Ivan Garcia, 8 August 2017 — When night falls on Havana’s Malecon, an optical illusion gave the impression that on the horizon the sun was devouring the sea. This is the hour when Daniel, a retiree of 66, sat himself down on a wooden bench and, along with several neighbors, and drinks the worst quality homemade rum.
For half a century, Daniel has lived in masonry shell facing the Malecon. The cheap paint on the facade can’t hide the cracks of the aggressions of the salt air which has chipped away pieces of the old building.
“Every now and then we have electrical problems,” he says, pointing out several uncovered wires in the entry hall, “and the water pump is always broken,” says Daniel, as he parsimoniously continues to smoke a hand-rolled cigarette.
For Havanans who live in areas along the shore, the incursions of the sea, the hurricanes, carnivals, and clandestine businesses, mark a difference with the rest of the residents of the capital. “Here on the Malecon you can see everything. Couples having sex on the wall or against the cliffs, tourists looking for hookers — women and men, and people selling marijuana, take away food, or little cones of peanuts. The Malecon shows you the good and bad of Havana,” affirms Daniel.
The Colon neighborhood, a stone’s throw from the maritime walkway, is the cradle of prostitution, illicit games and the consumption of drugs. A zone where poverty is a difficult cross to bear, potable water is a luxury, and people think twice as fast as most Cubans.
And it was precisely these neighborhoods — Colón, Jesús María, Belén, San Isidro, Los Sitios and San Leopoldo — that were the epicenter of that spontaneous and popular protest that took place on 5 August 1994, known as the Maleconazo.
It is unlikely that any Havanan over age 40 will not remember what they were doing that day.
“In 1994, in this part of the city we were not as bad off as in other parts of the country. During the Special Period we did not have blackouts because the electrical system is buried. But the people were fed up. There was tremendous hunger, very few could eat a hot meal once or twice a day. And even if you had money, there was nothing to buy. At night they put up signs against the government. Plans to hijack the Regla ferry or a port craft were forged in Central Havana,”says Daniel, and he continues recalling:
“The youngest were acting up. Making rafts, stealing bikes, robbing the yumas (foreigners) to get their money or whatever they could. It was an ugly scene. On 5 August I was putting some tiels on a friend’s house, when I heard the hubbub. Then, my friend’s wife tells me that people are breaking the windows in the Hotel Deauville and attacking the hard currency stores.
“When I looked over the balcony,” Daniel continues, “I saw some thousand men and women, different ages and races, had taken to the streets and were protesting. At 11 in the morning there was a human sea. They came from other neighborhoods, they began to raid the state properties and shout Abajo Fidel. Some were demanding freedom. My buddy and I believed that the government had faltered. If there had been cellphones, like there are now, the system would have fallen.”
Susana, a 59-year-old housewife, lives in a basement in Amargura Street, in Old Havana. “August 5th fell on a Friday and like every day, I was selling something at the entrance to the tenement. That day I was selling avocados for a dollar, or its equivalent, 120 pesos. There was a fucking dog. The Cuban peso lost its value. A pound of rice cost 100 pesos and a pound of black beans 120 pesos, if you could find them. Beef had disappeared and pork was over the moon: 150 pesos a pound. People were eating stray cats, pigeons, and making soup with lizards.”
Susana continues evoking one of the worst eras in Cuba in almost six decades of Castroism. “The people were on the point of exploding. When the protests started I put away the sack with the avocados and headed to Avenida del Puerto. That was impressive. People were shouting slogans against the government. The rumor was spreading that boats were coming from Florida to collect whoever wanted to leave. I prepared a bundle of clothes and put some salt crackers in a plastic bag. I already saw myself in Miami.”
Carlos, a sociologist, says that the protests starring Havana’s Malecon left behind a great lesson. “The government realized that people were fed up with so many blackouts, so much poverty and the scarcity of food. If they were able to neutralize the revolt in less than 12 hours it was because it was spontaneous, without a leader or an organized strategy. If there had been leadership in those protests, the story would probably have been different.”
Víctor Manuel Domínguez, a journalist and freelance writer, on 5 August went to Santiago de Las Vegas. “I had gone to visit an outstanding nephew in a military unit. When I returned to my house, near Chinatown, I was struck by several jeeps and special troopers with long weapons. They had broken the windows of shops and the OFICODA. The number of people coming down to the Malecon was tremendous. ”
In 1994, Domínguez was affiliated with an illegal union directed by Carmelo Diaz. Twenty-three years later, Víctor Manuel thinks that it would be very difficult for a popular protest like the one of the 5 of August to be repeated.
“The genesis of this revolt was not to demand political rights or democracy. People threw themselves into the street simply because they wanted to emigrate. I’m not optimistic. The dissidence today is living on the moon, and most Cubans, although we complain, we do not have the option to go out to protest against the government. There is a lot of individualism and citizen solidarity. It’s each man for himself,” points out Victor Manuel Domínguez, and confesses: “I will never forget the extensive blackouts and empty casseroles. Some nights I went to sleep without eating anything all day.”
Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello, an economist and former political prisoner recalls: “In August of 1994 I had been an opponent for five years and that day, when the protests began, I was at my sister Elena’s house on Neptuno, at the corner of Lealtad. I remember two women police officers, who took off their uniforms and joined the march. The local opposition did not even see it coming.” And she emphasizes: “I do not believe that the dissidence can lead future protests. It is disconnected from the people, making appeals and proclamations that do not resonate among the Cubans. The changes in Cuba will come from popular pressure.”
August 5, 1994 was an example. 23 years have passed and no new Maleconazo is on the horizon. Fear and apathy are winning the game of everyday poverty and a future between question marks. For now.