HAVANA, CUBA — Small protests broke out Thursday and Friday 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 on Thursday 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, electricity and declining medical services.
The government held mass trials that went on for months, prosecuting minors as young as 16 for taking part in the protests.
Whether protests would persist over the weekend 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. While the protests on Thursday happened in several communities across the country, on Friday evening small protests broke out in a few neighborhoods in Havana, and appeared to be contained to the capital.
On Thursday, a few dozen demonstrators 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 that the lack of electricity this week had spoiled 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 their 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 questions 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 the 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, 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.