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HAVANA: Cuba on Monday blamed a US “policy of economic suffocation” for unprecedented anti-government protests, as president Joe Biden backed calls to end “decades of repression” on the communist island.

Thousands of Cubans took part in demonstrations Sunday, chanting: “Down with the dictatorship,” as President Miguel Diaz-Canel urged supporters to confront demonstrators.

The anti-government rallies erupted spontaneously in several cities as the country endures its worst economic crisis in 30 years, with chronic shortages of electricity and food.

The only authorized gatherings in Cuba are usually events of the ruling Communist Party, but according to the data journalism site Inventario, a total of 40 demonstrations took place Sunday.

Police used tear gas to disperse crowds, and at least ten people were arrested, while officers used plastic pipes to beat protesters, AFP journalists witnessed.

Diaz-Canel on Monday blamed the uprising on the United States pursuing a “policy of economic suffocation to provoke social unrest in the country.”

Cuba has been under US sanctions since 1962.

From Washington, Biden urged the government in Havana to “hear” its people’s demands.

“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.

“The United States calls on the Cuban regime to hear their people and serve their needs at this vital moment rather than enriching themselves,” he added.

Mexico and Russia on Monday warned against using the unrest as a pretext for foreign interference. Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador warned against an “interventionist” approach to the unprecedented Cuban protests, and offered to send aid.

Russia, for its part, warned against “outside interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state.”

US-Cuba relations have been particularly fraught since then-president Donald Trump reinforced the blockade following an historic but temporary easing of tensions under Barack Obama between 2014 and 2016.

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