HAVANA TIMES – An iconic image of the protests that took place in Havana on July 11, 2021 (11J), show an overturned police patrol car and two young people standing on top of it, one of them is waving a bloodstained Cuban flag. The identity of this protestor had remained a secret up until now. His name is Elias Rizo Leon and he is 16 years old. In August 2021, he fled from Cuba with his family and after months of traveling, he reached Madrid.
According to Justicia 11J and Cubalex’s records, there are 13 minors in Cuba who were charged with sedition, including those who took part in the protests in Toyo, in the Diez de Octubre municipality, where the iconic photograph of Elias was taken.
Escaping was his mother’s idea. If the plan hadn’t materialized, Rizo Leon would be in prison, like Kendry Miranda Cardenas, Lazaro Noel Urguelles Fajardo, Rowland Jesus Castillo Castro, Brando David Becerra Curbelo, Brayan Piloto Pupo and Giuseppe Belaunzaran Guada, minors who were sentenced to over 10 years in prison.
“The first thing you should know is that I am a patriotic Cuban and I’m proud to have been born in Cuba, and despite my country’s history, it doesn’t disgrace me; they are the enemies, the ones that need kicking out,” Rizo Leon told CiberCuba, in his first statements to the press.
The teenager and his mother, Ana Leon Hernandez, told reporters what happened and the uncertainty they’ve been living with since 11J, both in Cuba as well as abroad.
ELIAS, ANOTHER 11J MINOR
Rizo Leon describes himself as somebody with an interest in politics. On July 11th, he took to the streets alone, without his parents’ permission and with a Cuban flag hidden under his white T-shirt.
The flag was a relic for him, he had taken it from his school in Diez de Octubre when he was in 8th grade. “This flag was in my high school in Santo Suarez. I took it and told myself: nobody deserves this flag more than I do, and I put it away.”
When protests broke out in San Antonio de los Baños, Elias was still asleep. He learned what was from happening from his parents who spoke about the riots. and he went outside despite his mother forbidding him to do so.
“I got excited and said: it’s now or never,” Elias told journalist Monica Baro. His plan was to reach the Malecon, but he decided to stay with the crowd that was going down Jesus del Monte hill.
According to the young man’s narration of events, law enforcement officers were the first ones to use violence against peaceful protestors. The police threw stones at citizens, who protected themselves with garbage containers on the street. “They were heading straight for us. Several people threw stones at the repressors. The police were the first ones to repress us,” Rizo Leon clarified.
Elias also heard gunshots nearby. At that moment, he hid behind the column of a doorway and prayed to God. “I thought about my family, not myself (…), and I began to pray because I’m a Christian. Not a single bullet hit me.” In the heat of the protest, Elias shouted, “Down with Communism,” “Damn Communists,” “Homeland and Life (Patria y vida)” and “Freedom for Cuba”, slogans which were on many Cubans’ tongues.
The episode with the overturned patrol car is crystal clear in his memory. He believes that police cars are a repressive symbol and thought to himself, “it hasn’t been used for anything good, just to repress us, to take money from the Cuban people, to hit us and for police officers to go wherever they please.”
The police officers had left the car before it was overturned. They ran away with other patrol cars or in “MININT vehicles,” the teenager said.
Elias watched how other young people turned the car over. Then, he threw a stone at the back window of the patrol car and suffered a cut to his right hand, which he said needed stitches because it was so deep.
He then ran to San Leonardo Street and took out his flag to bandage up his injured hand. That’s where he got the idea of climbing on top of the car. ““I had the great idea seeing the blood and the overturned police patrol car and told myself: I’m going to get on top of it and wave my flag with my blood, the blood of all Cubans, of a July 11th protestor.”
“I waved the flag about and shouted “patria y vida and libertad.” I was afraid for my parents. I didn’t care about what might happen to me, but I did care about what might happen to my sister, my mother, my father or my friends, because I know they put pressure on friends. I was nervous and the crowd shouted with me,” Elias added.
Escaping from the scene was risky business. Several people were watching from windows and rooftop terraces, but there wasn’t a single hallway open to hide in. Running away was the only solution because the police had released their dogs. The dogs Elias identified as German Shepherds “that were crazy.”
RUSSIA AND THE ESCAPE ROUTE
Rizo Leon’s family flew to Russia on August 25, 2021, a country that has waived visa requirements for Cubans. After the protests, Ana Leon Hernandez was under pressure from State Security and was interrogated.
She made the decision to leave the country to save her son when she watched him come in through the door with his bloody hand on 11J. She took the flag and washed it to get rid of the evidence, and she kept Elias far away from State Security, hidden away.
“We were under a lot of pressure since 11J, we were afraid and uncertain. We didn’t know what was going to happen, but we knew that it was going to be bad,” Ana Leon revealed. Several lawyers recommended handing Elias over, but she refused: “I gave birth to him and I’m not handing him in,” she said.
She had her first meeting with State Security on August 4th. Two officers had been trying to track her down for a few fays, but she had been at work. Ana lied to them on that day. “I tried to make them feel like I would take my son down to the station. I told them that Elias had been in Santiago for the past month, that we are from there. One of them told me he wasn’t convinced and that he would speak to his superior,” Ana explained.
The harassment from Cuba’s political police became incessant. The officers would show up in the night, in the morning too; they couldn’t see her lots of times because she wasn’t at home.
One of the officers, who Ana had given her phone number to, threatened her, and told her that if they didn’t go to the Aguilera police station, in Diez de Octubre, they would circle in on Elias and arrest him anywhere in Cuba. She asked them for proof that her son had commited a crime, but the officers refused to give her this information.
On August 9th, she was interrogated offically. They asked her when Elias was coming back and for the address where he was staying in Santiago de Cuba. Ana refused to answer this last question, saying that her child was a minor and that she needed to be with him if they wanted to take him to court. Her interrogator told her that the interview with Elias didn’t have anything to do with July 11th, that they wanted to see him about something else.
In this regard, Ana said: “I never trusted them. This is their working mechanism, they try to inspire trust, for you to think nothing is going to happen, that everything is going to be OK. That it’s only a few simple routine questions, that you have nothing to worry about; but it’s all a lie. I knew this wasn’t going to happen, that as soon as I went there with Elias that would be the end. You can see that now. It was intuition.”
In Russia, the family was in hiding for months, receiving help from friends and relatives, and working illegally. Then, they made it to Spain. They plan to request political asylum in this country because they say there is a Cuban community there and they feel safe.
Immediate plans include Elias and his 11-year-old sister going back to school, which they had to stop when they left Cuba.
Elias doesn’t regret his behavior on 11J; this is what he had to say about the matter: “I did what I did because it was in my heart, for my cause and for all of us who long for freedom. I felt free at that moment, and I shouted the truth.”