14ymedio, Ignacio Varona, 5 August, 2014 – Amalia Gutierrez was living on Gervasio Street in the San Leopoldo neighborhood when she heard the shouting on the other side of her blinds. Roberto Pascual was a patient waiting for dialysis outside the Hermanos Ameijeiras Hospital. And Vivian Bustamante sold illegal pizzas near the Spanish Embassy. They were three coincidental witnesses, that 5 August 1994, of the greatest social explosion in Cuba in the last 55 years. Nobody knew what was happening, but all three were afraid, curious and anxious.
“I saw a ton of people come running, scantily clad, the way we all dressed in those years,” said the illegal vendor. “I was afraid and took off running and hid myself in a stairwell right on the Malecon,” relates the woman who says she saw “the most amazing thing” in her life that Friday. At the entrance to an upstairs apartment she found a niche that had once held a water pump, and hid herself there. Through a slot in the door she could see “carrying on” and later the repression. She didn’t come out of that hole until nightfall
It all started days earlier. The boats that crossed Havana Bay to Regla and Casablanca were hijacked three times in a less than a fortnight, with the objective of emigrating to the United States. All over the city there was a rumor of another possible Mariel Boatlift and an opening of the borders to everyone who wanted to leave.
Vivian tells it in her own words. “We were living in a very hard time, I had the trick of brushing my teeth to make myself think I’d eaten so I could sleep on an empty stomach, but there was a time when there wasn’t even toothpaste.” Her story is common among those who lived through the Special Period. However, the social explosion caught her off guard. “I never imagined that this was a protest, I thought at first people were rushing to watch some brawl, but later I realized it was something more serious.”
“I thought at first people were rushing to watch some brawl, but later I realized it was something more serious.”
Roberto died ten years ago, but his story of those days continues to be told in the family. His son had never seen his father so frightened as on that 5th of August twenty years ago. “We were waiting for his dialysis when the nurses started to close the doors of the Emergency Room and they called the patients because we were waiting outside,” he explains about those first minutes in which they began to realize something was happening. A huge crowd was arming themselves and no one knew what to tell us about what was happening.”
Several doctors were coming and going whispering. A cleaning lady, who’d made friends with Roberto, called him aside. “The people have come out in the streets,” said the woman, smiling from ear to ear, “now they’ll have them on the run,” she finished. “Afterwards we knew that some doctors and employees in Cuba’s biggest hospital had gone to the highest floors to look out the windows at the pitched battle raging down there.” That day Roberto stayed until late, until they carried out his procedure.
Amalia experienced it with the greatest intensity. The windows of her house gave directly on the Gervasio Street near San Lazaro. Her door was open when she started to see people running and screaming. “The most recalcitrant members of the CDR (Committee for the Defense of the Revolution) were hiding themselves, a lot of people closed their doors so as not to have any trouble,” she remembers, speaking about that day when everything was about to change.
“There were a lot of very poor people in particular, you could see it in what they were wearing, they were shouting and some were carrying sticks or stones.” She thinks she recognized several neighbors from her area also in the crowd.
The repression was carried out by paramilitaries hiding under the clothes of construction workers.
The repression of that popular protest was carried out by the police and paramilitaries hiding under the clothes of construction workers. The Blas Roca Contingent played a leading role in putting down the rebellion. The construction workers went at it with blood and bricks, as they had been taught. “It was criminal what they did, beating people with iron rods, in front of the door of my house there was a young man who fell with his head all bloody, I never knew his name.” Amalia was one of those who didn’t dare go out.
One of the reasons for the failure of the Maleconazo was precisely the absence of many of the social actors in the popular explosion. Amalia’s, Roberto’s and Vivian’s reasons can be summarized as fear of being physically injured, lack of information about what was happening, and fear of losing the few belongings the Special Period hadn’t already deprived them of.
Coda and lessons
The Maleconazo was too brief for the news to get out in time. It happened in a Havana without mobile phones, with a totally collapsed transportation system and one where private vehicles had serious difficulty finding fuel to enable them get on the road. Neighborhoods with high poverty rates and dissatisfaction, such as San Miguel del Padrón, Cerro, Guanabacoa, Arroyo Naranjo and areas of Central Havana closest to Zanja Street, only found out what happened hours after the uprising had been smothered.
The lack of reinforcements exhausted those who set the spark and left them surrounded by a repressive pincer that closed around them, without new forces coming to their aid. The fact that the revolt started in a place as exposed as the Malecon demonstrates its spontaneity. Protesters were corralled against the sea wall. There was no way out. The place should have been their escape and its horizon were transformed into the worst trap.
If that uncontrolled mob had started on streets such as the Paseo del Prado, Galiano Avenue or Belascoaín it would have been fed by neighborhoods with high anti-government sentiment.
The driving engine of the revolt was not political change but emigration, and this weakened the Maleconazo. When many of those involved in the protest realized there wasn’t going to be any boat to leave on, they turned away from the crowd and in the worst cases turned to looting the stores and hotels. There wasn’t a united democratic goal, just the most basic human instincts: fear, hunger, flight as a form of protection.
The absence of an articulated leadership also conspired against the revolt. In the absence of a leader who would shout “This way!” or “Go over there!” the avalanche of people scattered and was an easy target for the repressive troops. Nor was an “open neck” possible in the middle of a crowd that stretched for miles along the Malecon and didn’t receive any directions.
The Maleconazo was doomed to be crushed. However, it was a wake-up call, a jolt that forced the government to open the borders to the mass exodus of some 30,000 people and to take a number of measures to ease the economy that gave people a break. We owe the small bubbles of autonomy and material development that came afterwards to these men and women who faced beatings and insults.
The Maleconazo also demonstrated the apathy of a lethargic population, who observed more than participated in those events. Instead of joining the revolt, Amalia, Robert and Vivian hid behind blinds and waited, “for what would happen, what had to happen.”