Ivan Garcia, 6 August 2017 — Havana, 4 August 1994. Amidst the suffocating heat, 12-hour blackouts, the devalued currency, and the scarcity of food, the sensations felt on the streets of Havana 23 years ago had reached the breaking point.
Frustration and social malaise were in full bloom. People sat on the corners making plans to emigrate. Even the most intransigent Fidelistas, in whispers, suggested urgent changes were needed in the monolithic structures of power.
The question was simple. If Fidel Castro didn’t introduce economic reforms, a great number of Cubans were going to die of hunger. Some of my friends and relatives looked like they’d emerged from Nazi concentration camps because of all the weight they’d lost. My mother lost some of her teeth, and solved a problem of buying food by selling her record collection of Brazilian music for just 39 dollars.
Chinese bicycles were distributed at workplaces and as they were too heavy, many workers sold them or took them to the countryside to exchange for a pig; if they didn’t have a patio they kept the pig in the house. A doctor we knew, who was 60, spent so much trouble trying to find something to feed the pig, which he kept in the unused bath in his house, that he died of a heart attack.
In 1994, in the midst of the Special Period, an avocado cost one dollar, or 120 pesos under the counter, and rice was 100 pesos a pound, when you could find it. A pound of roast pork was 150 pesos, and old people stood in long lines for a cup of lime tea. The Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) passed out tickets that gave you the right to eat a Zas* hamburger — one of Fidel Castro’s “inventions” — and drink a glass of soda pop.
Cats disappeared from the city: those who ate them said they tasted like rabbit. More than a few people passed out in the street. The illnesses caused by the lack of vitamins and proteins got worse and worse. If Option Zero was reached, the army would be in charge of distributing food to the blocks. Illegal departures by raft shot up. In this environment of misery and desperation, life passed in the capital.
On the night of 4 August, in the Vibora neighborhood, there was a planned 12-hour blackout from 8 at night until 8 in the morning. Many people put their mattresses on the roofs of their houses and slept like that.
At ten in the morning on 5 August, different versions of what was happening on the Malecon started to spread through the neighborhood. “Listen, this is fucked up. In Colon, San Leopold and Jesus Maria people are throwing themselves into the street. They’re sacking the stores and overturned a police car,” said a gentleman who claimed to have come from Central Havana.
A group of young people and adults, along with the driver on the 15 bus route, who was then at the Vibora stop, decided to travel to the epicenter of the conflict. During the trip the driver was picking up people with big bags, as if they were going on a picnic. It was rumored that illegal sailings were leaving for Florida and anyone who wanted to could get aboard.
Just beside the former Presidential Palace, the combined forces of the police, State Security, and Special Troops, stopped the bus (a converted truck). The driver opened the doors and the we passengers, to prevent the military from taking possession of the truck full of detainees quickly all got off and taking advantage of the human sea already taking shape at that house, we disappeared among the crowds and into surrounding streets.
For the first time I heard shouts of “Down with Fidel.” The huge crowd walked toward the Malecon and the Avenida del Puerto. People with binoculars searched the horizon for boats. The destruction of the “shoppings” and at the Hotel Deauville were obvious. The wide road that runs parallel to the Malecon was filled with stones and pieces of bricks.
At four o’clock in the afternoon, dozens of army trucks, jeeps with mounted machine guns at the back, special unit soldiers and construction workers from the Blas Roca Contingent, armed with baseball bats and thick steel bars were lashing out left and right, beginning to restore order.
Meanwhile, news spread from the TV that Fidel Castro was coming to the area of the revolt.
A military vehicle pulled up in front of the Capitol building. And those who, until that moment, in the area, had been screaming against him, from intuition and fear changed their tune. They began to applaud and shout “Viva Fide,” joined by hundreds of supporters of the government. The mob mobilized by the regime came down Prado Street, shouting revolutionary slogans, with signs and aluminum tubes in their hands.
By eight o’clock at night, the spontaneous popular protest had been controlled by the olive-green autocracy.
What happened 23 years ago deserves an analysis. Could it happen again? Let’s go by step.
During the 1960s, the mass emigration of a middle class made up of politicians, doctors, engineers, journalists and other professionals allowed Fidel Castro to sweep away all the republican institutions, bury the free press and raise his hermetic dictatorship.
Backed by widespread popular support, Castro erected a Soviet-style state. Even the Constitution was a carbon copy. An army that was once the largest in Latin America, a powerful network of agencies that were appendages of the regime, to which was added the effectiveness of the secret services. All this allowed Fidel Castro to found one of the most perfect machines of social control in modern history.
Workers had no right to strike or to form trade unions, and laws condemned those who dared to dissent many years of imprisonment (or death penalty). El barbudo (the bearded one) sowed terror among Cubans.
Opposing the regime had — and still does — a high personal cost ranging from repression and ’murder’ of a dissident’s reputation to verbal lynchings that can end in criminal proceedings.
It is one of the reasons, among others, that explain why Cubans do not rebel. The most they do is complain: the majority of the population is convinced that Castroism is a disaster.
The ordinary citizen perceives the State as a territory of a privileged caste that, due to historical or genetic merits, it is up to them to govern without accountability to the people.
Despite the perpetual economic crisis affecting the nation, it is not likely that in the short term mass protests will occur where Cubans claim their rights or demand democracy.
But, look, any arbitrariness of the regime can trigger small or medium protests. Cases have already been reported. Like the protest of the drivers in Bayamo or bicitaxistas in Havana.
Right now, the new state policies restricting private entrepreneurs could become the embryo of numerous protests. Although, in general, these groups do not have leadership or organizational methods. They are rather spontaneous, driven by government abuses.
The dissidence has failed to connect with that segment of the population that is in conflict with the military junta that governs Cuba’s destiny. And in turn, many disgruntled people avoid contacting the opposition, for fear of being branded as ’counterrevolutionaries’.
But the social upheaval, low wages and distrust towards the regime is present. There are more accumulated social problems than the State’s capacity to solve them.
Today, the island is a box of matches that at the slightest touch can set off a spark. Even fear has an expiration date.
*Translator’s note: “One night [Fidel] asked his consultants to ship some McDonald’s hamburgers to him by air. He wanted to compare them with some burgers he had created and christened “Zas.” After trying the gringo hamburgers, he declared the Cuban versions better. The Zas burgers were sold in cafes that were converted into hamburger restaurants, two per person.” Source: Ivan Garcia earlier post.