Thousands of people took to the streets across Cuba to voice anger over shortages of food and medicine and shout “freedom” in the biggest anti-government demonstrations in the communist-ruled island in decades.

Riot police used pepper spray and batons against some of the protesters in Havana on Sunday but did not confront most of them directly. Witnesses saw men in plain clothes dragging some demonstrators away to waiting police cars and reported special forces jeeps with mounted machine guns deployed in the streets.

Protests were also reported in the city of Palma Soriano in the east of the country close to Santiago as well as in San Antonio de los Baños to the south of Havana, where crowds shouted: “Down with the dictatorship!” In Matanzas, videos circulating on social media showed demonstrators overturning cars.

President Miguel Díaz-Canel made an emergency nationwide address on television on Sunday afternoon that interrupted scheduled football coverage, telling Cubans: “We will not allow anyone to manipulate our situation . . . the order for combat has been given, revolutionaries to the streets.”

The protests appeared to have begun in San Antonio, where residents chanted anti-government slogans and demanded a halt to coronavirus restrictions and power cuts. Díaz-Canel visited the town and later alleged that protesters had been manipulated by US-led social media campaigns.

In Havana, some protesters wearing face masks said they were tired of the communist system, of the dollar stores that are used to sell scarce goods and of the lack of medicine. Social media was awash with videos posted of the protests.

In Miami, members of the large Cuban-American community came on to the streets in a show of support for the protests. The state’s Republican governor Ron DeSantis wrote on Twitter: “Florida supports the people of Cuba as they take to the streets against the tyrannical regime in Havana. The Cuban dictatorship has repressed the people of Cuba for decades and is now trying to silence those who have the courage to speak out against its disastrous policies.”

Jake Sullivan, Joe Biden’s national security adviser, said: “The US supports freedom of expression and assembly across Cuba, and would strongly condemn any violence or targeting of peaceful protesters who are exercising their universal rights.”

Cuba is facing its worst economic crisis since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, its main backer. Coronavirus has devastated revenues from tourism, the main export earner, and tighter US sanctions imposed by former president Donald Trump have choked the economy. Hopes that Joe Biden’s administration would ease sanctions have not materialised.

The Díaz-Canel government tried to introduce limited economic reforms at the start of the year, devaluing the peso sharply and allowing more freedom for the private sector, but the efforts made little impact amid a deep recession. Food and fuel shortages have worsened and many Cubans spend hours queueing for basic necessities.

In April, Raúl Castro stepped down as head of the communist party at the age of 89, marking the first time since the 1959 revolution, led by his brother Fidel, that a Castro had not been in charge of the country.

The carefully choreographed transition to a younger generation of leaders came months after a protest by the San Isidro collective of artists against the lack of freedoms on the island.

A rap song written this year by dissident musicians from the movement subverted the hallowed Cuban revolutionary slogan “Patria o Muerte” (“Fatherland or Death”), replacing it with “Patria y Vida” (“Fatherland and Life”) — a phrase shouted on Sunday by some of the protesters.