Cuba makes small concession on food and medicine imports after protests
Havana — Cuba announced on Wednesday it was temporarily lifting restrictions on the amount of food and medicine travellers could bring into the country in an apparent small concession to demands by protesters who took to the street last weekend.
Thousands joined a wave of nationwide protests over shortages of basic goods, curbs on civil liberties and the government's handling of a surge in Covid-19 infections on Sunday, in the most significant unrest in decades in the Communist-run country.
The government blamed the unrest on US-financed “counter-revolutionaries” exploiting hardship caused by the decades-old US trade embargo that Washington tightened in the midst of the pandemic, pushing the Cuban economy to the brink.
Several countries and the UN have called on the government to respect citizens’ right to express themselves. Others such as Mexico have said the best way to help the Cuban people would be for the US to ease sanctions.
In Cuba, a growing number of high-profile artists from salsa band Los Van Van to jazz pianist Chucho Valdes have criticised the authorities’ handling of the unrest, urging them to listen to protesters rather than fight them.
Intermittent internet outages that activists say were designed to discourage any further unrest eased slightly from Wednesday though access to social media and messaging services remained restricted.
Officials have blamed a campaign on social media under the hashtag #SOSCuba calling for humanitarian aid for fuelling the protests, saying it was launched by US-backed mercenaries seeking to destabilise the Communist-run country.
They compared the push to a US-backed effort to send relief to Venezuela in 2019 that ended in a violent standoff on the Colombian border.
Still, one of the campaign’s demands was for the government to lift customs restrictions on food, medicine and hygiene products that are lacking in the country amid its worst economic crisis since the fall of former ally the Soviet Union.
Prime Minister Manuel Marrero said that from Monday the government would lift restrictions until the year-end.
“It was a demand made by many travellers and it was necessary to take this decision,” he said on a roundtable on state television, alongside President Miguel Diaz-Canel.
It was not immediately clear how much difference the move would make given that there are very few flights at the moment into the Caribbean island nation which is going through its worst coronavirus outbreak since the start of the pandemic.
Government critic Yoani Sanchez, who runs news website 14ymedio, was quick to tweet that such concessions would not be enough to appease those who had protested on Sunday.
“We do not want crumbs, we want freedom, and we want it now,” she wrote. “The streets have spoken: we are not afraid.”
Cubans say they have been frustrated by outages in mobile internet and restricted access to social media and messaging platforms since Sunday.
“It's been a bunch of days that no-one has been able to connect,” said Havana resident Andrea Lopez. “My husband is in Mexico and I haven’t been able to speak with him.”
More than 200 people were detained during or following the protests, according to exiled rights group Cubalex, and only a handful have been released so far.
Interior ministry officials said in a programme televised later that some of the detained would be pursued for crimes such as incitement to violence, contempt, robbery and damage to public property, which carry lengthy prison sentences.
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