Letting Off Steam: the Recent Protests in Cuba

Photo: Adalberto Roque / AFP.

Letting Off Steam: the Recent Protests in Cuba

12 / octubre / 2022

“Everybody out on the street, that’s what we need to do,” you can hear a man say in one of the videos about the protest in Arroyo Naranjo. “It’s so moving to see this,” a woman says as she films 31st Avenue in Playa, which is also in Havana, when protesters walked along the entire road closing off traffic, shouting freedom and making the police move back.

There were over 50 protests in Cuba between September 29th and October 1, 2022, according to records from the Inventario project. They took place in Holguin, Las Tunas, Mayabeque, Artemisa and the majority took place in almost every Havana municipality. 

TIMELINE of a disaster

At 6 AM on September 27, 2022, the Cuban Meteorological Institute announced that the eye of Hurricane Ian – a category 3 storm on the Saffir–Simpson scale -, touched national territory in La Coloma, in southern Pinar del Rio. Maximum sustained wind speed was 205 km/h, and there were also strong and heavy rains. With vast experience in meteorological phenomena, Cubans watched the devastation yet again, which spread as far as the Isle of Youth, part of Artemisa, Mayabeque and Havana. 

It wasn’t long before the National Grid collapsed. Lights went out all over Cuba the very same day, between 5 and 6 PM. There were two breakdowns: one of the connections between Matanzas and the “Antonio Guiteras” Power Plant, and another on the Matanzas-Cotorro transmission lines. The blackout lasted days in some areas, especially in the West.

Some social media users reported over 140 hours without electricity. Actress and photographer May Reguera experienced a 144 hour blackout, alongside her family. At the time the electricity was supposed to come back on, she wrote

“The stench has burned my nostrils. We have days of recovery ahead of us, but I’m sure that something has broken within all of us. It had been slowly breaking, but now it’s definitely cracked.”

Luz Escobar, a journalist at 14 y Medio, described her days without electricity, from the stress of not being able to refrigerate the little food she had, to not being able to clean, wash, or shower without getting water from outside. 

“You see the elderly, children, women who are sick going up the stairs with bottles of water, trying to hold onto a little bit of dignity amidst this disaster. It’s like we’re living in a war, everything seems like the last breath of survival,” she recalls.

This situation, as well as the prevailing national crisis, have been the trigger for this new wave of protests. 

Where did the protests begin?

The first photos of the protests that broke out on September 29th started coming from the Havana municipalities of Cerro and Arroyo Naranjo, when it was still daytime. One of the users recording them said, “everybody is already exhausted, it’s always the same thing,” and you could hear protestors say: “we want electricity”, among other slogans. 

That day, President Miguel Diaz-Canel went to visit the Surgidero de Batabano municipality, in Mayabeque, to check out the damage and recovery efforts after Ian came. He was received with boos. People asked him to walk through the town to see how serious things were. “Don’t you feel sorry for us?” a woman complained, but the president and his entourage got into their cars and left the place without listening to her.

When night fell, protests multiplied. Protests were confirmed at Esquina de Tejas, Primer Anillo de la Autopista Nacional, Puentes Grandes, 100th Street in Marianao, 31st Avenue in Playa and Puente de Calabaza. In some places, a phrase was repeated that has become a regular ever since students at Universidad de Camaguey complained: “Put on the electricity, pinga!”

In Havana’s Vedado neighborhood, members of the Municipal Defense Council tried to explain “progress” made in recovering the electricity supply. During this announcement, protestors were tough in their questioning, asking why fuel for patrol cars wasn’t being used for electricity company vans. They also said that these CDR (Neighborhood Defense Committee) members had a different story, every day. They asked for solutions and no more “bla bla bla”.

Inventario confirmedthat tires were burnt in Barreras Park in Guanabacoa, while people with no connection to the nearby church went up the tower and began to ring the bells. 

On September 30th 2022, other protests broke out throughout the day in some of these and other places in the capital. People took to the streets again in across Cerro and Arroyo Naranjo; but also in Playa, Guanabacoa, Boyeros, and San Miguel del Padron. Photos of repression began to go viral.

An elTOQUE contributor shared an exclusive video where you can see Rapid Reaction Brigades deployed. Probably cadets, they appeared armed with baseball size sticks to stifle the protests. They walked along 41st Street, between 60th and 62th Streets in Havana, shouting slogans and phrases like: “Fidel, we’re with you,” “Homeland or death,” “For whatever, Canel, for whatever.”

Even though September 30th was the day that had the most potests, a dispute broke out between government supporters and protests on October 1st, on Linea between F and G Streets, in Vedado. This tense moment was captured by the foreign press. 

“Down with the dictatorship,” “puppets,” “freedom,” you can hear protesters say in a video published by EFE agency. In a face-off of slogans, some said “Diaz-Canel, motherfucker” and others said “Diaz-Canel, big balls.”

“Put on the electricity, “we’re dying of heat and hunger,” “young people are tired, we want change,” “the dollar is at 200 pesos, it’s so expensive, and where do we get MLC,” were the voices of concern and unhappiness that could be heard on Linea.

Civil society and ways of protesting 

Blocking traffic, closing streets off with tree branches, with garbage containers, with human chains of mothers and fathers with their children, burning tires, ringing bells and banging pots and pans were some of the forms of protest.

“Protests are just taking a complaint out to the public space (…). There are sets of protests. There are individual and group ones, protests in the virtual and physical space. These are group protests, in the public space, for a wide range of complaints,” explained political expert Armando Chaguaceda in a live El Toque broadcast. 

Chaguaceda recalled that protests had pretty much disappeared from Cuba’s public imagination. Recognizing that the Government failed and asking in the public space for it to do its duty, because every channel has failed, is a novelty in itself that intellectuals see as growth of civil society.

Recent protests have shown a better organization of civil society, capable of taking initiative, coming together in common actions to even make the police move back.

Another blackout: the Internet

On September 28th, 29th and 30th, NetBlocks.org – an observatory that monitors Internet shutdowns worldwide -, recorded three such events in Cuba.

On the 28th, Internet traffic fell below 50% of normal levels, which could be justified by Ian sweeping through the country and breakdowns in the National Grid. However, the Internet was completely shut down for at least seven hours during the nights of September 29th and 30th, amidst reports of protests on social media.

This has become a normal tactic now for the Cuban Government, which controls Internet and telephone services with its monopoly company ETECSA. In cutting communication, it stops the messaging about protests from spreading and limits real-time reports and complaints about repression.

The Government does this hiding behind Decree-Law No. 35 on “Telecommunications, Information and Communications Technolologies, and Use of the Radioelectric Spectrum.” The regulation stipulates in Article 121 that ministers of the Revolutionary Armed Forces and Interior can implement special measures to control the radioelectric spectrum.

As there wasn’t any Internet, many videos were posted after the fact, which makes it hard to be exact when discerning the date of the protest and for people to learn about them and join this civic initiative to protest.

Witnesses and the detained: the days that followed…

Armando* was walking down 31st and 56th Streets on the night of September 30th when everything kicked off. “People started banging pots and pans from their balconies,” he remembers. Suddenly, a group of neighborhood boys came out to cut the road. It quickly filled up.”

Patrol cars showed up and traffic had to be diverted. People moved to 42nd Street, there were hundreds. “For some reason unbeknownst to me because I was in La Punta, people began to move back to 60th Street and on their way there, the electricity came back on for the entire neighborhood. It was a really joyous moment, people clapped, and it felt like a victory. At that exact moment, they shouted “the people, united, will never be defeated.” 

Roberto* says that he was walking down streets near Linea on the night of the October 1st protest. He ran into patrol cars, a truck, cars with men sitting inside and workplaces surrounded by State Security. He summarizes what he saw as a “deployment of aggressors. They were everywhere.

“I saw a really shocking case of violence. It was against a woman. There are some videos where you can hear a woman shouting. One of the agents pushed this woman, she fell backwards, rolls on the ground and when she falls, somebody next to me threw a table knife at her. It looked like it had been taken from a dining table, which rang all the alarm bells for me. It was to incriminate her for something. It was very strange. The woman never had the knife on her, it was thrown at her,” he recalls.

From his experience that night, he describes government violence that tried to go unnoticed. 

“How is repression going? Nothing seems to happen in public. The entire repression apparatus is far away and what they do is let some protestors go out, the ones they target because they are leaders or something else, and then they take photos of them. These protestors are then taken away to a very dark place as soon as they take to the streets. There, they are beaten or are pushed and pushed as if they were a human barrier. Protestors are moved to a place and when they are in a dark place, the army of aggressors comes out of nowhere and nobody sees them, nobody finds out.”

“I was left in shock when I saw that madness of a beating. It was shocking. Lots of repressive acts have been seen, but I’d never seen such repression happen before my eyes. It was brutal. A young man, who if I’m not mistaken was called Jose Antonio, had his face disfigured from the beating.” Ariana Cruz, known as Tata Poet says, who was arrested on Zapata and C Streets because she was at the protest on Linea and F Streets on October 1st, with her girlfriend.

Faces and names of the arrested during the protests slowly came to light. They were moved to police stations and could be taken to court for contempt, public disorder and resistance. Justicia 11J has counted 26 arrests since September 30th, some of which were carried out by repressors dressed as civilians. 

The latest protests confirm a change in Cuban society. As Carlos Varela himself once sang, cries have stopped being mute. If July 11, 2021 marked a breaking point that could go down in History as a glimmer of clarity, 2022 corroborates that the public space can be used and considered a space for redemption.

*Some names of people who sent their testimonies to elTOQUE have been changed to avoid any possible repressive consequences for them.

This article was translated into English from the original in Spanish.

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