September 8, 2021
Ricardo Acostarana

11J: When Repression in Cuba Ceased to be “Utilitarian”

…They believed he was a dissident and was no more
how natural…

Silvio Rodríguez – Juego que me regalo un 6 de enero –

Since Sunday, July 11 (11J), I have been asking myself the same question: If I had still been an officer at the Ministry of the Interior, how would I have reacted had I been given orders to contain, at any cost, the hundreds of people who came out to protest in the streets of Havana?

That day in the afternoon I took to the street. I had finished watching live broadcasts on social networks of what was happening in San Antonio de los Baños. That’s where the wave of protests against the government began. Then it expanded to towns and cities across the country.

All of Cuba had been under an electronic blackout for hours that would last, intermittently, more than a week. There was no way of knowing what was going on for sure in other places, but something was definitely wrong if the government blocked access to the internet. It is an unwritten law to “take it down” every time an event occurs that the government deems “extraordinary.” Other examples include November 26 and 27, 2020 and January 27 of this year.

By alternative means, I learned of a handful of artists that were congregated at the entrance of the Institute of Cinema, Radio and Television (ICRT) to demonstrate peacefully and ask for a few minutes in front of the cameras.

I was part of the crowd that saw most of them being violently arrested. Three officers dressed as civilians hounded one of them and squeezed him into a car that screeched rubber as it drove away. Others nearly escaped being thrown onto a cargo truck. I was part of the crowd that stood, astonished, watching how the truck revved its engine, and the detainees were flung to the floor of the vehicle and beaten in broad daylight in front of dozens of cell phones that recorded what happened. I was part of the crowd that saw 23rd Street fill up with patrol cars and state security agents on their motorcycles. I was part of an increasingly dispersed crowd who heard the same slogans as always, by a group of officials and university students summoned at the entrance of the ICRT, in open defiance of the young artists’ claims.

I looked at the scene as a whole, searching for a familiar face among the officers; suddenly, I imagined myself in uniform, among them, sent there with the sole objective of arresting those boys, some were acquaintances or personal friends.

During almost the decade I spent as an officer, a situation like this never arose, and much less on a national scale. Every so often, on Sundays, the Ladies in White would walk down the streets in the Playa neighborhood and an entire armed police operation would greet them to “neutralize” them. In other words, they were arrested, transferred to a police station, and then released in different parts of the capital.

Many of my colleagues at the time were not aware. For them, it was enough to know what their bosses cackled: “These women are the enemy, they are mercenaries at the mercy of the CIA and the American Government.” They probably did not care to know who those women were, who came out dressed in white, with flowers in their hands, asking for freedom for their husbands, parents, children, or brothers. The latter were detained years earlier as political prisoners in what is known as the Black Spring in Cuba.

I remember once asking a captain if he knew about the Black Spring, and he asked if it was a horror movie or a Chuck Norris movie. On another occasion, someone questioned who Yoani Sánchez was, and another officer thought she was a higher-up who had been recently promoted.

In my early years, behind a desk and slews of legal documents, I was never interested in politics or what happened beyond my pillow or my pocket. I had my heroes, my usual martyrs, and I thought I knew about what they never tired of calling “the relay of the Revolution.”

Over the years, I discovered that I was not even the child of a moral commitment defended by my parents, nor many of the parents of young detainees. They no longer hid behind that duty or felt proud of being trained by the Revolution. Rather, they were resigned to “this is what it is – what can be done? – No one can fix this – there is no need to make a homeland for anyone – you have to survive as you can.”

I never had the vocation to dedicate myself to military life. That was always clear to me, as was that under no circumstances would I do anything outside of what I considered fair, humane, and legal. At the same time, there was the military maxim: “Orders are carried out and then, if anything, they are discussed,” which demands, and supposedly protects, the ability to carry out actions that can lead to serious repression. If in the course of events there are irregularities, such as excessive use of force, unjustified repression, or abuse of office, these possible crimes can be investigated. I never allowed myself such acts.

Many of these “arbitrary” acts translated into repression and police brutality; this was the lived experienced during the protests that began on 11J. One of the problems, the hot nail hanging from the Cuban government’s tongue, is that this time it is not around a dozen counterrevolutionaries in some park or side street; these are not gusanos (worms), nor stateless persons, mercenaries, or lumpens paid by the CIA; neither are they “confused,” the government´s new term for the protesters. People took to the streets demanding freedom and better government management.

It confirmed for the first time, and forever more, that they are fearless. As they advanced through the streets and avenues, they asked the police not to strike, they chanted “Patria y Vida” and “it’s over now,” the resounding chorus of a song-turned-hymn for many. The only weapons they had were their collective shouts, the common sense of their claims, their cameras, videos to record evidence of abuses, and their bodies to face the consequences of expressing themselves freely, something considered a crime to pay dearly.

Unfortunately, in some places, stones and bottles were also used as a means of defense. Perhaps it was in response to the savagery of the different civil and military entities that tried to repel the situation with sticks, batons, and even shots into the air. However, the scenes of stone-throwing and acts of vandalism were the images that the state media manipulated to show the world a version of what happened in Cuba: it was not a social outbreak, but serious acts against social peace and order.

Those same events were what I encountered after the events outside of the ICRT. Miguel Díaz-Canel spoke on national television about what was happening as the protests increased. The number of people who, throughout the country, left their homes to join those in the streets is not known exactly, regardless it being the worst moment of the Covid-19 pandemic for Cuba.

My habitual access to internet would not see the light of day again until almost a week after 11J. By that time, more than 500 people had already been arrested, and counting. The indiscriminate arrests of intellectuals, folks on street corners, top-level athletes, minors, the elderly, mothers with young children, university students, doctors, artists, civil servants, the self-employed, and even the mentally ill speaks of the regime’s ineptitude and inability to make progress.

Each and every one of the possible and dialoguing Cubas, all of the most heterogeneous political views marching through the main avenues, streets, roads, and paths of the Island were silenced. For the first time in history since 1959, every level of social class in Cuba came out to demand something from the government.

Such is the example of a 21-year-old friend, a physics student at the University of Havana, Leonardo Romero Negrín. Leo was arrested on April 30 at a demonstration in Old Havana where he carried a sign with the words Socialism Yes, Repression No. Leo took to the streets that day believing in a social system and said it loudly, but the defenders of socialism themselves took the poster from him and forced him into submission.

On July 11, he was arrested again after protecting a student of his from possible confrontations with the police in one of the demonstrations in front of the Capitol building. Leo came out defending the same idea from April 30 but stayed out of the crowd. A public surveillance camera captured him, and three agents dressed as civilians surged like beasts to brutally arrest him. He spent several days in a penitentiary and days later, upon being released, confessed to having been a victim, along with other inmates, of subhuman living conditions and physical, moral, and psychological harassment.

His testimony, as unusual as it is aberrant for a society not accustomed to such extreme situations, has caused a stir among families of the many detainees, and even in the upper echelons of the government. Personally, I was terrified by what they call the “somatón:” the officers make a corridor, like in soccer ceremonies, and the detainees have to run through it while being physically pummeled and scolded with obscenities. I do not want to believe that an armed institution to which I belonged carries out this type of… martyrdom… I want to stick with adhering to the law and clarifying criminal acts like the ones I, too, helped investigate.

Another example that shows the contempt for citizen integrity is the case where 25-year-old photographer Anyelo Torya was forced into a summary trial without the right to a lawyer and sentenced to one year in prison. His “crime” was using his camera to document one of the protests. Anyelo was released a few days after, but no one will answer for that time behind bars.

On the other hand, Daniela Rojo is a 23-year-old friend who lives in Guanabacoa who was detained on 11J. Daniela has two young children, ages 7 and 4, and a schizophrenic father. After days and weeks in various detention centers, she was finally liberated.

Arián González is 32-year-old lawyer and holds the international title of Grand Master of Chess. He has resided in Spain for several years but has been in Cuba since the beginning of July taking care of his diabetic mother. He was detained for several days for the alleged crimes of disorderly conduct and instigation to commit a crime and decided to go on a hunger strike. Arián, alone, on a street in his hometown, raising his arms and clapping his hands, shouted Viva Cuba Libre, Patria y Vida y Libertad. After being released, he returned to Spain.

Ángel Carranza Caso, “Ángelo,” one of the best-known street artists in the city of Santa Clara, was violently detained on one of the main public roads of his city on June 11 and was under arrest for almost a week. He is 62 years old and has no family.

These five people – a tiny sample – detained during the wave of protests reveal something that works as a perfect portrait, analogous to what transcended the Black Spring more than 15 years ago. With the arrest of the 75 dissidents, activists, and independent journalists who became political prisoners, movements to denounce their release arose on the island, such as the aforementioned Ladies in White, who were accused of receiving funding from the US government.

This precedent indicates the non-dismissible idea that, in large part thanks to the use of social networks, especially Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Twitter, thousands of mothers, fathers, brothers, and friends are mobilizing in the same way. They are more organized, and have more information, and with the legitimate right, create groups, movements, and concrete actions to make visible each of the unjust arrests and sentences experienced by 11J protestors.

There is no possible way for the Cuban government to hide behind its fetish over enemy financing to delegitimize the new peaceful resistance groups. In fact, on July 21, the first peaceful women’s march was organized as a protest to demand information about their detained relatives. One of the premises of the self-proclaimed Mothers of 11-7 Movement (a possible Caribbean movement like Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo?) was that it was made up of only women, and men were in charge of participating as observers, with the aim of avoiding acts of violence. Little or nothing is known about the final outcome of this march.

If in the days when I worked as an officer of the Ministry of the Interior, an entire operation was put together to repress the walks of the Ladies in White, several times also with men by their sides leaving video evidence of what happened, how can you fix it when thousands of them go out all over Cuba to ask for the liberation of their children? At the risk of sounding fatalistic, who can take away that any of those people, whom a police officer has to arrest and repress, is a family member or friend of the same? What would their reaction be? Would he comply with the order and then later, if anything, discuss it?

Of the hundreds of videos uploaded to social networks since then, there is a significant one that portrays that other Cuba, above any oppressive order. The Cuba that, since 11J, broke the paradigms tied to the belief of a quiet and submissive people, was the same Cuba in the video of a province in the center of the island, where a group of police officers trying to stop the passage of some protesters ultimately stepped aside. The crowd thanked them with applause, and they continued on their way freely and peacefully.

That is the country that stopped being 2 + 2 = 5. The same where, if I were still a military man, I would not have to think about who is demonstrating with raised hands, claiming the same thing that affects me, as a just public servant and also a representative of Cuban civil society.

I still have the same friends from 10 years ago who believe in socialism as the only way to justice and progress. Friends who are confirmed in the idea of ​​a liberal economy as a solution to Cuba’s ills. Friends who consider the government a totalitarian regime, others who call it a dictatorship. Muslim friends and believers in the Yoruba religion. Friends, even, who look favorably at the possibility of a military intervention in Cuba. Militant friends bred by the Communist Party. Trans, lesbian, non-binary friends. Friends who say they do not know what is happening. Friends who received a stone to the head yelling “down with the embargo.” Friends who believe in dialogue with the government a thousand times denied.

Today, as for more than a decade, the government is determined to demonstrate that all attempts to subvert order in Cuba have leaders who receive express orders from the “ancestral enemy.” The events of July 11 thwarted and broke the official stereotype of the Cuban counterrevolution. The thousands of people who took to the streets did not do so on behalf of or under the convocation of the 27N Movement, or MSI (San Isidro Movement), UNPACU (Patriotic Union of Cuba), or any other independent organization. The thousands of people who took to the streets did so because they got tired of surviving in an eight-hour queue to buy some chicken, a tube of toothpaste, a roll of toilet paper, a box of cigarettes, or a blister of pills, in the event that they were actually able to buy it. They did it because the chicken they keep in the freezer at home is spoiled by the endless and intermittent power outages several times a day. They did it because they got tired of the embargo as the sine qua non culprit that the system has to justify the disastrous handling of the pandemic and the lives of Cubans in general. They did it precisely because they lack a natural and organic leader who can conjure a societal vision better than the existing one. They did it because they got tired of living in a country with the drop from the overturned glass had not yet touched the ground.

Cuban writer Norberto Fuentes once said: “The repression in Cuba does not have a thirst for blood, it is utilitarian.” But the images disseminated by the networks do not demonstrate this thesis, rather they lead to a nineteenth-century praxis coined by Gustave Le Bon in his book Psychology of the masses (1895): “… the clearest role played by the masses has consisted in the great destruction of aging civilizations… ”

Ricardo Acostarana has a law degree and is a writer. He has published in the Cuban magazines El Caimán Barbudo, Dialektika, Tremenda Nota, La Joven Cuba, Hypermedia Magazine, and El Estornudo. He lives in Havana.

Illustration by Maikel Martínez Pupo. You can find him @MaikelStudio @maikelmartinezpupo.