WHITE HOUSE - Amid the largest anti-government protests in decades in Cuba, U.S. President Joe Biden is expressing support for the people of the Caribbean island nation, underscoring their right to peaceful protest.
"The Cuban people are demanding their freedom from an authoritarian regime. I don't think we've seen anything like this protest in a long, long time if, quite frankly ever," Biden said in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. "The United States stands firmly with the people of Cuba as they assert their universal rights and we call on the government of Cuba to refrain from violence in their attempt to silence the voices of the people of Cuba."
Biden made his remarks at the start of a meeting with local leaders about gun violence.
Biden's administration is also rejecting Cuba's claim that the United States is to blame for the public unrest.
"I think it would be a grievous mistake for the Cuban regime to interpret what is happening in dozens of towns and cities across the island as the result or product of anything the United States has done," Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters at the State Department following the president's remark.
Blinken's comment came shortly after Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla accused U.S.-paid mercenaries of fomenting unrest.
"Yesterday in Cuba there was no social uprising, yesterday in Cuba there was disorder, disturbances caused by a communicational operation that had been prepared for some time and to which millions had been dedicated," said the foreign minister.
Earlier in the day, Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel, in a nationally broadcast address alongside his Cabinet, said the social unrest there was the result of "a policy of economic suppression" by the United States.
Demonstrators threw stones at police and at foreign currency shops, stole items and overturned cars, engaging in "totally vulgar, indecent and delinquent behavior," Diaz-Canel said.
The Cuban president is calling for the country's "revolutionary" citizens to counter the anti-government protest.
"We are prepared to do anything," he said. "We will be battling in the streets."
Protesters on Sunday chanted slogans calling for freedom, liberty and unity as they marched in the capital, Havana, until police eventually broke up the march while making some arrests.
Demonstrators turned out in other parts of the country, including in San Antonio de los Banos, near Havana, voicing their anger about long lines for food, cuts in electricity, and trouble with the supply of medicine amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Cuban health officials on Sunday reported 6,923 new COVID-19 infections and 47 deaths.
Cuba has been under communist rule since 1959 when Fidel Castro's popular revolution compelled dictator Fulgencio Batista to flee the island.
"This regime has brutalized and denied freedom to generations of Cubans, forcing many including my family to flee or be murdered, and over the coming days will widen its violence to try to suppress the brave protesters in the streets," said Republican Ted Cruz of Texas, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Another prominent Republican senator, Marco Rubio, criticized Biden for taking a full day to acknowledge the protesters and for not describing Cuba's government in his statement as "socialist and communist."
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said on Twitter: "President Biden: freedom in Cuba needs you now. Don't be AWOL" (Absent Without Leave).
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, tweeted her support of the Cuban protesters, saying, "The call for freedom and basic rights by the people of Cuba peacefully taking to the streets and marching is an act of great courage."
The call for freedom and basic rights by the people of Cuba peacefully taking to the streets and marching is an act of great courage. I support the Cuban people in their pursuit of liberty and condemn any violence or targeting of those exercising their rights.— Nancy Pelosi (@SpeakerPelosi) July 12, 2021
The European Union's top diplomat on Monday also backed Cuba's right to protest and called on the Cuban government to listen to the protesters' grievances.
"It's been a protest to show discontent on a scale we haven't seen since 1994," Josep Borrell told a news conference in Brussels, Belgium, following a meeting of EU foreign ministers.
Asked by a reporter on Monday whether the weekend's events compel the Biden administration to prioritize a review of its Cuba policy, White House press secretary Jen Psaki responded that the White House "is monitoring closely" events in the country, and "we will be closely engaged, we will be looking to provide support for the people of Cuba."
The United States proclaimed an embargo on trade with Cuba in 1962. The embargo relaxed somewhat in the year 2000, when Congress passed a law allowing American businesses to sell food and "humanitarian goods" including medicine to Cuba. In January of this year, outgoing President Donald Trump hit Cuba with new sanctions in the final days of his administration, redesignating the country as a "state sponsor of terrorism."
Asked by a reporter on Monday whether he would consider a change to the embargo policy, Biden replied he would have more to say on Cuba later in the week, "so stay tuned."
Nike Ching at the State Department contributed to this report. Some information for this report came from the Associated Press, AFP and Reuters.