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Thousands Of Cubans Take Part In Widespread Anti-Government Protests

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

This weekend, thousands of Cubans took part in widespread anti-government protests that ended with hundreds of arrests. Demonstrators were voicing outrage over food and medicine shortages and high prices as coronavirus cases increase there. They chanted, we want freedom, and we want vaccines, as they marched through the capital of Havana and other cities. Joining me now is reporter Nora Gamez Torres. She covers Cuba and U.S.-Latin American policy for the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald. Hi, Nora.

NORA GAMEZ TORRES: Hi. Good morning.

PFEIFFER: You've been covering these protests. Would you give us some more detail about what's going on in the island and what the scene has been in the streets?

GAMEZ TORRES: Sure. Thousands of Cubans took to the streets in several cities to protest against the Communist government. They were asking first for food, medicine and vaccines. But, you know, their loudest cries were really calls to end the Communist regime, to end the dictatorship. You could hear in various circulating social media shouts of, down with Miguel Diaz-Canel, which is Cuba's handpicked president, and calls for - many calls for freedom. You could hear many shouting patria y vida, which is the chorus of a song by several Black artists that has become kind of a slogan against the government. There were, on scene, images of overturned (ph) police cars, people throwing stones at the police. There have been reports of people injured. I saw videos of the police shooting to some protesters. There were really unprecedented images coming out of the island.

PFEIFFER: And what is the reason for the food and medicine supply shortages? And then what is Cuba's government doing to try to solve that problem?

GAMEZ TORRES: Well, you know, while this simultaneous uprising there on the island is unprecedent, it's not entirely surprising because the economic situation has been deteriorating in recent years and more dramatically in recent months. I think that it's a combination of things, including dwindling economic aid coming from Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro regime. It's also the pandemic, of course, and stronger U.S. sanctions - and that they have all hit the country. Their socialist economy is very inefficient and does not produce. And the government is in debt and has no money. So their population has been enduring severe scarcities of food and medicines. Also, the government decided to start selling foods in dollars that the population don't earn, and that has created a lot of anger and frustration that you can see fueling the protest. The government - you know, they have been delaying economic reforms for several years. So really, they are responding to this frustration with more repression.

PFEIFFER: Is this viewed as an actual threat to Cuba's Communist government?

GAMEZ TORRES: Well, to be honest, no one knows really what's going to happen today or tomorrow because this uprising is not a result of an organized effort. But even if the government retains control, which is the most likely scenario, Cubans now see what they can do if enough people come out to protest. So the genie is out of the bottle now. And the frustration is not going anywhere. And for Diaz-Canel in particular, this is a huge crisis of legitimacy. So we can expect more repression in the following days.

PFEIFFER: Reporter Nora Gamez Torres is with the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald. She joined us by Skype. Nora, thank you.

GAMEZ TORRES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.