14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 22 July 2021 — The month of July has borne witness to a number of events that have been turning points in Cuba’s history: Fidel Castro’s assault on the Moncada Barracks in July 1953, which ignited the revolution; the execution of the revolutionary general Arnaldo Ochoa that shocked many Cubans in 1989; and the sinking of a tugboat with dozens of people on board heading for Miami in 1994, in what became the climax of the rafters’ exodus. To these historic July dates, we now add the day when we Cubans took back the streets, our streets.
Sunday, July 11, began like any other summer day on this island: hot, long lines to buy food and uncertainty dominating daily life. Then the first live Facebook videos of protests from the small town of San Antonio de los Baños, southwest of Havana, started appearing on social media. On our phone screens, we watched crowds chanting “freedom,” “we want help” and “we are not afraid,” as well as insults against President Miguel Díaz-Canel. These were new scenes for us, and the excitement was contagious.
Mr. Díaz-Canel and his entourage went to San Antonio de los Baños to re-enact the scene of Fidel Castro arriving to calm the masses at the 1994 protest in Havana known as the “Maleconazo” — until now the only widespread social upheaval that several generations of Cubans had ever seen. But Mr. Díaz-Canel’s game plan did not work.
By the time the presidential caravan reached San Antonio de los Baños, the protests had already spread, including to Palma Soriano, in the province of Santiago de Cuba on the other side of the island. Large crowds of neighbors took to the plazas of Cárdenas and Matanzas, and groups of young people approached the capitol in Havana.
“We gathered on a corner of El Vedado” — a neighborhood in Havana — “and we began to speak the same language,” said a 32-year-old man, Alejandro, who was among the dozens of Habaneros who went to the headquarters of the Cuban Parliament chanting that three-syllable word as loudly as they could: libertad.
Many of those who called for Mr. Díaz-Canel’s resignation and the end of the dictatorship were born after the 1994 Maleconazo or were children at the time, with no memory of that revolt. But that doesn’t matter because, unlike that outbreak, the goal of these protests is not to escape the island’s economic crisis on a raft, but to bring about change on the island.
To be sure, the restrictions brought on by the pandemic have exhausted an already worn-down population. But young Cubans are not protesting solely against the pandemic curfews, the cut in commercial flights that allowed them to escape to another country, or the shops that accept only foreign currencies even though the people are paid in Cuban pesos. These protests are fueled by the desire for freedom, the hope of living in a country with opportunities, the fear of becoming the weak and silent shadows that their grandparents have become.
These young Cubans don’t want to be the grandchildren of a revolution that has aged so badly that Cubans are forced to risk their lives crossing the Florida Straits for a chance at a decent life.
They protest because the official myth that the Cuban people had been saved by some bearded men who came down from the Sierra Maestra is no longer relevant to them. They have grown up watching the bellies of Communist officials grow while they have difficulty putting food on the table. They no longer fear risking their lives in the streets, because they are slowly losing their lives anyway, waiting in long lines to buy food, traveling on crowded buses and enduring prolonged power outages.
One image encapsulated how the official narrative of Fidel Castro’s revolution was completely shattered: Several young people hoisted a bloody Cuban flag atop an overturned police vehicle in the middle of the street. Unlike the patriarchs of the revolution, they didn’t sport beards and olive-green uniforms, but they have become the new symbol of this island. They took to the streets because they believed that the streets belonged to them.
In past protests, the regime depended on its loyal army of state workers, members of the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution and the Raúl Castro worshipers to foil the demonstrations — indeed, loyalists were encouraged to hit back at the demonstrators with sticks and stones. But in the first hours of this wave of protests, few loyalists showed up. Instead, Mr. Díaz-Canel unleashed his uniformed security forces to quell the demonstrations.
Unsurprisingly, the security forces detained hundreds of people. The government has militarized streets across the country and restricted the internet to make people on and off the island believe that there is nothing to be seen. In other words, they did what dictatorships do.
Many Cubans had come to believe that the dictatorship would be eternal, that the island was cursed forever, that our only options were to flee or to remain silent. Others were convinced that Cubans were incapable of rebellion, that the brave had left and an apathetic and silent mass was all that remained behind. But the silence has been broken. And the voices that broke it belong, above all, to young Cubans clamoring for profound changes in their country.
The near future is full of uncertainty. Little by little, the number of deaths, arrests and forced disappearances will become known. To help in this task, it is urgent that social organizations create hotlines in which the families of the missing can offer their information in an effort to locate their loved ones. The United Nations and the European Union have called on the Cuban government to respect the right to protest and to release all of those who have been detained for demonstrating. It’s unlikely that the regime will heed their calls. But one thing is clear: Cubans have tasted freedom, and there’s no turning back. We will not be silenced again.
Yoani Sánchez (@yoanisanchez) hosts the podcast Ventana 14 and is the director of the digital newspaper 14ymedio. This article was translated by Erin Goodman from the Spanish, for the New York Times.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in The New York Times .
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