CubaBrief: Maleconazo #5A at 28

Images from the August 5, 1994 mass protests in Havana, Cuba known as the Maleconazo.

Cubans have been demanding freedom for decades. July 11, 2021 was a day marked by nationwide protests carried out by tens of thousands across the island. However, the first mass street protest with hundreds, if not thousands of Cubans, since the early 1960s, was on August 5, 1994. It took place in Havana, and is remembered as the Maleconazo.

The Cuban punk rock band Porno para Ricardo released a full album titled Maleconazo Ahora! in 2013 celebrating the August 5, 1994 protests, with the cover showing a screen grab of a defiant protester from that day and called for many more such protests. They also released a single with the title “El Maleconazo” to celebrate the 18th anniversary of the mass demonstration in 2012.

Yoani Sanchez in 14ymedio and Notes from the Cuban Exile Quarter released essays on August 5, 2022 comparing these two historic episodes of spontaneous outbursts of popular defiant calls for an end to dictatorship and for freedom. During both mass protests the dictatorship responded with deadly force, and mass arrests. Democratic Spaces in 2020 produced an excellent video summary in English.

It is also important to remember that over 35,000 Cubans between 2002 and 2004 signed their names, identity numbers, and home addresses in the Varela Project petitioning the Cuban government for democratic change and for human rights. This initiative of the Christian Liberation Movement cost dozens of their members long years in Cuban prisons. Their founding leader Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, and youth leader Harold Cepero Escalante paid with their lives on July 22, 2012 murdered by the secret police.

14ymedio, August 5, 2022

From the ‘Maleconazo’ of 1994 to the ’11J’ Protests of 2021, the Mutation of Cuban Civic Genes

The popular uprising known as El Maleconazo began on Avenida del Puerto and many people joined along the Havana Malecon. (Karel Poort)

14ymedio, Yoani Sánchez, Havana, 5  August 2022 — Shirtless and with protruding ribs, this is how the protesters on 5 August 1994 took the Havana coastline during the Maleconazo. The few photos that have been released of that day show faces with sharp cheekbones and a desperate look. From that uprising, continuing to July 11 of last year, Cubans learned several civic lessons and adopted new methods of protest, but the regime, also, has surpassed itself in repression.

While those who gathered 28 years ago rushed to Havana’s main avenue, desperate to board any ship that would take them off the Island, those of the summer of 2021 were looking not to escape, but to stand up to a system that has condemned them to material misery and the lack of freedoms. The scant cohesion in that earlier outburst, in the middle of the Special Period, has little in common with the compact groups, setting the pace with slogans of freedom and heading towards key points in the cities that were seen on 11 July 2021, the protests now called ’11J’.

In the earlier action, the Malecón wall functioned as a mousetrap between the protesters and the shock troops, dressed in civilian clothes, launched by Castroism against those ragged and hungry people; but a year ago the “organism” of popular protest was already sufficiently evolved to spread through central squares, in front of the institutions of power and travel through streets where new voices were added.

In the Maleconazo, the ruling party tried to avoid at all costs the images of uniformed men repressing, hence the cunning idea of ​​using construction workers and plainclothes police to arrest the protesters, crack their heads with bars, or terrify them with stones. However, the magnitude of 11J was responded to with special troops who were seen deploying countless anti-riot devices that the regime had been buying for years.

The extension of both events also differentiates them to a great degree. In the almost three decades that separate one demonstration and another, the indignation overflowed from an area in the Cuban capital to more than forty points on the island. It was no longer a local event, but a national tremor. Civic genes had mutated enough to know that massiveness and simultaneity were vital. New technologies contributed considerably to the capacity to call out protestors and to document it live and in real time. The Havana residents of the Maleconazo did not even know the depth of their action until years later, with the dissemination of images and testimonies.

But the repressive balance grew. The 11J protests have left at least one dead, more than a thousand violently arrested and hundreds sentenced to prison terms that, in some cases, reach three decades. The DNA of the dictatorship was also transformed. During this time it was organizing in a calculated and cold way to crush its own people if they happened to take to the streets. It invested millions in the equipment of terror, perfected its political police, bought sophisticated gadgets to monitor communications, and further trained its judges and prosecutors to complete the job of muzzling the popular voice.

On 5 August 1994, when the protest had already dissolved and the Malecón was a “safe zone” for the political catwalk, only then did Fidel Castro, dressed in his olive green uniform, arrive to listen to the cheers of the counter-demonstrators who he himself had sent there.  Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel starred in an even more ridiculous scene when a bottle was thrown at him from a rooftop in San Antonio de los Baños that Sunday a year ago when he tried to mimic the previous march of Castro and his henchmen. Fearing a greater rejection, the engineer ran to hide in the Government Palace, from where he pronounced what will forever be his worst and most famous phrase: “The combat order is given.”

But beyond the differences and notable changes between some protesters and others, there are common lines that unite ’11J’ and its father, the Maleconazo. The exhaustion of the people, the inability of the political-economic model to provide a dignified life, the overcoming of personal fear for the common good, and the desire for democratic change on the Island, these are the identity chromosomes of both moments. The creature that is gestating with both experiences will be more sophisticated and powerful. Let us hope it will also be the final one.

#5A Maleconazo at 28: When secret police shot into crowds of non-violent Cuban protesters with live ammunition

 “Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future.” – Elie Wiesel  

Secret police in plain clothes firing live ammunition at protesters on August 5, 1994

28 years ago on August 5, 1994, a thousand Cubans marched through the streets of Havana chanting “Freedom!”and “Down With Castro!” They were met with brutal repression, including regime agents dressed in plain clothes shooting live rounds at unarmed demonstrators.

Cubans chant “Freedom” and “Down with Castro” on August 5, 1994 in Havana

Last year on July 11, 2021 it happened again, but this time it was not just in Havana, but across the island with tens of thousands of Cubans participating in over 50 cities and towns. The response of the dictatorship was the same as 1994, but this time the images reached the world almost immediately.

Cubans chant “Freedom” “Patria y Vida” and “Down with the dictatorship” on July 11, 2021.

In 2013 photographs taken during the 1994 protests by Karel Poort, a Dutch visitor, were made public and confirmed the anecdotal accounts of that day. Cuban dissident Regis Iglesias described how the dictatorship militarized the streets in an effort to terrorize the populace: 

A convoy of trucks crammed with repressive special troops and a vehicle with a 50 caliber machine gun on top patrolled up and down the long street.

Little has been reported on this, but some of the images and sounds remain. This combined with testimony of those who were there provide a better idea of what took place.

What happened?

Five hundred of the Cubans had arrived at the Havana sea wall (El Malecon) to board a launch that was rumored was going to be taken to Miami.  These people were not seeking to overthrow the dictatorship but did want to live in freedom.

They were met by the Castro dictatorship’s secret police who told the crowd to disperse.

Instead of diffusing the situation another 500 Cubans joined in and they began to march along the Malecon chanting “Freedom!”and “Down With Castro! After marching for a kilometer, a hundred Special Brigade members and plain clothes police confronted the protesters firing live rounds into the crowd.

Secret police aiming handgun at protesters on August 5, 1994

28 years later and the full details of what transpired remains mostly silenced despite the pictures of regime officials pointing their handguns at the demonstrators combined with reports of the sounds of gun shots and wounded protesters echoing down through the years in anecdotal stories about that day. 

Eyewitness account

Ignacio Martínez Montero

Ignacio Martínez Montero posted on la Voz del Morro a first hand account of what happened that day that is translated to English below:

Then came the year 94 One hot August of that year’s day, I’d arrived at my mother in laws home in Cuba and Chacón in the heart of Old Havana, near the Malecón, for that reason alone, after visiting my mother in law, I sat , like many, on the wall of the bay, very close to where still today the famous Casablanca launch travels in and out. That year was turbulent, constantly talking about boats diverted to Miami, and the tugboat. Maybe that’s why the special brigade trucks arrived and attacked all of us who were sitting.

Our response to this aggression was only to clamor for freedom. It has been said that we threw stones; but all that is a lie, the truth was that we were tired of so much aggression and without agreeing to we began to walk together screaming, Enough, Down with the revolution … And before reaching Hotel Deauville, a battalion waited for us that attacked us with sticks and iron rods. It was they who made the big mess. They broke my left eyebrow and left me semi-lame. Yes, there were assaults and the aggressors had guns, but not among the civilians. One of the boys who went with us, who was called the Moor, even while handcuffed, they shot him in the torso and it was a miracle that he did not die. Who do you think paid for that? No one.

They put us in a truck where they received us with beatings only to convince us to scream “Viva Fidel.” They took us to the police station located at L and Malecon. Hours later I was taken to Calixto García hospital. There they attended to my foot and I treated the eyebrow wound; the medical certificate, never appeared. From there we boarded another bus and were taken to the prison 15/80, I could say “kidnapped” because nobody knew where we were. Some kids and nephews of my dad, who were with us, were released immediately. A boy could not take it and ended up hanged. No one learned of this; but we are many the witnesses who know what really happened that August 5th 1994, the day of Maleconazo.

Twenty eight years later and the Castro regime continues in power terrorizing, beating, torturing and murdering nonviolent dissidents, and shooting young black men in the back, but some Progressive Americans want to apply Cuban style policing in the United States, and claim that there is a lot we can learn from them.

We invite all people of good will to remember some of the victims of the Cuban dictatorship.

Diubis Laurencio Tejeda was a 36-year-old singer who was shot in the back by the National Revolutionary Police (PNR) in Havana on July 12.

There are others, but they have not been officially recognized.

This is the case of Christian Díaz, age 24, disappeared after joining the 11J protests. Relatives on July 12 reported him missing to the PNR in Cárdenas. Police told his father that Christian was jailed in Matanzas. On Aug. 5, officials informed his family he’d drowned in the sea and was buried in a mass grave. His family is convinced he was beaten to death.

Hopefully, the events of July 11, 2021 and August 5, 1994 will wake up more to the true nature of the Castro dictatorship, and the need to be in solidarity with the Cuban people, not their oppressors.