July 11 in Holguin: Two Years After the Anti-government Protests in Cuba

Sundays tend to be particularly unpleasant because people, who since Friday have cherished the hope that something will come to change their routines, come face to face with the realization that nothing happens on weekends, and if something does happen, it is definitely left behind when Sunday starts finally to die.

In those days the pandemic was at its peak. The confinement, plus the summer heat, the blackouts and the obituary news left no room for hope any day of the week. But that Sunday would be different; at least for me, a hapless England soccer fan. The English, though the originators of the sport, had not won an international tournament since the very distant 1966 World Cup, and now, for the first time in history, they were reaching the final of the European Championship.

England faced Italy. The English arrived with a fresh team, full of talented, fast and full of self-confidence youngsters. Italy, a top-class team, with four World Cups behind them, based their soccer on a solid defense whose pillars were Bonucci and Chiellini, both already in the twilight of their careers, slow, but good at taking their positions on the field. I believed without naivety that England could take advantage of that condition, run into free spaces and beat them. I put on my England shirt and went to a friend’s house to watch the game.

I arrived a little late. As soon as I sat down in front of the TV, I stood back up to celebrate Luke Shaw’s goal. An early room goal, with the players just out of the dressing room. My prediction seemed to be confirmed and I could already visualize myself celebrating the victory a while later.

Protests on July 11, 2021 in Cuba. Photo: Courtesy of the author

Halftime arrived with the English up on the scoreboard. It was then that, as if taking advantage of the pause in the game, they cut the transmission. Díaz-Canel would speak on the network.

The president, sweaty and with his voice cracking with nerves, called on his followers to take to the streets. The protests had begun that morning in San Antonio de los Baños and were already spreading to several cities on the island. I knew something was happening in Holguin, but I had no knowledge of a large popular mobilization. A few minutes later I received a call from my girlfriend. I barely heard what she said. Too much shouting on the other end. I only understood “Frexes street,” and that’s where I went.

I took Miró street and, before I got to Frexes, I saw the huge column of people. They were walking towards Calixto García Park. There were thousands of them. And I saw that and laughed uncontrollably. From that moment until the end of the day I can say that, like many, I felt that aroma of happiness that accompanies the possible, close, even naive hope.

Already in the Calixto Garcia I saw a few friends. People hugged each other, sometimes in tears. I saw a punk with a shaved head shouting “you are the shame of the people” in the face of a military man while he remained impassive and glared at him. I saw a Cuban flag on top of the Pico Cristal club. There was joy in the air. More than a popular outburst, it looked like a carnival, and the people were dancing around the main park.

We crossed the boulevard of Libertad Street and arrived at San José Park. There the atmosphere was more tense. There were many policemen in front of the Municipal Government building; however, it did not reach the point of violence. The demonstrators were shouting slogans and the police did not even move. The lifelong slogans began to be heard from some point, in a very subtle way, and then they were amplified until they took on the dimension of a popular clamor. Someone said that they had been preparing us for rebellion since elementary school. “The people united will never be defeated,” “Long live free Cuba,” the lyrics of the National Anthem… It was like that for about 15 minutes. Or that is how I remember it.

Protests on July 11, 2021 in Cuba. Photo: Courtesy of the author

My perception of time was not clear. At times I felt that together we were powerful, that we had put an end to the fatal immobility and that we were at the forefront of history; at times I felt like a child who has done something wrong and is waiting for the worst punishment. The conscience of the protester is altered. He experiences a tension that overturns conventions. And what is time if not that?

We had to go to Revolution Square. It was an almost unanimous opinion. We had to go there and stand up to power. Word was spreading that it was best to take a route that included the outskirts of the city, in order to get more people to join the protest, so we took Libertad street to Cajigal Avenue, from there we turned towards the Alcides Pino neighborhood, and reached the suburbs.

Many joined us on the way. There were others who did not leave their porches or balconies, but shared complicit glances with us without being able to hide a chuckle, filmed with their phones and some raised a fist and accompanied with shouts. “Everyone there was a worm,” as a state official was heard in a leaked audio. The march had been peaceful and solidarity reigned among demonstrators and neighbors. There were two or three “spontaneous” people who shouted insults at us and then finished off with cheers to Fidel Castro and the Revolution. At least in my presence, no one attacked them. At most, people responded to them by shouting back.

“It is going to fall, it is going to fall, it is going to fall…” could be heard in the air when we arrived in front of the University of Holguin. It was the anteroom of the Party.

Protests on July 11, 2021 in Cuba. Photo: Courtesy of the author

At the end of the two-way street flanking a traffic circle, a cordon formed by militants could be seen. The headquarters of the Communist Party was just behind them, and they intended to prevent the demonstration from reaching their “sacred” premises. They were, as I recall, about 30 people. They were holding a Cuban flag and were armed with sticks. They were vastly outnumbered; so, theirs would have been a suicide mission in the event of a violent demonstration.

The demonstration paused about a hundred meters from the cordon. We knew we had to cross it. That certainty caused a kind of shock, but in no way doubts. At no time the slightest desire to retreat became perceptible.

We advanced little by little as the tension rose. At times no one spoke. At that moment I saw a young man pick up a stone, and another man scolded him, “That’s not necessary,” he said, and the boy dropped it. Some started to run.

I saw blows, but no blood. I remember a teenager who, in the middle of the din, grabbed one of his flip-flops and hit an elderly militant, like a grandson and grandfather with the roles reversed. Another from the cordon fell to the ground, and some protesters helped him to his feet. It was all very quick and less violent than anyone would have anticipated. As expected, there was hardly any resistance. The cordon was overrun and the march reached its destination.

How to explain the fact that the MLC stores in the center of the city remained intact and yet the building that “contains” the Party was pelted with stones with such viciousness? The cordon event stirred up tempers, that’s for sure, but it still doesn’t explain it. Upon arriving at the Party headquarters, the demonstrators visualized something beyond the mere building. History records so many similar events that we can speak of a “regularity.” Without taking the comparison too far, we can draw a parallel with the storming of the Bastille in 1789. Just like the Parisians, the people of Holguin were fiercely opposed to the institution, the symbol, the “receptacle of power.” Because, beyond the half measures of an officialdom that stubbornly pointed out at the economic shortages as the main motive of the outbreak, the mobilizations of July 11 had a markedly political character.

Protests on July 11, 2021 in Cuba. Photo: Courtesy of the author

“Don’t throw stones, that’s what they want!” shouted a Party militant returning from the cordon. I was not surprised. In the first place, his message made sense (as it turned out, the act was heaven-sent for the pro-government media manipulation), and, on the other hand, what could be more questionable than the moral uniqueness of these gentlemen? On the other hand, my coincidence with that man in such a context did seem strange to me. I was shouting the same thing or something very similar. I fantasized about a crowd planted on Revolution Square, resisting at any cost. And if necessary, to return the next day, and the next, and so on, until our demands were met in a civic, exemplary manner. What they call “teaching the world a lesson.” They will say I am a dreamer… and they are probably right.

There was no restraint. The view of the building was littered with stones of various sizes that glided through the air and, from time to time, hit the windows. A point of no return had been reached. The Party militants went out to the doorway, timorous, and went back into hiding. They were cornered.

It would be rash to mention a figure, but I would say that the “assault” lasted about 20 minutes. During that time, it was business as usual until, all of a sudden, I found myself standing in the middle of a mob that was running in disarray.

I looked to one side and saw dozens of Black Berets, batons in hand, approaching at full speed. I grabbed my girlfriend and ran, glancing back occasionally. They were beating people in a mechanical way, without regard. One of those times I looked back, I noticed a man in a white t-shirt. Three agents were hitting him while he was on the ground, covering his face. From afar, when I felt we were safe, I turned around and saw him being led away. He was still being beaten, and the top half of the t-shirt was stained red. I don’t remember seeing anything more. It was as if the rest of the panorama had been blocked.

In the area, near the Plaza de la Revolución, lives a friend of ours. We were thirsty, so we decided to stop by his apartment, get some water, and then see what else we could do. On the way I was flirting with a sense of loss that led me to think of clichés like “the powerful always win,” “revolutions are from other times” or “these are not times for heroes.” By then we had already lost sight of the events and the growing calm did not assure defeat, but it let us smell its stink…

We arrived at my friend’s apartment and I asked, almost knowing, how the soccer match had ended. “England lost,” his grandfather said. I drank the water and lit a cigarette that I couldn’t finish. On the street, patrol cars were passing by. We said goodbye and took Jorge Dimitrov Avenue towards the city center.

Everything was so calm that it was impossible to say: “It seems that nothing has happened.”

Miguel Montero. Article writer. His work can be read in the independent Cuban magazine El Estornudo.


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