My Jail Cell, the Path Towards Cuba in the Future

Leonardo M. Fernandez Otaño being attacked by workers of the Cuban Radio and Television Institute (ICRT). Havana, July 11, 2021. Foto: Facebook.

HAVANA TIMES – El Toque shares the testimony of Leonardo M. Fernandez Otaño, a victim of physical and psychological violence during the protests on July 11, 2021, in Cuba.

By Leonardo Manuel Fernandez Otaño

My dear friends: 

Today, I’d like to share with you what I experienced in recent days. When I saw how the town of San Antonio de los Baños stand up to authoritarianism, I felt like I had to do something. I left the house in a hurry to meet with a group of friends who are artists, intellectuals and activists. What began as a group of a few people, with our fears and hopes for a Cuba free of hate, became a small-scale representation of the country. It would be hard for me to tell you everything that happened, so digging into my recollection, I’ll try and share my most important memories.

Solidarity

I got so much strength from sharing with people I care about, people who are a part of my circle of friends, young people full of talent and cubanía (Cuban-ness). We went up to the Cuban Radio and Television Institute’s (ICRT) doors. That’s where we began to peacefully demand our right to have rights: access to real news, the end of repression and the criminalization of different thinking. We asked for 15 minutes to share these ideas with the Cuban people, which were born from our diversity.

I should explain that in this part of Cuba, converged artists, intellectuals, LGBT activists, santeros, Catholics and durakos, we were like a Cuba with delivery pains. But my greatest cry was solidarity with all of the innocent people in jail like Hamlet Lavastida, with exiles like Karla M. Perez, with those who have been banned from travel, with the defamed, with the Cubans who have already been beaten and stripped of their human dignity on my country’s streets.

The repressors could be our fathers and mothers; let them know: Our Lady of Charity is watching them.

Before people sent by State Security arrived, hate rally against our respectful voice began. Many friends sat down, I don’t remember what happened to me, I just felt like electricity pulsed in my veins and it moved me to kneel down in front of those human beings, who I’m sure are excellent parents, grandparents or unlces and aunts, many of whom have seen their young family members emigrate to leave this harsh reality behind them.

On my knees, there was only one thing I could say to them, I don’t know if anybody heard me. “You could be our fathers and mothers; be aware that Our Lady of Charity is watching you.” These were my words and I focused on praying to God and his Mother for my country. At that moment, the only thing I could pray was: “let me never be the victim of this hate.”

Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit

From that moment, I felt like the path was only beginning, people’s cries were getting louder, the people leading the hate rally passed out some Cuban flags, I asked for one and only received a resounding “no”, I got up and went back to my friends who were still sitting.

Tensions were rising and State Security troops had already cordoned off the area, some people suggested walking to the Malecon. I stood up and walked when I saw the repression (it still pains me to remember how police officers beat so many good people). I knelt again and prayed to the Virgin. I thought about the Cross, in how its faith is not optimistic, but liberating.

Then, my Veronica arrived, a dear friend who stood next to me while I received all kinds of insults and I was even beaten in the legs. A priest picked me up and tried to take me out of there, but when I saw that my friends were still sitting, I went back to share the same fate.

Leonardo M. Fernandez. Havana, July 11, 2021. Photo: Facebook.

Can you sleep in peace tonight?

Suddenly, five State Security officials carried me in a violent act and threw me into a truck bed, as if I were an animal. We were six people in there. At that moment, one of the police officers attacked Daniel Triana, as a Catholic and in the face of so much impotence, the only thing I could come up to say was that the Holy See would find out about this; this made them stop.

On the truck, we all asked the officials many questions. I had two: Where was this truck when a farmer in Camaguey’s entire mango harvest went to waste? Official, you are a father, can you sleep in peace at night knowing all of the violence you have inflicted on us, who could perfectly be your children? In the end, the truck pulled up to the VIVAC station in Cotorro.

One of the officials nearby slapped him in the face (John. 18, 22)

I dared to cite this phrase from John the Evangelist because it’s the best way to describe our arrival at the station. When we entered, the police were sending a lot of hatred our way, as if we were serial killers and not decent citizens, who were exercizing their constitutional rights peacefully.

However, the worst moment was when one of the officials showed no mercy and hatred towards my Cross (I always carry a necklace with a Cross and a Francis Xavier medal), it was this symbol that symbolizes my faith that really made them angry.

I still wonder how troubled the conscience of a Nazarene from the 1st century, dismissed by power, is. As I studied History, I know about Law and I told him that this part of the arrest process was a violation of my religious right, taking away my cross. In the face of my just demand, I was violently thrown against a wall and while praying the Lord’s Prayer, they took my necklace.

At that very moment, my friend, the LGTBQ activist and actor Daniel Triana, accused them of violating my conscious and religious right, and the response of official 07869 was a blow to his face and he spat: “shut up, you piece of shit”. I felt like Daniel and I were the only ones free of hate, while his abuser was a slave to his hate. That night, I prayed for those abusive police officers. Thanks, Daniel. That was a unique moment in my life, an LGTBQ activist defending a practicing Catholic.

There is no authentic homeland without virtue, and no virtue without piety

When we got to the jail, they lined us all up while we waited to be interrogated. Another inmate came, half-naked, without a mask and drunk, and we were all afraid by his violent state. The police officers provoked him to try and make him more hot and bothered, they abused him to get dressed.

As a teacher, I believe in the effectiveness of affection: I touched him on his shoulder and affectionately told him to get dressed, and that’s what the good man did. Then, we were taken to be interrogated, mine was long (6 hours) and varied. The public prosecutor that saw me first was very empathetic, as we didn’t have much of an age gap and he was respectful at all times.

However, one of the highest-ranking officers came down after and he was extremely aggressive; he threatened to kick me out of my job and my PhD. My response was: “Thanks a lot, official, know that I will always be wherever the dignity of another person is being violated.”

Things started off tense with the other lieutenant-colonel, although our conversation was very respectful and we even spoke about history. Refusing to sign my indictment – because I declare to the world from the top of my lungs: I’m INNOCENT and I’m being accused of disturbing the public order, when I was only exercizing my constitutional right to dissent and protest-, I was asked to write why I went to the ICRT that day. My response was:

I believe in solidarity.

I believe in reconciliation.

I believe in dissent.

I believe in free will.

I believe in Cuba our Homeland.

I remained in that interrogation room and was asked to write another story that I refused to, and I wrote a maxim by Father Felix Varela instead: “There is no authentic homeland without virtue, and no virtue without piety.” I must clarify that any other document made public by State Security in my handwriting is false.

At the end of the interrogation, we returned to the cell and that’s where we met many arrested young people, who told us about the magnitude of the protests. I want to report that one of the young women arrested was a cancer patient, I’m concerned about her health condition, as well as the situation of a teenager who is still a minor.

Then, we went to the cell, and contrary to what many people might think, this restricted space was the greatest exercise of our freedom. Behind those bars was our future Cuba, formed by artists, intellectuals, a young tour guide and three durakos. They created a draft of a possible nation. The night was long, but so much fun, a real abundance of laughter.

At dawn, the police officers arrived shouting, as if it were a national-socialist concentration camp, and I still wonder why they have so much hate. When yelling, I told them to remember that we were human beings and that they are public servants. When they came back, cries began again and this time they were ruthless towards the only minor in the cell.

In the face of my response to that situation, which they thought was unacceptable, I was handcuffed for being the “leader” and I was taken to a punishment cell. I stayed in there, handcuffed and under three padlocks, for approximately three hours, but I confess that I was not afraid to spend my life in there because I felt God’s presence, via prayer.

When taken back to the cell, our conversations, debates and laughter continued. These are the details that I’ll take away from those two days, they were two hard days, but they were also an experience of freedom, that made me reflect upon social friendship, justice and the cruelty of authoritarianism.

I believe that freedom, decency, nobility and coherence are the best antidotes for intolerant minds. Many thanks to you for reading my long testimony and a big thanks to my companions in this journey towards freedom.

Havana, July 14, 2021.

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.


11 thoughts on “My Jail Cell, the Path Towards Cuba in the Future

  • July 21, 2021 at 1:32 am
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    Anti Imperialist,

    Get off yer high horse and please stop suggesting that I would wish to in some way deny any rights to anyone. It’s an unpleasant suggestion.

    Wake up and read what I wrote:
    ‘If Cuba takes some influence from Lech Walesa, fine.’

    But to mention Poland as an example without reference to the terrible direction it is currently going in, is a bit odd for me.

    I think this thread has been going long enough so I shall leave this guy to pray for whatever he’s praying for and I will resist the opportunity to elaborate on the relative de-merits of the likes of Thatcher, Johnson, Reagan, trump etc.

    As I always say, I first went to Cuba 25 years ago. I wish for a better and more prosperous future for the people there. And I certainly don’t want to see blood on the streets there. That’s no good for anyone.

  • July 20, 2021 at 2:36 pm
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    Nick, you are hard to beat. So you’d say people who opposed Margaret Thatcher should have thought twice about it, because thirty years later they would get Boris Johnson. The same for those in the US that opposed Ronald Reagan, because around thirty years later they would have Donald Trump. Wake up Nick, the people in Cuba want to have the same rights that you have, or even half of them. How they choose to use them is impossible to say. And although I did meet a couple Cuban fortune readers on my trips to Havana, the general population is not thinking what they might have as leaders in three or four decades if they shake off the Communist Party rule as it is today.

  • July 20, 2021 at 1:56 pm
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    Stephen,
    As usual you make very good points.
    The example of events in Poland 30plus years ago is pertinent.
    However things are turning full circle in that country. Unfortunately.
    An ultra right wing Christian fundamentalist regime is currently in power in Poland which is fast becoming a pariah state within the generally liberal eu.
    They have taken away the judiciary’s right to be independent of political will. They’ve taken away women’s rights to choose what goes in in their own wombs. There are towns and villages proudly putting up signs saying ‘You are now in an LGBT free zone’.
    I could list many further disturbing examples.
    All with the blessing of the current regime and the Polish Catholic hierarchy. It’s pitiful.
    If Cuba takes some influence from Lech Wales’s, fine.
    But it would be a complete disaster if Cuba were to follow Poland all the way down the road to what it currently is in 2021.

  • July 20, 2021 at 9:35 am
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    I look at this demonstration of Christian faith in Cuba from a more broader perspective. What has been the role of the Catholic Church, particularly the Pope in power at the Vatican, in some of these uprisings in communist countries?

    Poland stands out. Without getting into a protracted history of Poland during its communist political occupation, suffice to say the Polish people very much like the majority of Cubans today, the educated, the uneducated, those relatively well off, the very poor, all demand political change. The current situation is not sustainable for the majority of the Cuban population.

    Cuba may not be as powerfully Catholic as Poland was back in the 1970s and 1980s where Poland produced some of the most influential Catholic representatives to the Vatican, namely Karol Wojtyla who eventually became Pope John Paul 2 in 1978, plus Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski. These were some heavy hitters in Catholic circles who had tremendous influence on the communist political Polish leaders at the time.

    As Bartosz Buczynski says in his article: “Despite repression from the communist leaders, the Catholic religion and its representatives definitely played role in the Polish struggle against communism” (Role of the Catholic Church in Resisting Communist Rule in Poland).

    Today, in 2021, Cuba definitely has a Catholic presence. Its church leaders may not be as influential as the Polish pair mentioned; nevertheless, the Vatican is listening and I am sure working the phones for a coordinated response to the current crisis. Pope John Paul 2 did visit Cuba in 1998 and was welcomed as their spiritual hero. Pope Francis, the current pontiff, I am sure knows his history and its significant powerful influence to change things.

    With regard to Leonardo M. Fernandez Otaño’s outward demonstration of his Catholic faith perhaps he was emulating the Polish labor leader – Lech Walesa – who made the front page of Time magazine back in the day leading Polish port workers to strike for what Cubans are not allowed to do today.

    Like Mr. Fernandez Otaño, Lech Wałęsa also sought spiritual sustenance in his Catholic faith: “The most celebrated heroes of the Polish struggle against communism such as Lech Wałęsa looked towards their faith and often turned to prayer in the most bleak of times.” (Role of the Catholic Church in Resisting Communist Rule in Poland). Most fervent Catholics do that wherever the geographical location.

    As Mr. Fernandez Otaño faced “his most bleak of times”, he aguishly writes: “In the face of my just demand, I was violently thrown against a wall and while praying the Lord’s Prayer, they took my necklace.”

    The Cuban communist authorities may easily and unabashedly yank a piece of spiritual symbolism from a helpless Catholic soul, but in the end it is the very powerful, politically and spiritually, especially those in the Vatican, spurred by the Cuban majority, who may bring about the much needed change in Cuba. It happened historically. It could happen again.

  • July 20, 2021 at 9:16 am
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    Mr Wiggin,
    If you are making reference to either of my comments, I would like to point out that in no way whatsoever am I criticising this gentleman, his motivations or his prayers.

    Hence the sentence: ‘I wish him well’.

    I am merely expressing some degree of consternation at his insistence in kneeling down in that particular situation. Coz it sure as sh*t ain’t what most people would do in those circumstances.
    I also refer to certain unpleasant actions of Christians in Cuba hundreds of years ago and very recently. I feel these are apposite.

    Apart from that, the guy can pray wherever he wants and for whatever he wants as far as I’m concerned. I shall repeat:
    I wish him well.

  • July 20, 2021 at 9:07 am
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    You have no rights in a dictatorship you aren’t allowed to protest or disagree.
    Nod and grovel to the communist overlords and pretend you’re happy.

    Sad place these days.

  • July 20, 2021 at 7:55 am
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    It is important that such stories are told to the world. Sad to see the sorry criticisms of his religious motivations and prayers. Whether religious or not, truth and decency and solidarity will prevail. Now is the time for the government to recognize that the motivations of demonstrators are no different from those that prevailed in the Revolution.

  • July 20, 2021 at 5:38 am
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    Anti-Imperialist,
    I am very pleased to learn that you, like myself, believe in everyone’s right to worship whichever religion they wish.

    Christianity is having ever greater influence in Cuba. Much could be seen as malign and regressive depending on one’s viewpoint. Hardline Christians in combination with Hardline Communists managed to get the gay marriage clause removed from the new constitution which came out a couple of years ago.

    This put paid to the wedding plans of a dear friend of mine (incidentally, she is Gay, Christian and Communist – now there’s an unusual trinity!!!).

    To me, amid what was playing out on 11th July, the photo of this guy kneeling down doing a JC impression looks kinda incongruous. But that’s his call. I wish him well.

    Perhaps he was taking the opportunity to pray for the souls of the Christians who massacred the original inhabitants of Cuba all those years ago?
    Who knows??

  • July 19, 2021 at 5:42 pm
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    Nick, although I am not a Christian I have total respect for people who practice their faith, especially when expressed for the cause of peace and justice instead of violence and tyranny. By the way, some think hate rallies are a blast, or justify them, if they aren’t the one being hated.

  • July 19, 2021 at 4:50 pm
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    WTF !!??
    There’s all this action going off with protesters, counter protesters, cops, undercover agents all at it.
    And this fella is going round kneeling in front of everyone like he’s Jesus.

    How very strange.

  • July 19, 2021 at 10:22 am
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    Sister, I dare say, you are what the “Real American Patriots” call a “Snowflake” in my country. You are probably unaware, but there are very few tropical snowflakes. In the rest of Latin America, Catholics, or more precisely, the ones that stand up for the poor, have to be sort of tough. They are used to being called Communists, and often end up like that guy, Archbishop Romero, who caught a bullet paid for by Ronald Reagan. Of course, those that like to make a big show of their faith, and come down on the side of the powerful and wealthy interests, you know, like the Argentinian priests who blessed Videla’s torturers before they did their job, they end up doing fine. I’m sure you will too.

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