The episode might have remained a Cuban urban legend, a whispered moment of rare public dissent on the communist-run island, but for the island’s recent upgrades to mobile internet.
But this summer, Cubans across the country were able to live stream and watch in real time the unfolding protests in San Antonio de los Baños — and join in. Almost immediately on the other side of the island, thousands of other Cubans took to the streets, some complaining about the lack of food and medicine, others denouncing senior officials and demanding more civil liberties.
The unprecedented demonstrations have even spread to small towns and villages, where more horse-drawn carriages than cars roam the potholed streets.
In the city of San Jose de las Lajas, Marta Perdomo said her two sons, Nadir and Jorge, both teachers, immediately joined the protests as soon as news of unrest reached elsewhere in the country.
“My sons went out because, like any Cuban, they were desperate about the situation,” Marta Perdomo told CNN. “They are fathers. Every day we have less here. There was no medicine. It was a very sad moment with the pandemic. Children died and the elderly too.”
Video taken by Marta’s son Nadir that day shows crowds of anti-government protesters peacefully marching down the street, with the protesters themselves appearing shocked at what is happening.
“It’s authentic! It’s spontaneous!” Nadir says excitedly in the video.
According to Perdomo, in San Jose de las Lajas, unlike in other cities, protesters did not loot government-run stores that sold hard currency items or overturn police cars.
As more and more Cubans took to the streets, it became clear that the Cuban government was facing its greatest internal challenge to staying in power in decades.
“We call on all revolutionaries in the country, all communists, to take to the streets in all places where they might repeat these provocations,” he said. “The combat order has been issued.”
Government supporters, who carried bats along with the police, began to break up the protests. Hundreds of Cubans were arrested; some for clashing with officers, others for only filming the riots with their cellphones.
As the protests in San Jose de las Lajas were disrupted by government supporters and police, Nadir and Jorge Perdomo returned to their home and used their cellphones to film a video, which they released despite government attempts to shut down internet access on the island. could put online.
“Nobody paid us,” Nadir says in the video, dismissing government claims that the protests were fabricated.
“We just react like all the people have done.”
Both brothers were arrested days later and charged with alleged crimes including public disorder, assault and contempt. Their mother, Marta, said the charges against her sons were fabricated and they were being punished for peacefully speaking out against the government.
Cuban officials say many of the arrested protesters were criminals and “counter-revolutionaries.” But in their court filings, prosecutors note that neither Nadir nor Jorge had a criminal record and both were “well-respected” in their community. In February, Nadir was found guilty and sentenced to six years in prison and Jorge to eight years in prison.
To date, Cuban prosecutors said they have convicted and sentenced nearly 500 people in connection with the protests in the largest mass trials on the island in decades.
Prevent future protests
But international human rights organizations say the Cuban government is using law enforcement to intimidate Cubans into not daring to protest again.
“We found that prosecutors consistently accused Cubans of exercising their basic rights such as the right to protest peacefully, the right to insult their president or the right to insult police officers, and exercising the right to freedom of expression,” said Juan Papper, a senior Americas Researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW).
On Monday, HRW released a report on the protests, saying it documented 155 incidents of alleged abuse against people involved in last year’s demonstrations, “including harassment, arbitrary detention, abuse-related prosecutions, beatings and other incidents.” of ill-treatment, which in some cases constitutes torture.”
The organization also accused the Cuban government of continuing to crack down on civil liberties to prevent further protests.
Marta Perdomo said she experienced the tightening restrictions firsthand after being invited to Europe in June to speak about her sons before human rights groups and lawmakers. When she reached the airport in Havana, officials told her and another mother of a detained protester that they were not allowed to travel.
“They said I was ‘regulated’ and couldn’t go,” Perdomo said.
Cuban officials did not respond to a CNN inquiry as to why Marta Perdomo was not allowed to leave the island.
Although Perdomo says she’s worried about when her three young grandchildren will see their fathers again, she has no regrets.
“They didn’t have to go out, but they felt the pain of Cuba,” Perdomo said. “That’s why they went out. That day my sons were free.”
It remains to be seen whether the July protests will be remembered as a rare outburst of public anger or as a new stage in the struggle for more openness.
In June this year, hundreds of Cuban students at a university in the city of Camagüey began a nightly demonstration after the electricity in their dorm was cut.
“Fuck these power outages! Turn on the power!” They sang as they banged on pots, as seen in videos the students uploaded to social media.
Cuban officials quickly turned the lights back on.