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.
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.
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.