My Children Think Their Father is in a School Not a Prison

Daniel Joel Cardenas and Marbelis Vazquez. (Courtesy)

By Yoani Sánchez (14ymedio)  

HAVANA TIMES – Before the pandemic, Marbelis Vazquez and Daniel Joel Cardenas managed La Guarapera Velazquez, a private business selling fresh sugar cane juice with which they dreamed of making the money necessary to emigrate. But instead of starting a new life in another country, the husband is now in prison for the July 11th protests in Cardenas (Matanzas).

The last name of Daniel Joel, 34, seemed predestined to merge with the municipality where he lived and not just because they were exactly the same. His acquaintances also nickname him El Cardenas and since January he has been sentenced to 15 years in prison for demonstrating in the streets of his city where one of the most intense protests of that day took place.

That Sunday dawned calm, and the family had plans to go to the beach. The afternoon would be full of sand and waves, but it turned into screams and police operations. First, Cardenas and Vazquez learned that people were protesting in the centrally located Calle Real following the spark of indignation that had ignited that same day in San Antonio de los Baños (Artemisa).

Later, the screams came closer to his home, when dozens of neighbors raided a gas station store. The economic crisis, the lack of freedoms and the rigors of the pandemic pushed the people of Cardenas to the limit. The most repeated cry around that gas station was “hunger!”, a roar that mixed with the sound of breaking glass.

Close to the resort of Varadero, Cardenas is considered by the authorities to be an area with high incomes and the only stores with stocked shelves are the ones that take payment only in MLC (the magnetic euphemism for US dollars). It also has a tradition of being “un pueblo gusano*” – a ‘worm’ town — where many do not sympathize with the system. It is not for nothing that some of the most symbolic images of July 11th came from there.

When they heard about the protests, the couple weighed what to do. In a few weeks their dream of emigrating could materialize, but they decided to leave home and go to the gas station. There, Cardenas met several friends who had come from the protest on Calle Real, the first police patrols were also beginning to arrive and stones were raining against the shop windows.

People took what they could, but the food often fell out of their hands, as Vazquez now recalls. The husband tried to carry some mayonnaise jars that someone had dropped outside the premises but finally gave them to a friend, says the wife. She adds that in the video shown by the official media she is seen throwing a stone, but on already broken glass.

The police siege continued to increase, and Vazquez says that Cardenas returned to his house. The family got ready and left for the beach. The initial plan was no longer to swim and play in the sand but to see if, after the popular protests, boats would arrive from Florida to pick up relatives. But no boat arrived and the “combat order” given by Miguel Díaz-Canel had already unleashed repression throughout the island.

Two days passed. It was around eleven o’clock in the morning on July 13th and Cardenas was in the living room with his twin sons. The screeching of tires from a truckload of uniformed men startled him. Then came the chaos: screaming, barking dogs, shoves and gunshots. The scene was captured by Vazquez’s mobile phone, which also captured the testimony of her husband’s pool of blood on the ground.

Those minutes that seemed like an eternity have been narrated in diametrically different ways. In the woman’s version, the uniformed special troops shot her husband, who suffered a gunshot wound to the head. The projectile did not penetrate the skull but traveled through the back of the scalp on the left side, leaving a dark furrow.

In the video that Vazquez recorded and spread on social networks, shots are heard and we see one of the soldiers, who had sneaked into the house through the patio, brandishing a weapon and entering the room where the wife is, with one of her children in her arms.

The man was also hit in the chest and back. The door of the house was seriously damaged by the violent irruption of the so-called black wasps. “They had no mercy on my husband or my children,” says Vazquez. “I still close my eyes and remember that moment. My children carry with them a trauma that they will never forget,” she reflects.

In the version broadcast by the official newscast, the story does not include shots, but instead shows Cardenas walking through what appears to be a detention center for a few seconds and then, already sitting on a chair, facing the camera, he affirms that he is on Friday July 16. With these images, the government sought to deny the alleged gunshot wound.

However, Vazquez replies that during the recording her husband showed his bruises on his chest, which were not included in the report, and they did not take pictures of the wound on his scalp, which, the wife details, never received sutures and measures about 12 centimeters. The physical damage would also be accompanied by an offensive against the reputation of Cardenas.

“The trial against him seemed to be that of a dangerous criminal,” says the woman. During the three days of last December that the oral hearing lasted, the defendant was transferred cuffed by his hands and feet. “A whole circus set up with false witnesses,” she laments. The devastating sentence: 15 years behind bars for sabotage, public disorder and spread of epidemics.

The authorities tried to build a case against Cardenas for allegedly paying minors to participate in the protests. The teenagers, neighbors who shared with the man a taste for raising pigeons, were arrested and pressured, but refused to testify against him. Now, they are still prisoners, and their relatives avoid denouncing it for fear of reprisals.

“My husband’s current situation is heartbreaking.” Cardenas is in the maximum security prison of Agüica, in Colón. “In each visit there is always a new regulation or some unforeseen change. They do not give the prisoner the opportunity to communicate with relatives because, according to the guards, the telephones are broken. They even have German shepherds inside the visiting area, sowing terror.”

“We had a very nice life and dedicated ourselves to raising our children.” In the house there is a dovecote, because the man was associated with a pigeon federation. “My husband is not a thief or a criminal as they expressed in the trial, we fought hard to put food on the table for our children.”

Cardenas “fed the children and bathed them so that I could rest, because having twins is exhausting. Now I must face the care of my children alone.” Vazquez confesses: “When we visit him in prison I tell them that he is there studying. They believe that their father is in a school, not in prison.”

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*Translator’s note: The term gusano — meaning worm or maggot — is a derogatory first applied by Fidel Castro to ‘counter-revolutionaries’ and those who wanted to leave Cuba.

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