Cuba announced on Wednesday it was temporarily lifting restrictions on travelers bringing food, medicines and hygiene products into the country in an apparent acknowledgment of demands from anti-government demonstrators.
Thousands took to the streets across the island nation last weekend to protest chronic shortages of basic goods, curbs on civil liberties and the government’s handling of a worsening coronavirus outbreak, marking the most significant unrest in decades.
The rare wave of demonstrations against the country’s communist government has been fanned by a deepening economic crisis worsened by the pandemic. Covid-19 has devastated the country’s tourism industry, sending Cuba’s economy into a deep slump.
Cubans now spend hours in long lines to buy food and medicine, and lockdowns have left many without work. Driven by desperate conditions, migration is on the rise by both land and sea. Since the start of the 2021 fiscal year, the US Coast Guard reported intercepting around 500 Cubans at sea.
In a country known for repressing dissent, the demonstrations have been viewed as remarkable. US President Joe Biden on Monday expressed support for the Cuban people, urging Cuban President Miguel Diàz-Canel’s regime to “hear their people and serve their needs.”
“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,” Biden said in a statement.
In the aftermath of the protests, anti-government activists say that more than 100 people have been detained or are missing in a crackdown described as the largest in years.
The US, Canada and the European Union have condemned the arrests of political activists and journalists, demanding their immediate release.
“The Cuban Government has attempted to silence their [Cubans] voices and communications through internet shutdowns, violence, and arbitrary detentions of dozens of protesters, journalists, activists, and other repressive tactics,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Tuesday, calling on the Cuban government to release anyone detained for peaceful protest.
President Díaz-Canel blamed the unrest on vandals and criminals, and denied police had used excessive force against protesters.
But, days later, he conceded that the government needed to do more to improve living conditions in poorer neighborhoods that had been rocked by the demonstrations.
On Sunday, CNN journalists witnessed multiple people being forcibly arrested and thrown in the back of vans at protests in Havana. Videos of the protest showed demonstrators turning over a police car and throwing rocks at officers.
The Cuban government has not said how many people were arrested or injured in the protests. Díaz-Canel said he didn’t know the exact figure, but said “tens of people” had been injured.
In San Antonio de los Banos, a city of about 46,000 people west of Havana, hundreds of Cubans took to the streets on Sunday, fed up after nearly a week of electricity cuts during the sweltering July heat.
“Everyone was in the streets,” one resident, who did not want to be named, told CNN. “They have gone six days with only 12 hours of power each day. That was one of the things that blew this up.”
On Wednesday evening, the Cuban government announced it would lift restrictions on food and medicine travelers could bring into the country – a small concession for demonstrators. Custom duties on these products will not need to be paid, and the relaxed measures will stay in place for the rest of the year.
The Cuban government blames its economic woes on the US trade sanctions, which restricts its access to imports and financing. In a recent nationally televised address, Díaz-Canel repeated that criticism and urged his supporters to physically confront protesters.
“The order to combat has been given,” he said at the end of his appearance on Sunday. “Revolutionaries need to be on the streets.”