For the first time in years, people have taken to the streets of Cuba in large numbers to protest the island's Communist government.
The United States came out in support of the demonstrators on Monday, while Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel spoke of a historic day for the defence of the Cuban Revolution, following reports that security forces had used violence in dispersing the protests.
Demonstrators had mainly gathered in the municipality of San Antonio de los Banos, south-west of Havana, on Sunday to protest the economic troubles and political repression in the one-party country, as shown on videos circulating on social media.
Further rallies were held in Havana, Holguin, Matanzas, Camaguey and Santiago de Cuba.
Diaz-Canel went to San Antonio de los Banos on Sunday and defiantly addressed all Cubans via national television.
"We will not surrender the sovereignty and independence of this nation," said Diaz-Canel, who has been president since 2019 and also leads the Communist Party, the most powerful position on the island.
"If they want to defeat the revolution, they will have to go over our dead bodies."
According to government opponents, security forces cracked down on protesters on Sunday.
"We call on all revolutionaries to take to the streets and to defend the revolution everywhere," Diaz-Canel said.
Blamed the US
On Monday, he blamed the US economic blockade for shortages in the country in comments to state television. Meanwhile, social media has spread discontent, he said, and divided Cubans by manipulating their emotions.
Cuba demands that its sovereignty be respected, Diaz-Canel said.
Meanwhile US President Joe Biden expressed his support for the demonstrators.
"We stand with the Cuban people and their clarion call for freedom and relief from the tragic grip of the pandemic and from the decades of repression and economic suffering to which they have been subjected by Cuba’s authoritarian regime," Biden said in a statement.
"The Cuban people are bravely asserting fundamental and universal rights," Biden said. "Those rights, including the right of peaceful protest and the right to freely determine their own future, must be respected. The United States calls on the Cuban regime to hear their people and serve their needs at this vital moment rather than enriching themselves."
A warning from Biden...
The US also warned Havana against using violence on demonstrators.
"The US supports freedom of expression and assembly across Cuba, and would strongly condemn any violence or targeting of peaceful protesters who are exercising their universal rights," security advisor Jake Sullivan wrote on Twitter.
But US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Monday it would be a "grievous mistake" for Havana to interpret protests "as the result or product of anything the United States has done."
That would only show they are not listening to the voices or the will of the Cuban people, Blinken said.
A Sunday demonstration also took place in the US city of Miami, where many Cuban exiles live.
...and a warning from Russia
Meanwhile, Russia warned the US against interfering in Cuban affairs or trying to destabilize the situation through what an official described as "destructive actions."
It is unacceptable to interfere in the internal affairs of a sovereign state, said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova in Moscow.
"We are convinced that the Cuban authorities will take all necessary steps to restore social order in the interests of the country's citizens within the framework of the constitution."
Large demonstrations against Cuba's government are rare. Most recently, the so-called San Isidro movement, founded by opposition artists, academics and journalists to protest censorship in Cuba, has organized protests, garnering international attention.
Diaz-Canel only took over from Raul Castro as leader of the Communist Party in April, meaning for the first time since the victory of the revolution in 1959, the Castro brothers are holding no leading positions in the country.
However, the leadership change hasn’t brought about a different political orientation.
Most Cubans are also suffering from the consequences of the country’s planned economy and the US sanctions imposed on the island state.