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Cuban Protests Have Quieted For Now, But Economic Strife Remains

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Sunday saw the biggest anti-government protests in Cuba in decades over the economic crisis caused by the pandemic. Monday was quieter. There are, however, reports of arrests. And the international community is speaking out in support of the right of Cubans to protest. To find out more about what's happening on the ground, we reached out to Lorena Canto. She is bureau chief in Cuba for EFE news agency. She joins us from Havana.

Welcome to the program.

LORENA CANTO: Hello.

CORNISH: Can you talk about whether there have been protests in the last 24 hours, how big or small they've been?

CANTO: Well, no, surprisingly, there haven't. (Unintelligible) the last two days due to a heavy police display on the streets, although the key factor is that more violence and (unintelligible) for the past 48 hours, it's hard to say. On one hand, it's obvious that the police in the streets is discouraging people from going out. And the internet blackout prevents any organized protest or at least (unintelligible). (Unintelligible) problems that made people take to the streets on Sunday are still here, and they aren't likely to vanish in the foreseeable future.

CORNISH: And so these reports of multiple arrests, including some local journalists, is that kind of coming to light now?

CANTO: Yeah, that's correct. There have been dozens of arrests, although the real numbers are (unintelligible), there's not official information from the government. Currently, there's a lot of people outside of police stations asking about their relatives. And those who (unintelligible) carry their children quite dramatical (ph). We have seen very, very dramatic scenes here in Havana of women asking about their husbands, their sons.

CORNISH: Can you talk about - when you said the problems haven't changed, that leads to the question of, why now? Was this protest the result of long-standing issues or has COVID and other things sort of compounded the problem? Is that what drove people into the streets?

CANTO: Well, daily life for Cubans has never been easy. It became really, really hard in the last year, the last couple of years. There are power blackouts in the middle of the scorching Caribbean summer, dramatic medicine and food shortages. And it's not only COVID, but also lack of antibiotics, painkillers. And also, most of the basic goods, including food, are currently sold in high currency stores while a Cuban salary (ph) is paid in local (unintelligible), which means that many can not access that. So it was clear that sooner or later, people would (unintelligible) because Cubans are facing a really, really dramatic situation right now.

CORNISH: Given what you've just said, what has been the government's response? I mean, are they starting to address some of these particular concerns?

CANTO: No. There hasn't been a real response from the government after the demonstrations on Sunday. Yesterday (unintelligible) with a few of these ministers spoke on state TV for several hours trying to explain the problems of the country. But they haven't given any real solution yet. They say that power blackouts would get better in the next week. And they said they were trying. But they mostly blamed all the problems on the U.S. embargo.

CORNISH: You said that the Cuban government is blaming the U.S. - right? - because of the trade restrictions. What is the view from Cubans about kind of why this moment feels particularly bad?

CANTO: It's impossible for Cubans not to mention the embargo. Something even funny that happens here when you ask a Cuban about the blockade, they say (non-English language spoken) - the external (unintelligible) or the internal (unintelligible) our government has. They control everything. And they want to open the economy and give us some freedom to do things for ourselves. So it hasn't been (unintelligible) not at all. Cuba's facing the perfect storm.

CORNISH: That's Lorena Canto. She is bureau chief in Cuba for the EFE news agency.

Thank you.

CANTO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.