U.S. President Joe Biden warned Cuba’s leaders against using violence to break up protests that erupted across the island nation, where the pandemic has caused food shortages and coronavirus vaccines are in short supply.
Biden called the protests “remarkable” in remarks at the White House before a meeting with municipal leaders to discuss violent crime, and said that “the Cuban people are demanding their freedom from an authoritarian regime.”
“We call on the government, the government of Cuba, to refrain from violence, their attempts to silence the people of Cuba,” he said.
Videos posted online over the weekend showed police attacking demonstrators, and Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel called on his supporters to confront protesters in the streets during a televised address. U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, tweeted pictures Monday of what he said were “thugs” sent by the Cuban government to attack protesters.
Earlier Monday, Biden issued a statement saying that U.S. stands 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’s remarks followed criticism from some Republican lawmakers, who seized on a tweet Sunday by Acting Assistant Secretary of State Julie Chung. She characterized the Cuba protests as oriented around “concern about rising COVID cases/deaths & medicine shortages.”
In a series of tweets and videos posted to the social media network, Rubio said it was “ridiculous” to frame the demonstrations as “simply because of COVID.” Rubio also criticized Biden for not commenting on the protests earlier.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said at a briefing after Biden’s statement that “there’s every indication that yesterday’s protests were spontaneous expressions of people who are exhausted with the Cuban government’s economic mismanagement and repression.”
She said the administration is assessing how it can assist protesters. Asked about allegations the U.S. had fomented the demonstrations, Psaki said the administration’s approach is guided by its support for democracy and human rights.
The U.S. has not shared doses of coronavirus vaccines with Cuba, as it has with other nations in Latin America. Psaki noted the nation is not part of Covax, a World Health Organization-backed program to distribute vaccines to lower-income countries.
Democrats have struggled with Cuban-American voters in recent years, with Republicans frequently attacking former President Barack Obama’s attempts to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba. Former President Donald Trump won a majority of Florida’s Cuban-American vote in the 2020 election, according to network exit polls, and the Republican’s strong showing in Miami-Dade County helped propel him to victory in the state.
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