Cuba rocked by accounts of police violence in wake of street protests

Young people who were detained at the recent demonstrations have been denouncing the abuse that they were subjected to, both on the streets and in precincts. They also fear stiff prison sentences

Protestas en Cuba
University student Leonardo Romero Negrín is detained in Havana on July 11.YAMIL LAGE (AFP)

Ten days after a wave of protests broke out in Cuba, the government is yet to supply an official figure for how many people have been arrested. A range of sources claims that the number runs into the hundreds, and that most are young people. Bit by bit, some of the people arrested on July 11 and 12 have begun to be released, some under house arrest pending trial and others with no charges. Some have made their experiences public, denouncing police abuse and violence in the streets and in precincts. During unrest in 1994, known as the Maleconazo protests, hundreds of people were subjected to summary trial and received sentences of up to a year in jail for public disorder. It is expected that something similar will happen now.

The incidents this summer in Cuba have been on a bigger scale than those seen in 1994, which were confined to Havana. On this occasion, there has been a genuine wave of protests in cities and towns across the country, and which have seen the participation of thousands of people. While the internet is still currently cut off on the island or at least not working well, videos documenting the protests have slowly begun to circulate on social media. Most of them are peaceful, but there have been others that ended with unrest and looting of stores. The authorities have stated that more than 50 establishments were vandalized, warning that those responsible will face the full weight of the law.

In one of these videos, filmed by the demonstrators themselves with their cellphones, the former interior minister Ramiro Valdés is seen being booed by a crowd and being forced to withdraw to cries of “Freedom!” in the eastern city of Palma Soriano. Meanwhile, in the municipality of Cárdenas (Matanzas province), currently the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, protestors overturned police cars and even the vehicle belonging to the secretary of the Communist Party – the type of action that has never before been seen in Cuba.

A number of officials grabbed me, they got me in a hold and they beat me
Leonardo Romero Negrín, a 22-year-old university student

There is a common denominator in the majority of the videos being shared, and that is the harsh response by the police and civilians armed with sticks, scenes of violence against the demonstrators that have shocked many Cubans. At the same time, the first statements made by young people who have been arrested have begun to appear. The story of Leonardo Romero Negrín, a 22-year-old university student who was arrested on July 11, has had a major impact on social media.

Romero has explained that he went to defend a former fellow student who was being beaten by the police for having recorded the scene with his cellphone. “A number of officials grabbed me, they got me in a hold and they beat me,” he explained. “But that wasn’t where they really beat me. They took me to the Dragones station, which is exactly a block away, and when we got in there they threw me on the ground and around four people started kicking me all over. I covered my face with my arms but they carried on kicking, which is why I have a swollen arm, which a doctor has seen. One of my ribs is also hurting – it didn’t break, but it’s hurting and the doctor saw it.”

Romero had already been arrested on April 30 for protesting in Obispo street with a sign that said: “Yes to socialism, no to repression.” He was already subject to a preventive measure, which is why, according to an article published in the digital publication La Joven Cuba (or, The Young Cuba), he avoided taking part in the protest. Even so, he still ended up arrested.

At the police precinct, the student claims, he was taken before “an official with a white wooden stick and in the other hand he had a camera, which was from a state journalist who was there and saw everything. I don’t want to get him involved, but he’s a journalist from Alma Mater who saw exactly what they did to me. The official beat me several times on the legs, I’ve still got the marks. When I was going to be taken out of there another official came, 03912 from the Dragones station, and he told two people to hold me, he grabbed me by the hair with his hands and he said to me, ‘This is for being a mercenary!’ He headbutted me in the nose, I nearly passed out, and they carried on beating me before taking me to the Zanja station.”

His account, which is similar to that of other young Cubans who have reported such experiences, has caused outrage on social media. The historian and essayist Julio César Guanche said that it is essential “for the abuses that have been committed to be recognized, and that there be an official statement that urgently classifies them as unacceptable.” Guanche called for “only those people who have committed serious offenses against other people or property to be processed, taking into account the severity of the consequences and the context in which they took place.” He also called for “police actions to be reviewed, with final sanctions in the case of excesses, with precise information about those arrested and charges against peaceful protestors to be dropped.”

No official figures

Former Cuban diplomat Carlos Alzugaray stated that “at this stage there is still not an official figure for arrests nor information about how many protests there were,” while the magazine Alma Mater, which is institutional and aimed at university students, released a statement in which it reported having got in touch with Negrín and another student who had been arrested to document their cases. “We are expressing our willingness to continue to investigate and to make public any case of excessive use of force during the police action, on July 11, against people who were peacefully protesting,” said the magazine, in another unprecedented development in Cuba.

The commotion caused by the images and statements has been considerable, and the Cuban president himself, Miguel Díaz-Canel, has already stated that “apologies will have to be made” if there were police excesses against the innocent. But he insisted that the majority of protestors should be considered criminals, mercenaries and “the confused.” He also accused the United States of being behind the events and for manipulating social media to create an image that the island is ungovernable.

The streets were still full of police on Tuesday, but there have been no further incidents reported. Now all the attention is on those who have been arrested and their upcoming trials. Romero, who said that he saw more than a hundred people detained during the five days he was in custody, is now under house arrest awaiting trial for public disorder.

English version by Simon Hunter.

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