Cuba lifts customs restrictions on food and medicines in compensation for protesters

Cuba announced Wednesday that it is temporarily lifting restrictions on the amount of food and medicine travelers can bring into the country, in a seemingly minor concession to demands from protesters who took to the streets over the weekend.

Thousands took part in a wave of nationwide protests on Sunday over shortages of basic goods, curtailment of civil liberties and the government’s handling of a spate of COVID-19 infections in the communist country’s worst unrest in decades.

The government blamed the unrest on US-funded “counter-revolutionaries” who took advantage of the hardships caused by the decades-old US trade embargo that Washington tightened during the pandemic, pushing the Cuban economy to the brink .

Several countries and the United Nations have called on the government to respect the right of citizens to express themselves. Others, such as Mexico, have said that the United States can best help sanctions to help the Cuban people.

In Cuba, a growing number of high-profile artists, from salsa band Los Van Van to jazz pianist Chucho Valdes, have criticized the authorities’ handling of the unrest, urging them to listen to the protesters rather than fight them.

Intermittent internet outages that activists say were intended to curb further unrest eased slightly on Wednesday, although access to social media and messaging services remained limited.

Officials blame a social media campaign under the hashtag #SOSCuba calling for humanitarian aid for fueling the protests, saying it was launched by US-backed mercenaries seeking to destabilize the communist country.

They likened the pressure to a US-backed effort to send aid 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 have been missing in the country during the worst economic crisis since the fall of the former ally the Soviet Union.

And Prime Minister Manuel Marrero said on Wednesday that the government would do just that from next Monday, lifting the restrictions until the end of the year.

“It was a demand from many travelers and it was necessary to make this decision,” he said at a roundtable on state television with President Miguel Diaz-Canel.

It was not immediately clear how much of a difference the move would make as there are currently very few flights to the Caribbean island which is experiencing the worst outbreak of the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic.

Government critic Yoani Sanchez, who runs news website 14ymedio, quickly tweeted that such concessions would not be enough to appease those who protested on Sunday.

“We don’t want crumbs, we want freedom, and we want it nuwwww,” she wrote. “The streets have spoken: we are not afraid.”

Cubans say they have been frustrated since Sunday over mobile internet outages and limited access to social media and messaging platforms.

“It’s been several days when 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 to him.”

More than 200 people were detained during or after the protests, according to the banned rights group Cubalex, and only a handful have been released so far.

Diaz-Canel said there were three types of protesters; counter-revolutionaries, criminals and people with legitimate frustrations. State-run television showed footage of a mob looting a store and another attacking an empty police car.

Interior ministry officials said in a later televised program that some of the detainees would face charges of incitement to violence, contempt, theft and damage to public property, which carry long prison terms.


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