World News

Cuban merchants stage unusual march in central town of Santa Clara

HAVANA (Reuters) - Dozens of small vendors staged a rare independent march through the central Cuban town of Santa Clara on Thursday against what they called excessive regulation of the private sector, according to videos on social media and two witnesses who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Several groups, from gay rights activists to supporters of Cuba’s underground street network, have held protests over the past year despite the Communist government’s tight control of public spaces.

Increased internet access, and in particular the launch of mobile internet just over a year ago, is mobilizing civil society not sanctioned by the state, analysts said, although the demonstrations are small and narrowly focused unlike the mass anti-government protests elsewhere in the region.

The protesters in Santa Clara, the hometown of Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel, in the province of Villa Clara, vented their fury at local authorities for enforcing an existing nationwide ban on private entrepreneurs selling imported goods, the two witnesses told Reuters by phone.

Reuters was unable to independently verify their accounts or the videos. Cuban state media did not comment on the march, and the Cuban government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The cash-strapped Cuban state that is facing a hike in U.S. sanctions has a monopoly on imports and exports and criticizes “hoarders” for buying imported goods in short supply from state stores to sell at a profit.

Many Cubans also travel abroad to buy clothes and household items that are hard to find on the island to sell back home, an illegal practice largely tolerated by authorities.

The Cuban government is increasingly seeking, however, to combat capital flight, and has complained in recent years that irregularities in the private sector have led to tax evasion and an increased inequality.

“We want commerce! We want a solution! We want answers!” salespeople chanted in the videos, which appeared to show state officials outside their offices listening to their concerns. “We are not delinquents.”

One witness told Reuters the protesters had marched towards the provincial government of Villa Clara before heading to the local seat of the Cuban Communist Party.

Villa Clara Communist Party head Yudi Rodriguez listened to the protesters and said they could continue until she had reviewed their complaints, the witness said.

Cuba’s private sector has expanded steadily since former President Raul Castro started opening up the economy, partly in order to cut the bloated state payroll, but it remains heavily regulated.

Reporting by Sarah Marsh; Additional Reporting by Nelson Acosta; Editing by Richard Chang