The biggest protests since the mid-1990s have broken out across Cuba, with thousands of people taking to the streets to shout “we have no fear” and “down with the dictatorship”.

Unauthorised public assembly is prohibited in the communist-led state, and protesters risk years of imprisonment by openly criticising the government. So why are Cubans demonstrating? And how has the government responded? Here’s what you need to know.

What are the protests about?

The demonstrations – which erupted in several cities across the island nation from the capital, Havana, to Santiago de Cuba – have been sparked by the worst economic crisis on the island since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Last year, Cuba’s largely state-controlled economy shrank by 11 per cent – a dip that has been blamed on the pandemic and US sanctions imposed by the Trump administration.

Trump reclassified Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism” in a last-minute move before leaving office, accusing Havana of repeatedly providing support for acts of international terrorism.

Cubans have also been angered by restrictions on civil liberties and the authorities’ handling of the pandemic. Cuba reported a record of nearly 7,000 daily infections and 47 deaths on Sunday and protestors are frustrated by shortages of basic equipment to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.

What do the protestors want?

Protestors want the government to address food and vaccine shortages, power cuts and high prices.

Many are demanding a complete overhaul of communist rule, with one telling The Guardian: “I want a total change: a change of government, multiparty elections, and the end of communism.”

How has the government responded?

According to the Guardian, the Cuban protesters were met by uniformed and plainclothes police officers, who bundled hundreds of demonstrators – many of them violent – into police cars.

Reports describe how youths tore up paving slabs and hurled them at police, who retaliated with pepper spray and truncheons.

President Miguel Díaz-Canel said the protests were a provocation by mercenaries hired by the US to destabilise the country and called on the supporters of the government to confront “provocations.”

According to The Independent, around 20 demonstrators were taken away in police cars or by individuals in civilian clothes during the protests.

Attempts to upload photos and videos of the protests to social media were also curbed by the Cuban authorities who temporarily shut down internet services in Havana.

What has the international response been?

The protesters received support from an official of the Biden administration. Julie Chung, acting assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, tweeted: “Peaceful protests are growing in [Cuba] as the Cuban people exercise their right to peaceful assembly to express concern about rising COVID cases/deaths & medicine shortages”.

She added: “We commend the numerous efforts of the Cuban people mobilising donations to help neighbours in need.”

Carlos F de Cossio, Cuba’s director-general for US affairs, hit back at the remarks, accusing the US Department of State of “promoting social and political instability in Cuba” and “expressing hypocritical concern for a situation they have been betting on.”