Protests Erupt in Cuba Over Government Response to Hurricane Ian

HAVANA, CUBA — Protests broke out Thursday 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.

The demonstrations 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 a few hundred — the fact that the protests occurred at all was notable. The Cuban government detained more than 700 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.

More on Hurricane Ian

  • The Aftermath in Florida: From the coastal cities of Naples and Fort Myers to inland communities around Orlando, the extent of Hurricane Ian’s destruction was difficult to comprehend, even for residents who had survived and rebuilt after other powerful storms.
  • Lack of Insurance: In the Florida counties hit hardest by Hurricane Ian, fewer than 20 percent of homes had flood insurance, new data show. Experts say that will make rebuilding even harder.
  • Ron DeSantis: The Florida governor, who as a congressman opposed aid to victims of Hurricane Sandy, is seeking relief from the Biden administration as Hurricane Ian ravages his own state.

On Thursday, protesters in Havana blocked street traffic, chanting “we want the light,” many expressing anger that the lack of electricity this week has rotted what little food they had in their refrigerators.

Cubans have complained of a lack of food across the country and being forced to stand in hourslong lines to obtain government rations of milk, grain, or — even more rare — meat. What little nourishment they receive is often not enough for their households and many complain that food has become scarcer and their hunger more profound.

A man showing his rotten food in Havana on Thursday night. Credit…Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters

While government distribution centers often display empty shelves and turn Cubans away, a thriving black market for basic foodstuffs has flourished, for the few who can afford it.

“The chicken is given to you every two and a half months, if you get it, and you even have to sell your clothes to be able to buy it, because it is very expensive, and on top of that it is now going bad” because there is no power, said a woman protesting in Havana on Thursday, who did not want to provide her name for fear of government retribution.

Whether the protests would continue Friday remained to be seen. Government security forces were deployed in the three places where demonstrations had already occurred, and telecommunication networks and the internet were gradually being restored Friday morning.

A “near total collapse of internet traffic” was reported on Thursday night by NetBlocks, a London-based internet monitoring organization. While the internet had been down in Cuba earlier in the week because of the storm, it was gradually being restored before protests erupted. In Havana, the internet was restored Friday morning after a blackout of about seven hours.

Hurricane Ian slammed into the western section of the Caribbean island on Tuesday as a powerful Category 3 storm, bringing winds of up to 125 miles per hour, dumping several inches of rain and causing major flooding. At least two deaths were linked to the storm.

The biggest damage was to Cuba’s power grid, telecommunications network and its agricultural sector, according to state media. While telecommunications networks were gradually being restored by Wednesday, as the storm moved away from the island and the government began relief efforts, blackouts remained a problem across the country.

But by Thursday, Cubans were growing impatient, setting off the demonstrations despite likely repercussions.

The government’s heavy-handed response to last year’s protests instilled fear across Cuba and put an end to the demonstrations. Many activists said they were too afraid to return to the streets. Others fled the island, becoming part of the largest exodus from Cuba to the United States in recorded history, with nearly 200,000 Cubans intercepted by American border patrol agents this year.

In interviews, many Cuban migrants arriving to the United States said they were fleeing political repression and dire economic and social conditions on the island, where beside food shortages, the country’s once-storied medical system is under strain.

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