Pressure mounted Monday on Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel to show he can uphold the Castro legacy of authoritarian control, a day after the biggest anti-regime protests in decades swept cities and towns across the island nation.
With videos of the protests flooding global media, Mr. Diaz-Canel found himself under the microscope. In power for barely two years, he is Cuba‘s first communist leader not named Castro facing a direct and popular challenge to the legitimacy of the 62-year-old regime. Mr. Diaz-Canel has blamed the U.S. for provoking the protests as the world waits to see how and whether he will crack down on dissent.
The 61-year-old president and Communist Party first secretary lacks the pedigree of a Fidel or Raul Castro and others of the revolution’s founding generation. Some suggest he will be tempted to overcompensate in the face of open resistance.
“Diaz-Canel’s back is against the wall here because there have been unprecedented massive protests,” said Michael Shifter, who heads the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. “It was only in April that he became head of the Communist Party, and he lacks the aura that the Castros had, so he’s not in a very strong position here.
“He does have the apparatus of the Cuban regime and the security forces, but they’ve not had to contend with such a serious challenge to their authority in the past,” Mr. Shifter told The Washington Times.
Others said the protests are likely to gain momentum in the coming days without a severe crackdown by the regime.
“Diaz-Canel is going to have to respond with force,” said Christopher Sabatini, a Latin America expert with the Chatham House think tank in London. “He has to show that he’s got control of the country. We’re looking suddenly at a test of how brittle the regime might actually be, and if I were Diaz-Canel, I’d be sweating bullets right now because he has to show he’s as strong as the Castros.”
He made the sobering analysis a day after thousands of Cubans marched on Havana’s Malecon promenade and elsewhere on the island to protest food shortages and high prices during the coronavirus crisis. The mainly state-controlled Cuban economy, already anemic before the COVID-19 pandemic, reportedly shrank by more than 10% last year.
Havana’s streets were reportedly much quieter Monday. Police were visible and out in force to restrain further outbreaks. Mobile internet outages, targeting the social media sites that helped swell the protests, were frequent. Cuban authorities reportedly blocked Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Telegram, Alp Toker, director of Netblocks, a London-based internet monitoring firm told The Associated Press.
Although the economic crisis appeared to play a major role in the protests, there were clear signs of a collective outburst against what many young people in an increasingly digitally connected Cuba view as outdated and draconian civil liberties restrictions.
Protesters in some areas shouted “Libertad!” — a cry for freedom — and some even called for Mr. Diaz-Canel to step down. By Monday, analysts said it was the biggest anti-government street uprising in Cuba since 1994, when Fidel Castro quickly crushed demonstrations.
Castro, who led Cuba‘s communist revolution in 1959, died in 2016. His brother Raul, 90, held control of the regime in recent years. He handed the presidency to Mr. Diaz-Canel, 61, in October 2019 and the leadership post in the Cuban Communist Party just three months ago.
The Biden administration called for calm Monday but expressed cautious support for the protesters, and urged the Diaz-Canel government to tolerate peaceful demonstrations and to meet the demands of the Cubans for relief from the pandemic and from “economic suffering to which they have been subjected by Cuba‘s authoritarian regime.” As a candidate, President Biden criticized the Trump administration’s rollback of a detente with Havana begun by President Obama, but Mr. Biden has devoted little attention to reversing Mr. Trump’s policies toward Cuba.
Mr. Biden told White House reporters Monday that Cubans are “demanding their freedom.”
“I don’t think we’ve seen anything like these protests in a long, long time if, quite frankly, ever,” he said. “The U.S. stands firmly with the people of Cuba as they assert their universal rights. And we call on the government of Cuba to refrain from violence in their attempt to silence the voices of the people of Cuba.”
Mr. Diaz-Canel rejected the criticism from Washington. He said U.S. sanctions and a trade embargo, which have been in place for decades, are to blame for Cuba‘s economic woes.
The Cuban president, who was born the year President Kennedy proclaimed the trade embargo against Cuba, has scrambled to rally the regime’s security forces against the prospect of follow-on demonstrations. Mr. Diaz-Canel also went on national TV and urged government supporters to defend the regime on the streets. He blamed the U.S. embargo for the widespread shortages.
He called the demonstrations “systemic provocation” by dissidents and said the U.S. was trying to damage Cuba‘s economy to “provoke a massive social implosion.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken rejected those claims. He said it “would be a grievous mistake for the Cuban regime to interpret what is happening in dozens of towns and cities across the island as the result or product of anything the United States has done.”
“It would show that they simply are not hearing the voices and will of the Cuban people — people deeply, deeply, deeply tired of the repression that has gone on for far too long, tired of the mismanagement of the Cuban economy, tired of the lack of adequate food, and, of course, inadequate response to the COVID pandemic,” Mr. Blinken said. “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.”
‘Explosion of frustration’
Eric Farnsworth, who heads the Washington office of the Council of the Americas and Americas Society, said in an interview Monday that the weekend uprising represented “an explosion of frustration” from ordinary Cubans who feel the ruling Communist Party is failing them.
He said the “frustration quickly turns against the regime” but cautioned against characterizing what’s happening in Cuba as a pro-democracy movement.
“It could certainly develop into a pro-democracy movement, but the Cuban regime has been very effective over the years at jailing, harassing and neutralizing democracy advocates on the island,” Mr. Farnsworth said.
There were signs Monday that the Diaz-Canel government may be preparing for a crackdown. Mr. Shifter pointed to reports of a possible forced disappearance of two associates of prominent Cuban human rights activist and blogger Yoani Sanchez.
Cuban American lawmakers from both sides of the aisle in Washington said the protests were a sign of deep popular unhappiness with the regime.
“This regime has brutalized and denied freedom to generations of Cubans, forcing many including my family to flee or be murdered, and over the coming days will widen its violence to try to suppress the brave protesters in the streets,” Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, said in a statement. “The American people stand squarely with the men and women of Cuba and their noble fight for liberty, and the Biden administration must unequivocally and forcefully tell the world as much — immediately.”
Sen. Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sharply criticized the communist government for its response to the protests.
“Despite ongoing persecution on the island, Cubans are bravely joining to demand nothing more than the ability to live safely and speak their minds, freely, openly, and without fear,” Mr. Menendez said in a statement.
“For decades, Cuba‘s dictatorship has used violence and repression to silence its people, rather than permit the free exercise of democracy and their basic social rights. This must end,” he added. “The world’s eyes are on Cuba tonight and the dictatorship must understand we will not tolerate the use of brute force to silence the aspirations of the Cuban people.”
Some Republicans pressed Mr. Biden to be more forceful, criticizing an early tweet Sunday by a State Department official that appeared to tie the protests narrowly to COVID-19 and the need for better health care.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, called on the Biden administration to take a firm stand in support of the protests. “President Biden: freedom in Cuba needs you now. Don’t be AWOL,” Mr. Graham said in a post on Twitter.
“The protests reflect generations of frustration over being told by the Cuban Communist Party how to live your life from cradle to grave,” he wrote. “Under communism the floor and ceiling of life are very narrow, while most people’s hopes and aspirations are boundless.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican and a Cuban American, lamented via Twitter that Mr. Biden characterized the Diaz-Canel government only as “authoritarian” without describing it as communist or socialist.
Still, Mr. Rubio focused the brunt of his remarks on the protests. He said they “aren’t simply about ‘shortages.’”
“Socialism promises guaranteed food, medicine & income if you give up your freedom, [when], as always, it fails to deliver you don’t get your freedom back,” he wrote. “That’s why the protesters are chanting ‘Libertad.’”
• Tom Howell Jr. and Victor Morton contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.