By Dave Sherwood
HAVANA, Oct 3 (Reuters) – Cuba had restored power to most of Havana on Monday following Hurricane Ian, defusing tension in the capital after scattered protests last week, though anger still simmered on the streets as residents struggled to replace food and supplies squandered by blackouts.
Hurricane Ian knocked out power to the entire island of 11 million people last Tuesday. Cuban officials scrambled to turn on the lights for Havana but the pace was not fast enough for some, who took to the streets in the largest protests since widespread anti-government rallies in July 2021.Much of western Cuba, the area hit hardest by the hurricane, was still without power on Monday.
The protests in Havana appeared to have subsided by Sunday evening, but long lines for food, fuel and medicine – typical in Cuba even before the hurricane – had formed again in the city on Monday morning.
“This has been terrible. No light, no food, we lost everything in our freezer,” said Maria Carla Catala, 25, who stood on a Havana street corner holding her son as she waited in line for food. “Now we wait to see what appears in the stores to try to recuperate what was lost.”
Hurricane Ian struck Cuba during one of its worst economic crises since former leader Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution. Widespread shortages, lack of medicine and daily blackouts countrywide had already left cupboards bare and many on edge, contributing to last week’s protests.
The Cuban peso plunged to 200 per dollar on the informal market on Monday, according to independent online tracker El Toque, batting records and putting further pressure on Cubans whose buying power has evaporated in recent months. “We are looking for food but have found nothing,” said Pedro Fernandez, who, together with his wife, strolled through a central Havana street Monday with an empty bag in hand.
Fernandez told Reuters he makes 3,500 pesos per month on his state salary, or approximately $18 at the black market exchange rate. “It’s not enough.”
Cuban president Miguel Diaz-Canel said he recognized the “difficult situation” but encouraged Cubans late on Sunday to come together rather than protest.
“Unfortunately there is a group of people who, in a vulgar and indecent way, complain from positions of total misunderstanding, challenging and offending,” Diaz-Canel said on state-run TV.
“Those who act in this way, who claim all the rights that the Revolution gives them, but who contribute little, must be argued with and confronted….with our laws.”
FOOD VS. POLITICS
On the streets of Havana on Monday, many people Reuters spoke with were more concerned with finding food than politics.
“I’m not a communist or a capitalist, but this is reality, this is what we are living and you can’t hide it,” said Yasser Pedroso, 47, who was searching for food on Monday morning but said he had found only packets of moist towelettes in shops.
“What the people (in the protests) are saying is the truth. This has nothing to do with politics.”
On Friday and Saturday evening, protests – a rarity in Cuba – were met with a heavy police presence. On two occasions, a Reuters witness observed buses delivering large groups of pro-government supporters, sometimes carrying sticks and baseball bats, to the site of the rallies.
The Cuban government did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the origin of the pro-government supporters at the protests.
Reuters observed police detain three people over the weekend following the rallies.
Internet communications, too, fell across the island on Friday and Saturday evening, coinciding with the protests. Internet watchdog groups said the timing appeared aimed at stifling the rallies.
The Cuban government did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the communications outages.
Reporting by Dave Sherwood, Mario Fuentes, Alexandre Meneghini and Nelson Gonzalez in Havana; Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta and Anett Rios; Editing by Josie Kao