A man is arrested during a demonstration against the government of Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel in Havana, on July 11, 2021. - Thousands of Cubans took part in rare protests Sunday against the communist government, marching through a town chanting "Down with the dictatorship" and "We want liberty." (Photo by ADALBERTO ROQUE / AFP) (Photo by ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP via Getty Images)
Cubans take to the streets in rare anti-government protests
01:29 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

President Joe Biden on Monday expressed support for the Cuban people amid rare protests in the country over a lack of freedoms and a worsening economy, calling on Cuban President Miguel Diàz-Canel regime to “hear their people and serve their needs.”

“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.

He continued, “The Cuban people are bravely asserting fundamental and universal rights. 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.”

White House officials are closely monitoring the protests in the country, 90 miles from the US, with national security adviser Jake Sullivan warning against targeting the peaceful protesters. Thousands of Cubans took to the streets on Sunday to protest a lack of food and medicine as the country undergoes a grave economic crisis aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic and US sanctions.

Many chanted for “freedom” and called for Díaz-Canel to step down, Reuters reported. Multiple protesters were arrested by police, who used tear gas to break up some demonstrations.

Biden said later Monday – ahead of a meeting with local leaders and Attorney General Merrick Garland on crime – that the US “stands with the people of Cuba.”

“Folks, I want to start recognizing remarkable protests taking place in Cuba,” Biden said. “I don’t think we’ve seen anything like this protest in a long, long time – quite frankly, ever.”

Biden said the Cuban people “are demanding their freedom from an authoritarian regime,” and asserting “their universal rights.” He also warned the Cuban government against “attempts to silence the voice of the people of Cuba.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the US is “assessing how we can be helpful directly to the people of Cuba.” She said it is too early to predict any potential policy change when it comes to Cuba, and that the US will continued to be governed by the support for democracy and human rights for the nation’s people.

“Our approach continues to be governed by two principles; first, support for democracy and human rights, which is going to continue to be at the core of our efforts through empowering the Cuban people to determine their own future. Second, Americans, especially Cuban Americans, are the best ambassadors for freedom and prosperity in Cuba,” Psaki said at Monday’s White House press briefing.

In nationally televised remarks Sunday, Díaz-Canel placed blame for the economic conditions on sanctions from the US, which Biden did not address in his statement. The Trump administration enacted some of the toughest economic measures against Cuba in decades, and so far, the Biden administration has yet to lift them.

“The U.S. 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,” Sullivan tweeted Sunday night.

Psaki appeared to respond to those comments, saying the protests appeared to be spontaneous expressions of the Cuban people, but did not mention Díaz-Canel by name in her remarks.

“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, and these are protests inspired by the harsh reality of everyday life in Cuba, not people in another country,” she said.

CNN’s Patrick Oppmann contributed to this report.