on for hours, but he did talk about legitimate concerns and gripes Cubans have. No one can deny that times are tough in Cuba. Shortages of food and fuel are real. COVID is bad, and it's summer, and it is hot in Cuba, and power is in short supply. And he said he understands, he understands the frustrations.

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PRESIDENT MIGUEL DIAZ-CANEL: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: But he said, what is the origin, the cause of all that? The blockade - that's what Cubans call the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba. The Cubans blame all the economic problems in the country on the U.S. sanctions and the embargo, and there's no doubt that is what is at the core of the problems, not the government, he said.

CORNISH: President Biden put out a statement today. What did he have to say?

KAHN: He said that we stand with the Cuban people and their clarion call for freedom. Secretary of State Antony Blinken seemed to be responding directly to President Diaz-Canel's when he said that - by blaming the U.S. for all of Cuba's problems. He said the regime isn't listening to the legitimate voice and will of the Cuban people, that they are tired of the repression that has gone on far too long.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: That is what we are hearing and seeing in Cuba. And that is a reflection of the Cuban people, not of the United States or any other outside actor.

CORNISH: Carrie, speaking of which, what has it been like trying to learn about what's happening on the island today?

KAHN: It's really tough. It's really tough because the internet is totally controlled by the regime, and it appears that it has either been cut or is very limited today. There's still videos being posted to social media, but it's unclear whether those were from today or yesterday. It's just hard to verify when and where they were shot. I reached out to a lot of my contacts on the island, and I can't get through either on social media apps or even on phone lines. I just get busy signals or phone calls just don't go through.

But I just want to stress that these protests didn't come out of nowhere. Yes, these are the biggest we've seen in decades, but this has been such a very difficult year in Cuba. COVID has really devastated the island's economy. It shut down Cuba's tourism industry. The economy contracted by 11% last year and even more this year. Power is very unreliable. People have to stand in line for hours for basic food. And the government opened these dollar stores where people can buy certain items, but no one earns dollars on the island, and that has created a lot of anger. And also over the last year, a group of artists began protesting for freedom of expression, and they were harshly repressed. So there is a lot of pent up frustration that we're seeing expressed these days.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Carrie Kahn.

Thanks for your reporting.

KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.