In an unprecedented display of anger and frustration, thousands of people took to the streets Sunday in several cities and towns in Cuba, including Havana, to call for the end of the decades-old dictatorship and demand food and vaccines as shortages of basic necessities have reached crisis proportions and COVID-19 cases have soared.

From the Malecón, Havana’s famous seawall near the old city, to small towns in Artemisa province and Palma Soriano, the second-largest city in Santiago de Cuba province, videos livestreamed on Facebook showed thousands of people walking and riding bikes and motorcycles along streets while chanting “Freedom!” “Down with Communism!” and “Patria y Vida” — Homeland and Life — which has become a battle cry among activists after a viral music video turned the revolutionary slogan “Homeland or Death” on its head.

“We are not afraid!” chanted Samantha Regalado while she recorded hundreds of people walking along a narrow street in Palma Soriano.

Video streamed on Facebook by Antonio Miguel Cobas Jalowayski around 1 p.m. in Palma Soriano showed hundreds of protesters calling for freedom and shouting, “Down with the dictatorship” and “Down with Díaz-Canel,” a reference to Cuban leader Miguel Diaz-Canel. The protesters also demanded medicine, COVID vaccines and “the end of hunger.” A crowd is seen pushing a police car and shouting “the dictators just arrived,” in reference to the police. Later, one protester is heard saying, “This is a peaceful demonstration.”

Facebook user Carlos Alberto Ceballos Brito published a video around the same time showing a crowd gathering in Alquizar, a town in Artemisa province near Havana, also protesting against the government and chanting “Down with Diaz-Canel” and “Patria y Vida.” Another video published on Facebook shows a similar protest in nearby Güira de Melena. In all cases, the crowd used strong language to refer to Díaz-Canel, whose popularity is sharply falling as life on the island deteriorates.

In an impromptu televised address later in the afternoon, Díaz-Canel blamed the protests on U.S. efforts to tighten the embargo, with the alleged intention to “provoke a social uprising” that would justify a military intervention.

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Visibly upset and raising his voice, the Cuban leader warned that protesters would face a strong response and called “all revolutionaries” to confront them on the streets “with firmness and courage.”

“We are not going to hand over the sovereignty or the independence of the people,” he said. “There are many revolutionaries in this country who are willing to give our lives, we are willing to do anything, and we will be in the streets fighting.”

Cuba is in the throes of its worst economic contraction in over three decades, as chronic inefficiencies and paralyzing bureaucracy have gradually eroded the country’s production capacity, including the essential food and agriculture sectors. Trump-era sanctions have reduced access to vital economic lifelines like remittances, and foreign investment has plunged. Painful currency reforms this year have sent inflation soaring, and long lines for food have again become commonplace.

Now Cuba is struggling to control transmission of the coronavirus and has been setting record highs almost daily in the past few weeks. Cuba decided to make its own COVID-19 vaccine and didn’t seek to buy shots from other countries. But plans to immunize the population with a homegrown vaccine has been plagued by delays.

Last week calls for the government to accept humanitarian aid increased as Cubans began documenting on social media the collapse of the health system in the province of Matanzas, the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in the island.

The government responded by sending more doctors to the province and setting up a bank account to receive aid, but the account is in a Cuban bank under U.S. sanctions. Although Cuban officials said this week the country is open for donations, historically, the government has refused or seized the humanitarian aid coming from Cuban exiles.

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In a separate video posted on Facebook on Sunday, activist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara called on Cubans to head to the Malecón to protest against the island’s authoritarian regime.

“I’m going to the street, I’m going to the Malecón, no matter the cost,” he said.

Otero Alcántara went on hunger strike earlier this year to draw international attention to increased repression of artists and activists, who have stepped up calls for more civil liberties. He was forcibly removed from his home and hospitalized.

Later in the afternoon, Cubans were sharing videos of the police response. A Facebook video posted by user AntenaCubana shows people in Palma Soriano throwing stones at the police while a person is heard saying the police had been beating the demonstrators. Another video showed several trucks carrying special-forces police officers reportedly arriving in San Antonio de los Baños, where Cuban president Díaz-Canel showed up to speak to residents, a gesture that mimics Fidel Castro’s response to the uprising in Havana known as the Maleconazo in 1994.

On Twitter, Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodríguez suggested the protests were orchestrated by the US.

“President @DiazCanelB is in San Antonio de los Baños with the revolutionary people that are mobilized against the imperialist campaign and its salaried agents,” he wrote. “We appreciate the international solidarity and support of Cubans living abroad #EliminatetheBlockade.”

But as news of the protests around the country spread on social media — despite reports of the government shutting down internet access — Cubans in the capital also took to the Malecon to demand the end of the regime.

Videos posted around 3 p.m. on Facebook showed a crowd chanting “Patria y vida.” Cuban journalist Abraham Jiménez Enoa reported that the police were detaining protesters gathered around 23 and L streets, at the heart of the city of Havana.