Havana protests flare for second night as Cuba struggles to keep lights on

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HAVANA, Oct 1 (Reuters) – Crews restored power to several neighborhoods across Havana on Saturday after a second day of protests over ongoing blackouts in Cuba’s capital, including some of the largest demonstrations since widespread anti-government rallies in July 2021.

At least one of the protests on Friday night in the western coastal town of Playa swelled in size to several hundred people shouting “turn on the lights” as well as slogans disparaging President Miguel Diaz-Canel.

At one point, the group began chanting for freedom, or “libertad” in Spanish, as protesters marched through a dark, densely populated district that has been without electricity since Hurricane Ian slammed into the island on Tuesday.

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Reports on social media showed that small protests had flared up again in scattered locations across Havana and just outside the city on Saturday afternoon. The demonstrations, which remained largely peaceful, appeared to be confined to the places where power had not yet been restored.

The majority of the city’s residents, whose electricity supply had returned, did not protest on either Friday or Saturday.

“Little by little the power is coming back and it’s good,” said Jorge Mario Gonzalez, a 57-year-old postal worker in Havana. He said power came back on at his home on Friday.

“The government is making a big effort, but cannot satisfy everyone. We have so many problems.”

Ian power out to the entire country of 11 million people as it plowed through western Cuba earlier this week. By early Saturday, officials said electricity had been restored to more than 82% of customers in Havana, a city of more than 2 million, but those still in the dark had grown increasingly anxious.

“It’s like being in hell,” said Carlos Felipe Garcia, who marched shirtless at the protest in Playa on Friday night, covered in sweat. “That’s why we’re out on the streets, and we keep coming out.”

Officials said Friday they hoped to have the lights back on over most of Havana by the end of the weekend — and appeared on track Saturday afternoon. City officials have said the protests sparked by the outages have hampered recovery efforts and have warned of road blockages and vandalism.

As the demonstration in Playa gained momentum late Friday, it was met by several trucks of security forces in black berets, who blocked the main boulevard and prevented those marching from advancing, according to a Reuters witness.

Later, an equally large group of hundreds of government supporters chanting “I am Fidel” – a reference to the late former leader Fidel Castro – followed the protesters on an adjacent street. The men, many wearing trousers and T-shirts, were armed with sticks, baseball bats and scrap metal.

No clashes or arrests were observed.

Street protests in communist-ruled Cuba are very rare. On July 11, 2021, anti-government rallies rocked the island, the largest such demonstrations since Castro’s 1959 revolution.

INTERNET FAILS

Internet communications in Havana appeared to collapse again for a second night Friday as protests flared, making cellphone calls and messages impossible until about 10 p.m. 4 on Saturdays.

“The internet has been cut again in Cuba, around the same time as yesterday,” said Alp Toker, director of internet watchdog NetBlocks. “The timings provide yet another indication that the shutdowns are being implemented as a measure to suppress coverage of the protests.”

The Cuban government did not respond to a request for comment on the situation.

As the protesters marched in Playa, electricity suddenly came back on in some homes and apartment blocks.

“When people protest, yes, they turn on the lights,” said local resident Andres Mora, pointing to a newly lit building. “But our children’s food is already rotten and they have nothing to eat.”

The prolonged power outages in Cuba are particularly upsetting for many residents because obtaining basic goods – including food, fuel and medicine – often means standing in line for hours under the hot Caribbean sun.

Outside of Havana, much of the island was still in darkness as work crews continued to repair power poles and wires and remove trees from roads.

The Wall Street Journal reported late Friday that Cuba’s government has made a rare request for post-hurricane relief from US President Joe Biden’s administration.

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Reporting by Dave Sherwood, Mario Fuentes, Alexandre Meneghini and Nelson Gonzalez in Havana; Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta in Havana and Kanishka Singh in Washington; Editing by Frances Kerry and Daniel Wallis

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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