Cuba: “Covid-19 Saved Me from Prison Beatings”

Interview with Mario Miguel Garcia

Mario Miguel Garcia Piña

By Glenda Boza Ibarra  (El Toque)

HAVANA TIMES – Mario Miguel Garcia Piña knows a lot about Cuban police beatings, even though they didn’t touch a hair on his head. Arrested in Bejucal after the July 11th protests, he learned what torture, faith, compassion, forgiveness and crying was in prison. He was imprisoned for 13 days. When reliving those hours, he imagines that COVID-19 saved him from the police beatings.

***

On Sunday July 11th, Mario woke up with a hangover. Argentina had won the Copa America the night before and, as a good supporter, he celebrated the victory with music and rum.

That morning, he was awoken by a friend with COVID-19. He had tested positive after taking a rapid antigen test and had asked Mario to take some things for him to the isolation center. It was a normal day in Bejucal, Mayabeque.

It was 9 AM. Two kilometers to get there and two kilometers back. Mayito (as his friends call him) made the trip on foot because there wasn’t any public transport available. He was tired when he got back.

“I passed by some friends’ house, who are like family, and we started talking,” Mario remembers. “Then, we saw the videos of what was happening in San Antonio de los Baños on social media. We didn’t understand what was happening, the Internet kept cutting out.”

He received several messages from his wife on WhatsApp. She was in Palma Soriano, where she had gone to take care of her recently-operated mother, and there were protests on the street.

His wife asked him that if anything was happening in Bejucal, and told him if there was not to get mixed up in it. “They are beating people up in Palma Soriano, and there are clashes between the police and people,” she warned. “This isn’t going to end well.”

Nothing, or very little was happening in Bejucal. At least that’s what Mario thought when he answered her. “Don’t worry,” he told her. “I’m about to go home to have lunch and it’s not likely anything will happen here.”

The conversation cuts off. Our conversation. I could just about make her out in the videocall. “The Internet is awful here in Bejucal,” he apologizes. The picture is completely frozen and pixelated. We joke about being “frozen” and the heat. It’s really hot, just like it was at noon that Sunday July 11th.

Mario Miguel is a musician and director of the Enfusion group. There is an entry on him on Cuban encyclopedia ECURED. He plays trova (ballads), he sings and plays guitar.

He goes back to the day of the protests. Walking home, many kids pointed out 7th street to him, and told him to go there, to one of the main pedestrian avenues. Intrigued and curious, he turned around and went with them, at almost a trot. He wondered whether people in Bejucal had also taken to the streets. “Have they? They can’t have.”

At 7th street, on the corner of 18th. The protest passed by shouting: “We want change.” There were hundreds of young Cubans. Mario got lost in the crowd. He saw very few familiar faces; although he could only make out eyes with the face masks on. Most of the people ecstatically shouting weren’t from his generation, they were a lot younger. Mario is 38 years old.

“I began walking with them, without shouting. A block later, I began to protest.”

To the call of “join” the crowd, Mario remembers that other people left their homes. “Housewives closed up their homes and came with us.”

Bejucal is a town of congas. Locals normally “roll up”, join the party, and move down the street with music. But the chorus that Sunday was different and people weren’t celebrating. “It was the first time that people were joining a walking crowd in Bejucal that wasn’t a conga: another peculiarity,” Mario says.

“Freedom”, “the streets belong to the people,” “we want change” are all phrases he remembers. They made him shiver at that moment and he began to cry, in the middle of the street.

Cold water from the heavens

In Sapo, a neighborhood that has befallen the stigma of being marginalized, some neighbors threw down plastic bottles with cold water for protestors from their roofs. “Some joined us, others applauded us, recorded videos, greeted us with a closed fist or their fingers in sign of victory,” Mario remembers.

At around midday, Mario almost passed out, under the combined effect of being hung over, having skipped lunch and the suffocating July heat.

“At that moment, I only thought about Cuba, and I regained the strength I needed to go on,” he remembers. Behind him, people were talking about a national uprising. “I was happy to know that I was a part of this.”

They walked down 13th street, heading towards the police station. A block and a half before getting there, some people who were clearly heated up, announced violent acts.

“Let’s take the police, there’s only a few of them and there’s more of us,” one of the young men suggested.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen or how they’re going to react, but we’re being peaceful,” Mario called for protestors to stay calm. “They are human beings just like us, they are doing their job, they are victims just like us and they also have families.”

Ironically enough, that call for calm might have been the reason that Mario was accused of being the “leader”.

Taking a rough guess, Mario estimates there were some 2000 people gathered around the police station. They sung the national anthem there. “It was our way of telling them that we are all Cubans, that if we were there it was because we felt the Homeland was injured and in need. That we were also embracing them.”

Why did protests break out in Cuba?
The Cuban government does not recognize the legitimacy of the social uprising – which it considers a soft coup orchestrated by the US – nor does it recognize its responsibility in the growing hardship that afflict the Cuban people and led to the protest.

A man doesn’t hide when he cries

At the Communist Party’s municipal headquarters, a verbal fight broke out between protestors and party members who were guarding the building’s entrance. Mario doesn’t remember the details of that moment, because weakness forced him to go to a nearby friend’s home.

Water with sugar to quickly pick up his energy, and back to the protest. He felt like he needed to go back when he heard the church bells ringing.

“Then, I found out that priest Eduardo took out and showed an image of Our Lady of Charity. It was a very touching moment. We prayed an Ave Maria. The priest called for composure, no violence, and to protest in a civil and proper way.”

Mario is Catholic by education. The Bejucal priest’s gestures and exclamations of “God is with us, God stands with Cuba” drove him to tears again. On the brink of turning 40, he doesn’t hide to cover up his tears. He has cried a lot since July 11th. But he doesn’t feel ashamed of his pain, or of his hope.

In front of an image of Jose Marti, in the neighborhood known as “Tres Minutos”, Mario ended his participation in the protests. They sung the national anthem for the second time and he decided it was time for him to go back home. He felt weak… and excited.

By the time he got to another friend’s house, it was just a few minutes before the round of Italy-England penalties that would decide the winner of the European Championship. But Mario didn’t have room in his head for soccer.

“I could barely sleep that night. My friends called me and I wouldn’t be able to talk to them because I was still crying, overcome by emotion. In my mind, the spirit of change and freedom resonated every time I closed my eyes.”

Premonitions

A friend had a premonition on Monday July 12th, amid the euphoria of Sunday’s protests: “Mario, we might all be locked up by this time tomorrow,” he told him. That’s exactly what happened.

Early on Monday, Mario discovered that the protests on Bejucal “had got heated”.

“After the national anthem, people returned to the town center. There were confrontations with other people [government supporters] and the police, and there were some unpleasant incidents such as some people throwing stones at a pharmacy.”

Mario laments these events. He can’t tell us what happened because he wasn’t there. He wouldn’t have taken part even if he had been there. He always called for people not to go to this extreme, because it detracted legitimacy from their peaceful protest.

On the way to several places in Bejucal, he noticed the movement of some people dressed as civilians, who looked like State Security. He warned a friend who was with him and he remembered the prediction from the day before.

While waiting to get his wages from the Culture Board, two agents approached him. It was 2 PM. Mayito was the last one in line and there weren’t many people around. That’s where he was handcuffed and led to a police patrol car, to “talk” at a police station. Before getting into the car, he raised his handcuffed hands to warn Leyla, the friend who had been with him the whole day.

No fines, no criminal history, nothing. Mario had never gone further than the reception at a police station. He had only ever gone as a companion.

He had his belt, shoelaces, bracelets taken off him and he was forced to switch his phone off. He was allowed to make one call. A friend came to collect his belongings and inquired about the reason for his arrest, but she didn’t get an answer. Mario asked Leyda to warn the priest, his wife, friends and asked her to look after Barza, his cat.

The only law of authority.
There are surely confused citizens and annexationists, traitors and even mercenaries among a human crowd that rises up. However, these labels, that are enthusiastically placed in every official speech, do no good in trying to cover the sun.

Telling the truth at the right time and with a smile

At 6 PM. In a windowless cell and with unbearable heat, in the prison known as “El Tecnico” in San Jose de las Lajas, Mario ran into Abel Lescay, a student, musician and friend of his. Abel told him that he had been taken from his home early in the morning, without clothes because he was sleeping naked, and was pulled out by his hair. Then, he was hit on the buttocks with batons.

Mayito thought about all of this while waiting in the interrogation cell. He had been taken there to talk to two young men under-30. They tried to accuse him of being the leader, of being one of the instigators of the protest. The only “proof” they had to make a case was Mario’s popularity amongst the Bejucal people.

“They asked about my political ideas. I took advantage of this and spat out everything that I had been keeping bottled up for a long time”: he spit out the stone in his throat, the knot that had made him cry with rage and emotion.

“Cuba needs change. Real change. Radical change. Not the decorations and retouches that are done every once in a while,” he blurted out. “Our lives are passing us by in all of this. I have the same thing to say now when I’m 38, as I did when I was 28. I don’t believe in Diaz-Canel’s leadership. Experience has taught us that his politics are based on improvisation. Plus, I didn’t vote for him.”

Keeping to an old script, the agents accused Mario of being an annexationist and other similar charges. In his defense, Mario spoke about Jose Marti, about the Republic he dreamed of… and tears came to his eyes again.

He spent several hours talking to those officers, according to what he remembers.

“My life has been dedicated to art and culture in my neighborhood. I believe in the power of art to transform society and to raise awareness. I have never hidden to speak my mind. I’ve always done it respectfully. This is why my life, my actions, speak for themselves. Go out and ask about me. I have nothing to hide. In the Cuba I dream of, I can work with all kinds of people, without preconceptions, even if we don’t all think the same way,” he remembers telling them.

“You’ve just committed a crime against national security,” one of the agents told him.

“So, I’m a political prisoner,” Mario replied.

“No. There aren’t any political prisoners in Cuba.”

“But the only thing I did was to publicly protest against the government. So, I’m a political prisoner, right?”

“No. You’re here for disturbing the peace and spreading the epidemic charges.”

“OK. I can understand that. But you’ll agree with me that the people who took to the streets after the president’s call [to battle] also committed these crimes.”

“No. They were responding to a call to protect the Homeland.”

Prisoner 245

In less than 48 hours, Mario had to strip naked twice in front of several officers: men and women. They checked his hair, mouth, they made him bend over.

“Forget your name, you’re prisoner 245 now,” the nurse told him when she wrote up his file.

An antigen test confirmed that he was COVID-19 positive and he was isolated in a cell with six empty bunk-beds. He was there all alone. With God: with nothing to read, crouching, prayer was his main consolation.

“What? Are you praying for, to get out of here?” a prison guard joked.

“I’m praying for Cuba, and you are also in my prayers. I’m also praying for you,” he told him.

Six meals a day, Interferon and Duralgin for four days, and then Nasalferon to complete the treatment. Walking around the cell, he found pages from a book about optimizing state businesses under one of the bunk-beds. The text wasn’t very interesting, not even in a tedious moment like this. So, he began to pray out loud.

“Talking to God was the only thing that kept me calm untiI I was transferred three days later, to the “AIDS prison” (this is what we call the prison in Mayabeque where seropositive prisoners are kept). I met up with my friend Abel again – who had been transferred there before because he had tested positive for COVID-19 – and other infected people.”

Covid-19 saved him from police beatings

It was after 3 PM. Close-by, you could hear beatings and orders to shout slogans.

“Long live Diaz-Canel!”, “Long-live Fidel”, “Down with the Blockade!”, “Long live the Revolution!”, could be made out between cries and sobbing.

“That made us really feel bad. They were beating up many kids. You could hear them. We’d kick the bars of our cell. We shouted that they were abusers. It was shocking. It was torture.”

In a long pavilion behind the “red area” of the prison, there were over 100 young people being held. The prisoners were counted one by one, as they came in. Almost all of them were from different Mayabeque municipalities, especially Guines, “where there had been acts of severe violence.”

A new cellmate confirmed the events that they had heard that afternoon. He told them stories about many prisoners: one with a nose broken by a baton, another with a head injury, a young girl who had been dragged by her hair, and himself, who had been handcuffed with the “shakira”, which is the name for the waist chain they attach handcuffs to.

“They beat me as if I were defending myself. They threw me onto the ground and beat me. I heard how a patrol officer tried to defend me and he said it was abuse,” the other prisoner told Mario. “I even heard an officer, who seemed to be of a high ranking, tell the patrol officer that he was a softie, that a beating would be good for him too.

“You’re overcome by impotence. It hits you different. Was it to teach us a lesson? To correct us? All they did was fill us with indignation,” he recalls. “You can’t live in a country where these things happen. Where the police beat up people with their hands tied behind their backs, and hidden from the public eye. It can’t even be justified in the cases of those who committed acts of vandalism, because there is a Penal Code for them too. They beat up many twenty-something-year-old kids.”

Torture in Cuba was an abstract idea in Mario’s mind. But when “you begin to hear the painful cries because of beatings, it’s a horrible thing; those receiving these blows can’t defend themselves.

“It’s a painful experience because it’s like a personal torture in some way. If you have any feelings, it won’t intrigue you: it causes you great pain and it’s painful to hear it.”

Mario believes COVID-19 saved him from these beatings. The looks from his “few friends” when he arrived changed when the patrol officer announced he was infected.

“They treated me like an outcast. They didn’t want to touch me. I think I got off the hook thanks to Coronavirus.”

Santiago, the apostle and healer

After the seventh day in prison, Mario and his cellmates began to hear applause. Every time a prisoner was released, all the other prisoners applauded, and the applause spread from corridor to corridor. It happened in the morning and during the night. It always brought joy and hope.

Mario’s cellmates were also gradually released, some of them even with positive PCR tests. He was told that he would stay in provisional prison until the date of his trial.

Days later, Mario was placed with another “alleged leader” from Bejucal: Roberto Chaviano, an expert and curator at the municipal museum.

“There, talking about our dreams and motivations with other inmates, I saw myself reflected in their faces, in their skin and understood that there were more people like myself, with the same thoughts and determination. I began to see the magnitude of what had happened,” he reflects. “I felt like I was with people who also dream of a better Cuba, where we can create and build without so much redtape.”

Paperwork presented by the Bejucal priest and a group of lawyers sped up the release of many detainees.

After two negative PCR tests and an antigen test, Mario discovered that his freedom was around the corner. It was July 25th, the day of Santiago the Apostle and something told him that this date would be very important for him. He would be temporarily released – subject to a trial – along with Chaviano, who was offered a bottle of Nasalferon to take home so he could continue his treatment there.

It was lunchtime. There was fried chicken. Both of them handed their trays of food to the sick people who would stay on.

“I was happy when I left and upset because of the uncertainty of the fate of those who remained there. Major Ibrahim from the “El Tecnico” Detention Center took us to the police station in Bejucal. On the way, he asked us if we had been abused.”

Mario remembers the kindness and noble nature of this officer. Along with the political instructor at the prison who gave him water after 24 hours without a sip, he was one of the “most humane” police officers.

In Bejucal, he signed an agreement for his house arrest as a preventive measure, and he went home.

People greeted him as he walked down the street. Mario noticed that new people knew him and were smiling at him. He has more friend requests now on social media. Friends and strangers had both shared and posted messages to demand his release.

In spite of having his ID card removed at one of the prisons, he visited his friends and family. He told them about his experiences and his suffering.

“I didn’t stop crying. I felt like I had lots of support. The phone didn’t stop ringing. I was finally able to speak to my wife after 15 days. She moved heavens and earth from Palma Soriano. My friends in Bejucal too.”

Mario mentions his 76-year-old father, who sometimes doesn’t understand what’s happening but is very sensitive, which is something Mario inherited. He remembers that the day he was released, his father demanded a hug after two weeks without seeing him. Mario refused at first because he was afraid of infecting him with COVID. Then, he hugged him.

Amnesty or dismissal? How do we get freedom for 11J protestors?
There is no evidence that Cuban leaders will give into pleas for total freedom for those who were arrested on 11J. Only amnesty would guarantee freedom for detainees, and it would be an unprecedented political symbol.

They will have to charge us all

He coughs. Coughs. Coughs. Mario coughs every 15 minutes. It could be the lasting effects of COVID-19. He believes it’s an allergic reaction to Nasalferon.

“You end up thinking whether it was all worth it. I think it was. I have to be proud of having peacefully taken part in a protest like this one. No family wants to have a martyr. I don’t have the stuff of heroes,” he says. “I don’t belong to anything. I’m just another Cuban, who was doing nothing that wasn’t in line with Marti thought, who wanted the best for his country, who doesn’t need anybody to call on him. I went spontaneously, just like the protest was spontaneous here in Bejucal.”

Mario believes that there was no other way to express popular sentiment, that there was nothing more to be said on social media. He apologizes to those who think differently, but he thinks “that there is no right time for a revolution. They happen and that’s it.”

An hour and 40 minutes into the conversation, and I apologize for making him relive this tragedy. But Mario is used to it: he has had to tell his story over and over again. On his Facebook page, he thanked friends and everyone who helped him not feel alone since 11J.

“It’s confirmation that you’ve lived an honest life, that you have planted seeds of friendship,” he admits. “I’ve left prison without rancor; I don’t have any hate or resentment for anyone. Maybe it’s down to my Christian and human upbringing.

But the hardest things I’ve had to endure just go to prove that things need to change; that dialogue is necessary and that change has to come from within, from every Cuban wherever they are, no matter what their beliefs are. The Cuba I dream of cannot be founded on hate or revenge: it must be a plural and reconciliatory Cuba.”

Awaiting the Attorney-General Office’s decision, Mario does not dare to predict what will happen next, but he holds onto his hope and confidence in his innocence.

“The only thing I did was walk peacefully down the street with a group of people and shout that we want change and freedom,” he repeats. “I didn’t clash with any police officer or authority or anyone who thinks differently to me. This is the only thing they can charge me with; but there are thousands of Cubans like me: they’d have to charge us all.”

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.


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