Monday, August 5, 2019

Maleconazo at 25: The popular uprising that shook the Castro dictatorship

"We now know that any method or model which purportedly aims to achieve justice, development, and efficiency but takes precedence over the individual or cancels out any of the fundamental rights leads to a form of oppression, to exclusion and is calamitous for the people." - Oswaldo Paya, Strasbourg, December 17, 2002

Popular uprising near the Havana Sea Wall on August 5, 1994

Cubans have been fleeing the dictatorship in Havana for decades, but there is one episode that stands out that shook the Castro regime to its very core. It has become known as the Maleconazo. Less than a month after the "13 de Marzo" tugboat massacre of July 13, 1994 a thousand Cubans were marching and shouting for freedom. On that same night as the uprising, Fidel Castro, was re-framing the circumstances surrounding the attack and sinking of the tugboat that claimed the lives of 37 men, women and children. The following account is taken and translated from the Spanish newspaper ABC , Radio Marti, testimony from Cuban dissident Regis Iglesias, and from testimony by "13 de Marzo" tugboat survivor Sergio Perodin.

What happened? 
500 Cubans gathered on August 5, 1994 on the pier "de la Luz", to take the launch that goes to Regla and Casablanca because there was a rumor that it would again be diverted to Florida. It was a rumor of a path to freedom that these 500 people had seized upon. 

Military trucks arrived and announced the suspension of the launches departure and dispersed the crowd.  People walking along the Malecón (The Havana Sea Wall)  joined the dispersed crowd and gathered near the  Castillo de la Real Fuerza (Castle of the Royal Force). A thousand Cubans began to march shouting Freedom through the streets of Havana. 

Cubans marching and shouting for freedom on August 5, 1994
That 500 Cubans would gather to flee the island is not a new phenomenon but that another 500 would join them  to march and call for freedom was something new and an unexpected development for the security services.

After marching for a kilometer, a hundred Special Brigade members and plain clothes police confronted the protesters. 

The demonstrators dispersed into the neighborhood of Central Havana, burning rubbish bins, smashing the windows of the dollar stores and clashing with the police with stones and sticks. Regime agents responded with physical beat downs, several gun shots and their own mobilization of repressive actors.

Plainclothes regime agent aims his gun at protesters August 5
That same day Fidel Castro took to the official airwaves and as usual blamed the dictatorship's problems on the United States but had to address the event that took place on July 13, 1994 saying:

 " [the United States] wants at all costs to undermine the country's economic effort, as part of its overall plan to destroy the Revolution.  Radio broadcasts, subversive propaganda, all of this is spearheaded from outside and is encouraged abroad.  But, to be sure, this concrete fact--this phenomenon--has been much more clearly in evidence in recent weeks, starting with the accident involving the tug '13 de Marzo'.  I believe that one of the most infamous and most grossly cynical acts of the United States Government occurred because of this accident."
An exhaustive investigation by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on the events of the attack and sinking of the "13 de Marzo" tugboat on July 13, 1994 found that "[t]he evidence clearly shows that the sinking of the tug "13 de Marzo" was not an accident but rather a premeditated, intentional act," and held the Cuban State responsible for violating the right to life of all those killed that day aboard the tugboat. 

  The beginning of the massacre had been witnessed from the Malecón and according to one of the survivors, Sergio Perodin: "People in Havana Malecon (a popular seafront place), couples, fishermen, began to shout asking the Polargo's crew not to sink us." 
Twenty three days later 1,000 Cubans were marching through the streets of Havana and clashing with regime officials and Fidel Castro was trying to justify the events surrounding the "13 de Marzo" tugboat sinking portraying the perpetrators of the massacre as heroes and defaming the victims. The number of protesters continued to grow with some estimates placing the total number at more than 20,000. 

ABC newspaper in Spain outlines what happened on August 5, 1994
Porvenir Street, a small street in Havana, already seemed more a series of military stops than an ordinary artery of the city. 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. 

In the vicinity of the Maceo Park, military trucks were seen with trailers carrying machine guns and agents of the well-known Black Wasps, the special troops of the Armed Forces.

Ignacio M. Montero: Present at Maleconazo
Ignacio Martínez Montero, who had been sitting at the sea wall in Havana with others, described how he ended up caught up in the protest. "I sat, like many, on the sea wall, very close to where still today the famous Casablanca launch travels in and out. That year was turbulent, constant talk 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 their 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, without planning among ourselves, we began to walk together shouting, 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. 

State security agents aim their guns at protesters on August 5, 1994
 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." Ignacio and the others were placed in a truck and beaten while being told to shout "Viva Fidel." They were eventually taken to the police station on  L and Malecón. 

Sentencing document for Ignacio Martínez Montero
Following that Ignacio got medical treatment for his injuries. Once treated, he was taken to prison 15/80 along with other protesters. Conditions were rough and their was at least one suicide who hanged himself. From there he was taken to Villa Marista and interrogated for 18 days during which there was torture. The secret police could not believe that the uprising had been spontaneous.  Ignacio was subjected to a summary trial and served eight months in Kilo 7 prison. Upon his release he was warned that he would be watched, and they kept their word.

Police and plainclothes official in Cuba detain demonstrator on August 5, 1994
Cuban singer-songwriter Carlos Varela in a August 2, 2019 interview in Diario las Americas described the misery of the "Special Period" in the early 1990s and his experience on that day. "In the midst of all that despair, the "Maleconazo" of August 5, 1994 happened. That day, incredibly, I had a concert at the Karl Marx, the largest theater in Cuba. I remember that afternoon they decided to cancel all the events that were there that night in Havana, but for some reason and to my surprise someone decided that my concert that night was not canceled. Although the theater was sold out 15 days before, that night only half attended."

Mass arrests followed and on Saturday, August 6, 1994 the Malecón and various Central Havana streets were closed off. Communist youth patrolled the streets. Several police officers and demonstrators hurt during the protests were hospitalized.  

Political police with baton takes away a prisoner.
Carlos Varela described how on that evening twice the capacity of the theater had tried to enter: "That night was the first time that people in the audience began throwing thousands of coins on stage and lit their lighters while I sang the phrase 'Coins in the air' that says: 'Maybe, maybe, a miracle will reach us down here.'"

It appears that what had started, provoked by a rumor of freedom, frustrated by repressive forces then combined with outrage from the previous month's massacre of innocents turned into a popular protest that initially caught the Castro regime by surprise. For the first time in 35 years a mass popular protest was able to sustain itself long enough to be reported on by international media before it was crushed by the regime's repressive actors.

Twenty five years later and the Maleconazo is still remembered in the popular consciousness of Cubans. 

The Cuban punk rock group, Porno para Ricardo named a song and album after the protests. Below is a video the banned group produced for the 18th anniversary of the August 5th uprising in Cuba.

On the eve of the 25th anniversary of the uprising Carlos Varela released the song "El bostezo de la espera" (The yawn of waiting) and offered up his thoughts on its significance. "Definitely on August 5, 1994, all of us were silently contaminated with the yawn of waiting. Ideology, power and the need for money divided us all, cut our wings and filled us with doubts, fears and distrust."

Despite Varela's claim that all were "contaminated with the yawn of waiting" the actions of his country men and women over the past 25 years indicate that many could not wait. Tens of thousands of Cubans would sign the Varela Project. The project has no relation to Carlos Varela. It is named after Father Felix Varela, the Catholic Priest who helped form the Cuban national identity in the 19th Century.  The Varela Project is an initiative of the Christian Liberation Movement. 

The Cuban dictatorship responded to this initiative, as it did to the August 5th uprising in Havana, with political terror, and violence. The organizers of the Varela Project were subjected to political show trials in 2003 and long prison sentences.  The main author of the Varela Project, Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, was extrajudicially executed along with a youth leader of the movement, Harold Cepero, on July 22, 2012.

The mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives of the 75 prisoners of conscience jailed in 2003 formed the Ladies in White (Damas de Blanco) and campaigned for their release. They were also met with political terror, and violence. Their founding leader, Laura Inés Pollán Toledo, died under suspicious circumstances on October 14, 2011. These women were subjected to brutal attacks that were so outrageous that in 2010 Carlos Varela spoke out against the violence perpetrated against them.

The doubts, fears and distrust continue to be sowed by the dictatorship to preserve power. It is up to people of good will to denounce these practices and demonstrate their solidarity with Cubans.


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