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US President Joe Biden said on Monday his country stands with Cubans a day after thousands protested on the streets on Sunday in the biggest anti-government demonstrations in three decades. “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.

The unprecedented anti-government protests erupted amid Cuba’s worst economic crisis since the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union and the recent record surge in Covid-19 cases, with people denouncing shortages of basic goods, curbs on civil liberties and the authorities’ handling of the coronavirus pandemic. They chanted “freedom” and called for President Miguel Diaz-Canel to step down.

“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 added. “The United States calls on the Cuban regime to hear their people and serve their needs at this vital moment rather than enriching themselves,” he said.

Diaz-Canel on Monday blamed the historic protests on what he called was the US “economic asphyxiation” and social media campaigns by a minority of counter-revolutionaries. “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, according to news agency Reuters.

“They threw stones at foreign currency shops, they stole items … and at police forces, they turned over cars – a totally vulgar, indecent and delinquent behaviour,” he said blaming counter-revolutionaries of fomenting unrest.

Diaz-Canel did not directly address the US statement but slammed 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 saviour?” Diaz-Canel 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.”

Cuba has been under US sanctions since 1962. The US tightened the sanctions on Cuba under Donald Trump, including restricting key remittances in the middle of the pandemic.

(With agency inputs)

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