By Ronal Quiñones
HAVANA TIMES – “Combat order?” I imagine all Cuba was as stupefied as I was, when these words emerged from the mouth of President Miguel Diaz-Canel. Even those who only at that moment found out what was happening in parts of Cuba – because their minds had been far off, watching the final match of the Euro 2021 soccer championships – must have jumped out of their seats, and not for a scored goal.
Diaz-Canel looked nervous; the reporter who introduced him was nervous; even the cameraman filming them was nervous.
You’d suppose that the highest political figure in the land wouldn’t promote violence, but that was his call. He asked his followers to go out onto the streets to confront those who were simply demanding freedom.
If he had asked them to take up positions outside the stores selling in US Dollars (called MLC stores) to protect them from looting, that might be understandable. But no, the call was to get the demonstrators off the streets, because – according to him [Diaz-Canel] – the streets are his.
Actually, no. The street is a public space, it’s not for democrats or republicans; nor is it for communists or capitalists. The streets belong to everybody, and everyone has the right to walk down them, as long as they’re not doing anything illegal.
They came past my house on Sunday afternoon – hundreds of people raising their voices to demand liberty, and the resignation of Diaz-Canel. They were sick of the misery they’re suffering from the lack of food and medicine.
In the rest of the country, watching the Eurocup was complicated by blackouts that would occur for several hours every day, including in the early morning. These had been going on for a few weeks. If there’s been such blackouts here in Havana, the explosion might have come earlier, and been of greater magnitude.
With my own eyes, I watched hundreds of people march by. Not only were they unarmed, as you’d expect, but I noticed that the majority were young people, walking hand in hand with their sweethearts.
This happened some 30 yards from a police station. Not one officer came out. About a dozen stood outside watching the parade go by. This time, it wasn’t an official celebration for May 1st.
As if in synch, some demonstrators chorused: “To the Plaza!” And they headed towards that iconic spot where the government had so often proclaimed their victories. This time, they headed there to hear some voices that had surely been silent on other occasions, when they were called up to “voluntarily” commemorate International Workers’ Day.
Some 20 minutes later, I once again heard a ruckus. This time it was supporters of the Cuban Communist Party. The youngest of these, already over 30, were clearly militant members of the Communist Youth, while others, dressed in olive green, were evidently members of the Youth Work Army, along with draftees from Cuba’s obligatory military service.
In addition to the fact that there were practically no women in this group – much less anyone under thirty, in contrast to the former group – the majority of the men were carrying sticks approximately a yard and a half long, clearly not intended as canes for walking.
They continued on towards the Plaza, on the trail of those who had marched by before. A short while later, they returned the way they’d come. Some trucks passed by, along with them, full of the “black berets”. These are Cuba’s elite corps, trained for combat, who have almost never had to face real bullets. They also came with clubs not intended for support while walking.
I didn’t see the very group of demonstrators again. When the second group returned past my house, they were shouting “revolutionary” slogans, escorted by the “black berets” and the other guys in olive green.
A man with a megaphone guided the group, shouting praise to Fidel, to Raul and to Diaz-Canel. None of my neighbors, watching from their balconies, echoed the chorus. If those filing by looked up, they saw no one applauding with them, or repeating their slogans.
The group of around 200 people remained close to my house for over two hours, apparently awaiting instructions. They finally began to disperse about 9 pm, ignoring all the restrictive measures in place for the pandemic.
I swallowed my food without appetite, amid alarm that at any moment they’d be knocking at my door to confiscate my cell phone for having filmed them.
Those words – “Combat Order” – continued going round and round in my head. I recalled Evo Morales, who had decided to take a step to the side in Bolivia when they demanded he leave power. Today, maybe the indigenous leader regrets having abandoned his post so soon; but he can sleep peacefully, because the blood that spilled on the streets of Bolivia during those November days of 2019 wasn’t his doing. Diaz-Canel would say that his friend Evo hadn’t been well enough indoctrinated.
Following scattered outages, the internet went off completely at 4:03 pm, when official media channels interrupted all regular programming to give the news. The internet returned at 5:41 pm, it went out again at 6:16, and returned more or less normally at 7 pm.
Nonetheless, the social network platforms – Twitter, Whats App, Telegram and Facebook Messenger – never resumed functioning. Today, Monday, all those platforms are still down.
For the rest of the night, police cars continued patrolling the Havana streets. That’s how it was all over the country, according to what I’ve been told.
There have been several reports of police repression, of reporters who were attacked and had their journalism equipment confiscated. Also, of hundreds or thousands in jail.
My great concern now is that this enormous step Cubans have taken, something anyone born in this land, living anywhere here, should feel proud of, will end up shattered.
The US government has been asked [by some Cubans abroad and on the island] for humanitarian intervention, because it’s clearly an unequal combat. However, nothing concrete, all that’s occurred are some State Department functionary statements. Likewise, Russia quickly spoke up to say “no foreign intervention”; and everyone just sit still in your bunkers, as we say in good Cuban.
The Miami exiles formally requested the repeal of a US law that prohibits them from taking off for Cuba, where they want to arrive without arms, but with food and medicine for the people. They haven’t received any response either.
Monday dawned on a much quieter Havana. Since it’s a workday, each government workplace will be taking attendance very seriously. Because of that, I’m afraid this clamor could just evaporate.
If the world looks the other way, as happened with Czechoslovakia in 1968, with China in 1989 and right at this moment in Myanmar, everything will just go on as before.