At 3:00 in the afternoon on Sunday, July 11, on the ground floor of a building in Habana del Este, a group of Cubans was talking politics like never before, expressing their dissatisfaction with the Government, the shortage of food, medicine, and other problems that Cuba is currently enduring. At that same time, images of grassroots demonstrations in San Antonio de los Baños, Palma Soriano and other provinces of the country were popping up on social media.
"We're not afraid!" Cubans shouted in different regions across the island, and the spark reached Havana, which was abuzz with anti-Government dissent the likes of which had not been in six decades of Castroism. The protests known as the Maleconazo (1994) were a minor episode compared to what happened on Sunday, witnesses said.
In the Parque de la Fraternidad three trucks deployed military forces and hundreds of them went after against the civilian protestors. Right on the street men and women were arrested, mercilessly. The Calle Galiano became a trench where the regime's "rapid response brigades" shouted "Fidel, we are with you," more than four years after the ruler's death.
"I've got nothing to do with anything," pleaded an Afro-Cuban woman as she was dragged by the "Marianas", policewomen who responded "I don't care" and took her away. Minutes before the protestors were on the Malecón, and one of the repressors told another that they had already broken them up.
In Galiano the protesters were dispersed, and only the brigades remained, shouting slogans in favor of the system. Many thought that it was all over, but the Calle Prado then became the center of the demonstrations, and everyone headed there.
Thousands of people shouted "Patria y Vida" (Homeland and Life), "No to violence" and "Enough repression." By the lion statues on the busy Paseo del Prado, the police continued to beat and arrest civilians at random. The protesters did what they could to stop the high-handed response, while advancing towards Havana's iconic Malecón breakwater. In front of the Hotel Saratoga policemen were dragging Marcos Antonio Pérez, a 17-year-old high school student who was taking pictures. Along with him, Leonardo Romero Negrín, the young man from the "Socialismo sí, represión no" poster, assailed on the Calle Obispo on April 30, was also arrested for trying to stop the officers who were taking the adolescent away.
From Prado, the march continued towards the old Presidential Palace, converted by Castroism into the "Museum of the Revolution." The demonstration halted traffic at the Havana tunnel. Thousands of people headed for the park where the statue of Máximo Gómez stands. Brigades of Black Berets slowed their progress, seeking to trap the peaceful protestors. Exhilarated, the people denounced Díaz-Canel and shouted "Libertad" as another rapid response brigade arrived, pretending to be revolutionaries defending the homeland. Shortly before this Miguel Diaz-Canel had called for a confrontation between Cubans, with the excuse of staving off alleged mercenaries.
Armed with sticks also, the brigades also reached the Parque Máximo Gómez, ready to beat young people, women, men, and teenagers. Beholding the scenario, many turned around. The crowds then headed towards the Plaza de la Revolución. "United, the people will never be defeated," the citizens repeated, with no intention of dispersing.
The police sought to block them, but the protesters looked for ways out and around, and advanced. Back on Galiano the crowd managed to reach The Plaza Carlos III, where government forces were also waiting to block the avenue. These were more experienced officers, accompanied by young ones, in their 20s.
As they went by, the outraged Cubans beckoned those who were watching and filming from the balconies: "Join us!" Residents offered bottles of water to people going by. Those who did not join helped the others to continue with their calls for freedom.
After taking a narrow street near Carlos III, the demonstration continued until it reached the Calle Aranguren, where it followed the path that would lead to its final objective: the José Martí memorial. But, at the corner of Aranguren and the Calle 20 de Mayo there was a line-up of special troops poised to attack the demonstrators, with this marking the culmination of the march. A senior police officer, in his 60s, stated no one was going to pass. The troops then began to attack the civilians; in the first row, a group was carrying a Cuban flag.
At that point, Aranguren became a battlefield. In the face of the authorities' strength, desperate civilians threw sticks and stones, their only possible weapons. On the other side, the plainclothes officers responded with more stones, and with shots; it has not been determined whether the weapons were loaded, or they were only blanks. The protesters broke up, running for cover. All the adjacent streets were teeming with special troops and soldiers, with dogs chasing citizens.
At the entrance of a building was a young Law graduate, Fernando Almeida, his face covered with blood. A resident gave him bandages for a wound caused by a stone thrown by the paramilitary forces, hitting his right eyebrow.
"It has been a day of great violence, but also of many attempts at peace. We have avoided confrontation, but we got here, and they attacked us with all they had. There were shooting blanks, I hope. Let's just say we were drowned in blows, not to say in blood," said Almeida. "Our demands are too fair to be ignored," he added.
At the end of the crackdown journalist Maykel González Vivero, director of the Tremenda Nota site; and historian Frank García Hernández, were arrested.
The repressive forces broke González Vivero's glasses, and the police officer who arrested him claimed that the journalist had been throwing stones, which is false. Friends of García Hernández said that at the Zapata and C police station "stripped him to check him."
The demonstrations took place in different parts of Havana. Across from the Cuban Radio and Television Institute there were also arrests. The list of people deprived of their freedom and right to demonstrate included people in the worlds of cinema and acting: Gretel Medina Mendieta, Mijail Rodríguez, Juan Carlos Saenz de Calahorra, Yúnior García Aguilera, Raúl Prado, Reinier Díaz Vaga, Daniel Triana, Manuel Alejandro Rodríguez Yong are some of the names posted by the filmmaker José Luis Aparicio Ferrer on his Facebook wall.
This is Cuba today: hunger, scarcity, repression and acute popular discontent with the Government. 24 hours after these events, Internet connections remain shut down, and the streets have been militarized. The future of the country is uncertain, but this day may mark a turning point in recent Cuban history.