▶ Watch Video: Thousands protest in Cuba over food shortages and rising prices

Washington — President Biden on Monday said the United States “stands firmly” with the people of Cuba and “their clarion call for freedom” after thousands of Cubans mounted the biggest protests against the communist government in decades.

“The Cuban people are bravely asserting fundamental and universal rights. Those rights, including the right of peaceful protest and the right to freely determine their own future, must be respected,” Mr. 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.”

The president said the U.S. stands “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.”

At a White House meeting with state and local leaders to discuss gun violence later in the afternoon, Mr. Biden said Cuba has not seen “anything like these protests in a long, long time if, quite frankly, ever.”

“The U.S. stands firmly with the people of Cuba as they assert their universal rights. And we call on the government of Cuba to refrain from violence in their attempt to silence the voices of the people of Cuba,” he said.

The protests against the Cuban government erupted Sunday, as thousands took to the streets of Havana and across the island amid the country’s ongoing economic crisis and as it battles a surge of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations.

In addition to suffering from the impacts of a decades-old trade embargo imposed by the U.S., sanctions enacted by former President Donald Trump just before he left office remain in place.

In televised remarks on Monday, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel accused the U.S. of pursuing a “policy of economic suffocation to provoke social unrest in the country,” according to the news agency AFP. Díaz-Canel, who took office three years ago, has blamed the country’s economic crisis on U.S. trade restrictions and the sanctions imposed by the Trump administration.

On Sunday, Julie Chung, acting assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, offered support for the scores of protesters, tweeting “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. We commend the numerous efforts of the Cuban people mobilizing donations to help neighbors in need.”

National security adviser Jake Sullivan also expressed support for “freedom of express and assembly across Cuba.” The U.S., he continued, “would strongly condemn any violence or targeting of peaceful protesters who are exercising their universal rights.”