If Cuba’s biggest wave of protests in decades was spontaneous, the government’s response was anything but.

Without a Castro in power for the first time since the 1959 communist revolution, it fell to President Miguel Díaz-Canel, a stodgy party technocrat, to answer thousands of Cubans who thronged the streets calling for freedom and a better life.

In a broadcast of more than four hours on Monday, Díaz-Canel lined up his cabinet to explain in great detail what the government was doing to help the people and why the US was to blame.

The script was as old as the challenges facing the single-party state: a failed economy and an ossified political system.

Few Cubans will have been convinced by their leader. They know the reality: a near-bankrupt state, a chronic lack of dollars and an inefficient command economy incapable of producing food and basic goods.

Although Sunday’s protests were a serious and rare challenge to the government, the authorities acted with relative restraint. Police and special forces avoided directly confronting demonstrators, though some arrests were made. Internet connections have been cut to prevent protesters from using social media to mobilise.

“The next 72 hours will be critical,” said one former ambassador to Havana. “If the protests subside, there will be some erosion of government authority and dissent may become endemic. But if this escalates, you never know what will happen.”

Long queues for basic necessities, one of the protesters’ complaints, are not new in Cuba. More damaging for the government has been a recent upsurge in coronavirus cases. Cuba has long trumpeted its strong public health system as a cornerstone of the revolution and it controlled the pandemic well last year.

Desperate for tourist dollars, officials earlier this year reopened the country to Russian visitors and the number of coronavirus infections rocketed. Cuba’s seven-day average of new cases is now the highest of any major Latin American nation in proportion to its population, though the country is deploying two home-produced vaccines.

Months of tight pandemic restrictions have prevented many Cubans from working, complicating a daily struggle to secure basic necessities. Attempts to reform the economy at the start of the year by devaluing the peso sharply have pushed up inflation. Stop-go policies allowing payment in dollars, then banning them in favour of euros, have made matters worse.

Foreign investment has been crippled by the tightening of the US embargo from 2019, something that has also complicated the sending of remittances.

Díaz-Canel will be hoping that his foreign backers — Russia, China and Venezuela — can help. None is enthusiastic about a fresh bailout but none wants to lose a useful ally either.

If the Cuban government has few good options, the Biden administration also faces difficult choices. Joe Biden’s response was notable for its harsh tone. He called for “the Cuban regime to hear their people and serve their needs . . . rather than enriching themselves”. Caught between pressure from the Republicans and the Cuban-American lobby for a hard line and the desire of leftwing Democrats for a revival of Obama-era detente, the administration has so far left the tighter Trump-era embargo intact.

Joe Garcia, a Cuban-American former Democrat congressman, said the Havana government’s position reminded him of the Spartan fable of the boy who stole a fox and hid it in his cloak. “They would rather have a fox eat their entrails than admit the system isn’t working,” he said.