July 11: The Day Cuban Youth Overturned a Police Car

Iconic photo taken on the corner of Toyo, in Havana, on July 11.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sánchez, Havana, 20 July 2021 — In flip-flops and shirtless, Yander ran down Galiano Street to join the crowd shouting “Freedom!” that had just passed his door. In the rush, he forgot the mandatory mask. The mother of this 35-year-old from Havana reached him short-of-breath. “Mi’jo, you left your mask!” she said, and handed him a piece of black cloth. She hasn’t seen him since.

That Sunday, July 11, Cuba ignited with spontaneous protests in several cities. The fuse, lit in San Antonio de los Baños, quickly spread throughout the capital. Thousands of people converged in floods, heading aimlessly towards the nearest squares.

A few meters from the Capitol, seat of the docile Cuban Parliament, Agustín, 28, was in his wheelchair, offering glasses and headphones for sale to the few passers-by who dared to walk in the afternoon sun, and when he saw ” the boys who came like a whirlwind.” He asked one of them to accompany him, and his disability saved him from arrest, but it did not save him from the blow of a policeman which has left his arm purple.

The compact chorus, which repeated “¡Patria y vida!” and “Down with communism!” drowned out the words anchored in a past when the Cuban ruling party imposed its slogans

When the shock troops arrived to stop the revolt, an old woman leaned out of the window shouting Gusanos!* [worms] at the protesters. It was barely heard. The compact chorus, which repeated “¡Patria y vida!” and “Down with communism!” drowned out those words anchored in a past when the Cuban ruling party imposed its slogans. Most were young. On the corner of Toyo, in the center of the city, standing on a patrol car waving a bloodstained flag, trying to save a friend who was taken by the Police, standing with a fist raised in front of the riot police, they demonstrated that they are not afraid.

Leaning over her balcony, Mireya saw the tumult coming down her street, the boulevard de San Rafael. She had just shouted at her neighbor that she would wait for her at five in the morning at La Época. It is a nearby store, accepting payment only foreign currency, which offers many of the products that have been missing for months in stores that accept Cuban pesos. Both women are in the business of buying and reselling merchandise on the black market. But that meeting to collect packets of beans, canned food, some cheese, and some beer never happened. On Monday, the neighbor woke up in a cell, and Mireya was looking for her 16-year-old daughter Karla, outside a police station.

“My girl is a minor and she only came down to make a video with her mobile, I saw how the police took her by force,” she sobs. She is one of the thousands of the day’s disappeared.

In Santiago de Cuba, in the distant town of Palma Soriano, Severino has become hoarse from shouting. “Four of us in my family went out but only two came back, the others we don’t know where they are and they don’t tell us anything,” he explains. “We didn’t even think it, that day the only thing I had in my stomach was a cup of coffee … but the effect of that coffee, I felt like I had eaten a leg of pork.” Retired with the minimum pension (about 20 euros a month), Severino laughs when he hears that official voices saying that “imperialism” paid him to take to the streets.

“I lost my wallet and one shoe, but it was worth it,” says a young economics graduate from San Antonio de los Baños who was one of the first to go out to protest in a city where “when something to cook finally appears, then there is no electricity.” It was in that municipality of the province of Artemisa that the spark jumped that later set the souls on fire in almost the entire island. San Antonio is known for hosting the International School of Film and Television and the Biennial Humor Festival. “We were the town of humor, now we are the town of honor.”

“My mother did not want to come with me because she was afraid and now she regrets not having lived that historic day right here, together with the others”

“My mother did not want to come with me because she was afraid and now she regrets not having lived that historic day right here, together with the others,” the young woman boasts. His story is constantly interrupted by a worrying dry cough. The country is experiencing the worst rebound of the pandemic, but the alarming numbers of the Covid-19 did not prevent people from coming together, perhaps because “this dying every day, with the anguish and misery, is worse than the coronavirus.”

In Sancti Spíritus, Mercedes (38 years old) spent Sunday glued to the screen of her mobile phone, devouring the videos that were coming out of the protests in other provinces. Among several neighbors they collected enough money to buy a recharge that would allow them to stay connected for longer and not miss any details. “At night, the only light was on the screen, because we were in a blackout.”

The next morning, her boss summoned her early to the state office where she spends her hours between apathy and wanting to go home. “We have to defend the streets from the counterrevolutionaries and each worker must make a public commitment that he will be at the side of our Communist Party and against those mercenaries who want to take our country from us,” he said. Mercedes was stunned. That same afternoon she decided to quit her job. “Even if we are left without a peso in this family, nobody is going to put a stick in my hand to break the head of a neighbor’s son. They can’t count on me,” says Mercedes.

These episodes are being repeated in all companies and state offices in the country. The employee of an official publishing house tells that they were transferred to a farm of the Union of Young Communists to cut branches and make sticks “so that the workers defend themselves from the provocations of the mercenaries.” Many say privately that they do not intend to hit anyone. In addition to losing their jobs, some of those who have refused to take part in actions against the protesters have suffered “acts of repudiation,” a kind of violent and humiliating escrache – a public shaming – on the part of their colleagues.

The phone ringing catches Leidy Laura breastfeeding her baby. On the other end of the line, her sister, who lives in Miami, tells her that they have been following the television news by the minute since Sunday, celebrating the possible fall of Castroism.

“Here it is militarized, the streets full of police and men armed with rocks and baseball bats,” she replied with concern. She has not left her home in Camagüey for “three days” for fear of being trapped “in one of the talanqueras – makeshift traps – they have set up in the city.”

Leidy Laura is 24 years old and the daughter of two Havanans who have told her what they experienced on August 5, 1994, when the previous social explosion shook the coast of the Cuban capital in an event that has come to be known as the Maleconazo. “But no way, this has been much bigger and across almost the entire island. That was the rehearsal and this was the implementation,” she says.

“This could become unlivable, if people cannot go out to buy food because of the confrontations and barricades everywhere, we are going to starve because no one has reserves of anything”

“My father always tells me that that time he was very excited that the dictatorship was falling, but that has been almost 30 years and it still stands,” she adds with a certain pessimism. “I had already made up my mind that my son was going to have to grow up with a ration book and shouting at school assemblies ‘Pioneers for Communism, we will be like Che’, but with what happened on Sunday, I don’t know, hope has returned.”

“This could become unlivable, if people cannot go out to buy food because of the confrontations and barricades everywhere, we are going to die of hunger because nobody has reserves of anything,” says Viviana, who until the arrival of the pandemic ran a thriving business renting rooms to tourists near the Prado in the beautiful city of Cienfuegos.

Not everyone is filled with hopes. Fear is also rampant on the island. Some fear that the regime’s repressive excesses will add fuel to the bonfire of discontent and the protests will spark a civil war. President Miguel Díaz-Canel fanned those flames when he said that “the combat order is given” and that they are “ready for anything.

“This country was already on the brink of a humanitarian crisis and now with this we are going faster towards the abyss. If international organizations do not help us, we will end up falling like flies,” Viviana continues. “But we could see this coming, we were already suffering too much and young people are different. They no longer believe the same stories, nor can you convince them with stories from the past.”

“The young people” that Viviana speaks of have been the protagonist of protests that point squarely to the political model that has prevailed on the island for 62 years. Although they have grown up under the most rigid indoctrination, the youth feel like citizens of the world thanks to new technologies, they have fewer ideological ties and they perceive that they owe nothing to the bearded men who came down from the Sierra Maestra.

“Young people” are like Lucas, 22, who not only uses Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, but has spent months taking refuge in Telegram threads and WhatsApp groups ruminating on his frustrations. Sunday’s protest was the first time he saw the faces of friends until then hidden under avatars. “We met and began to speak the same language,” he now recalls about the meeting in a corner of the Havana neighborhood of El Vedado. From there they set off the entire length of Calle San Lázaro holding hands. They did not have a leader, they were not part of an opposition party, but they became the thorn in the heart of a dying system.

The hierarchs with their well-ironed guayabera and bulging bellies do not understand that these youths with their spindly bodies from long walks and short food rations are not afraid of them. They have been making fun of the official rhetoric for years, and they have not watched national television for a long time so that the information mush prepared by the Party does not cause them to retch. They are impervious to the reproaches that officialdom throws at them. They are the future; while the police who beat them, the military who shoot them and the rapid response brigades who attack them are only the vestiges of a past that refuses to die but that, will also, go away.

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Editor’s Note: This report was published for the first time in the newspaper El Mundo.

Translator’s note: “Worms” (gusanos), is a term Fidel Castro chose to describe the first wave of people who left Cuba after the Revolution, and it has been repeatedly applied to anyone who doesn’t support the government ever since.

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