HAVANA – Small protests broke out Thursday across several communities in Cuba, as desperate citizens took to the streets to demand the government restore electricity and provide aid to areas ravaged by Hurricane Ian, which swept through the island nation this week, worsening already bleak living conditions.
The demonstrations erupted in the capital, Havana, in the town of Surgidero de Batabanó and in the city of Cárdenas, and state security forces were deployed to quell the unrest.
The government appeared to cut off the internet and telecommunication networks across the country, possibly to prevent news of the demonstrations from spreading and inspiring others to join.
While it was unclear how many Cubans took to the streets – some footage showed about 100 protesters at one demonstration – the fact that the protests occurred at all was notable. The Cuban government detained more than 1,000 protesters last year after demonstrations broke out across the country over a lack of food and electricity and over declining medical services. The government held mass trials that went on for months, prosecuting people as young as 16 for taking part in the protests.
Whether protests would persist Friday remained to be seen, but analysts noted that Cubans seemed to be shedding their fear to confront the government, which has shown no tolerance for dissent.
On Thursday, a few dozen protesters in several Havana neighborhoods blocked street traffic and banged pots and pans, a common form of protest, chanting “we want the light.” Many expressed anger the lack of electricity this week has rotted what little food they had in their refrigerators.
“We closed off the street with the garbage bins, and we stayed like that for three hours,” said Dairon, a resident of Havana who protested Thursday and asked that his last name be withheld out of concern for his safety. “We can’t take it anymore; our food is rotting.”
Other residents brought putrid bags of molding groceries to the streets to exhibit their plight. The small crowds were dispersed after a few hours when security forces showed up, a protester said, prompting residents to run away for fear of being detained.
“After the July protests last year, the question was: was this an anomaly or a new phase, and now it seems to be a new phase and it will be hard to put the genie back in the bottle,” said Ted Henken, a professor at Baruch College, City University of New York, and author of several books on Cuba.
“Either through repression or through some small fig leaf, it had seemed the government had contained the protests,’’ he added. “But now, a year later, people are out again because the government has been unable to address the root causes of the protests. The frustration has bled into the general population because it’s a scarcity of food, electricity, the basics. That has only been exacerbated by this horrible hurricane.”
The demonstrations that unfolded in July 2021 saw thousands of protesters take to cities and towns across Cuba in the biggest anti-government rallies the country had seen since 1994.
Cubans have long complained of a lack of food and being forced to stand in hourslong lines to obtain government rations of milk, grain, or – even more rare – meat, conditions worsened by the pandemic. What little nourishment they receive is often not enough for their households, and many complain of going hungry.
While government distribution centers often display empty shelves and turn Cubans away, a thriving black market for basic foodstuffs has flourished for the few who can afford it.
“The chicken is given to you every 2 1/2 months, if you get it, and you even have to sell your clothes to be able to buy it, because it is very expensive, and on top of that it is now going bad” because there is no power, said a woman protesting in Havana on Thursday. She did not want to provide her name for fear of government retribution.
In Surgidero de Batabanó, a video showed about 100 protesters yelling at a cluster of shiny new cars – usually an indication that it was a convoy of government officials – while security forces kept them at bay. The authenticity of the video could not immediately be verified, but it dovetailed with accounts from protesters in the town.
“Everyone is tired!” a protester yelled in the video.
In Cárdenas, residents broke the windows of some shops and a bank, demanding power be restored.
“The city is militarized, there are police everywhere and the internet connection is still terrible,” said activist Leticia Ramos Herrería, who lives in Cárdenas.
Government security forces were deployed Friday in the three communities where demonstrations had already occurred, and telecommunication networks and the internet were gradually being restored Friday morning.
A “near total collapse of internet traffic” was reported Thursday night by NetBlocks, a London-based internet monitoring organization. While the internet had been down in Cuba earlier in the week because of the storm, it was gradually being restored before protests erupted.
Hurricane Ian slammed into the western section of the Caribbean island on Tuesday as a powerful Category 3 storm, bringing winds of up to 125 mph, dumping several inches of rain and causing major flooding. At least two deaths were linked to the storm.
The hurricane’s biggest damage was to Cuba’s power grid, telecommunications network and its agricultural sector, according to state media. As the storm moved away from the island and the government began relief efforts, blackouts remained a problem for the country’s 11 million residents, some of whom have been without electricity for several days.
By Thursday, Cubans were growing impatient, setting off the demonstrations despite likely repercussions.
The government’s heavy-handed response to last year’s protests instilled fear across Cuba and put an end to the demonstrations. Many activists said they were too afraid to return to the streets. Others fled the island, becoming part of the largest exodus from Cuba to the United States in recorded history, with nearly 200,000 Cubans intercepted by U.S. border patrol agents this year.
The Cuban government blames long-running sanctions by the United States for its crumbling infrastructure and food and medical shortages. But analysts and activists in Cuba blame the crisis on government mismanagement.
In interviews, many Cuban migrants arriving in the United States this year said they were fleeing political repression and dire economic and social conditions on the island.
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