Comités de represión

The Maleconazo Seen Through the Blinds

The Maleconazo Seen Through the Blinds / 14ymedio, Ignacio Varona
Posted on August 9, 2014

14ymedio, Ignacio Varona, 5 August, 2014 – Amalia Gutierrez was living
on Gervasio Street in the San Leopoldo neighborhood when she heard the
shouting on the other side of her blinds. Roberto Pascual was a patient
waiting for dialysis outside the Hermanos Ameijeiras Hospital. And
Vivian Bustamante sold illegal pizzas near the Spanish Embassy. They
were three coincidental witnesses, that 5 August 1994, of the greatest
social explosion in Cuba in the last 55 years. Nobody knew what was
happening, but all three were afraid, curious and anxious.

“I saw a ton of people come running, scantily clad, the way we all
dressed in those years,” said the illegal vendor. “I was afraid and took
off running and hid myself in a stairwell right on the Malecon,” relates
the woman who says she saw “the most amazing thing” in her life that
Friday. At the entrance to an upstairs apartment she found a niche that
had once held a water pump, and hid herself there. Through a slot in the
door she could see “carrying on” and later the repression. She didn’t
come out of that hole until nightfall

It all started days earlier. The boats that crossed Havana Bay to Regla
and Casablanca were hijacked three times in a less than a fortnight,
with the objective of emigrating to the United States. All over the city
there was a rumor of another possible Mariel Boatlift and an opening of
the borders to everyone who wanted to leave.

Vivian tells it in her own words. “We were living in a very hard time, I
had the trick of brushing my teeth to make myself think I’d eaten so I
could sleep on an empty stomach, but there was a time when there wasn’t
even toothpaste.” Her story is common among those who lived through the
Special Period. However, the social explosion caught her off guard. “I
never imagined that this was a protest, I thought at first people were
rushing to watch some brawl, but later I realized it was something more

Roberto died ten years ago, but his story of those days continues to be
told in the family. His son had never seen his father so frightened as
on that 5th of August twenty years ago. “We were waiting for his
dialysis when the nurses started to close the doors of the Emergency
Room and they called the patients because we were waiting outside,” he
explains about those first minutes in which they began to realize
something was happening. A huge crowd was arming themselves and no one
knew what to tell us about what was happening.”

Several doctors were coming and going whispering. A cleaning lady, who’d
made friends with Roberto, called him aside. “The people have come out
in the streets,” said the woman, smiling from ear to ear, “now they’ll
have them on the run,” she finished. “Afterwards we knew that some
doctors and employees in Cuba’s biggest hospital had gone to the highest
floors to look out the windows at the pitched battle raging down there.”
That day Roberto stayed until late, until they carried out his procedure.

Amalia experienced it with the greatest intensity. The windows of her
house gave directly on the Gervasio Street near San Lazaro. Her door was
open when she started to see people running and screaming. “The most
recalcitrant members of the CDR (Committee for the Defense of the
Revolution) were hiding themselves, a lot of people closed their doors
so as not to have any trouble,” she remembers, speaking about that day
when everything was about to change.

“There were a lot of very poor people in particular, you could see it in
what they were wearing, they were shouting and some were carrying sticks
or stones.” She thinks she recognized several neighbors from her area
also in the crowd.

The repression of that popular protest was carried out by the police and
paramilitaries hiding under the clothes of construction workers. The
Blas Roca Contingent played a leading role in putting down the
rebellion. The construction workers went at it with blood and bricks, as
they had been taught. “It was criminal what they did, beating people
with iron rods, in front of the door of my house there was a young man
who fell with his head all bloody, I never knew his name.” Amalia was
one of those who didn’t dare go out.

One of the reasons for the failure of the Maleconazo was precisely the
absence of many of the social actors in the popular explosion. Amalia’s,
Roberto’s and Vivian’s reasons can be summarized as fear of being
physically injured, lack of information about what was happening, and
fear of losing the few belongings the Special Period hadn’t already
deprived them of.

Coda and lessons

The Maleconazo was too brief for the news to get out in time. It
happened in a Havana without mobile phones, with a totally collapsed
transportation system and one where private vehicles had serious
difficulty finding fuel to enable them get on the road. Neighborhoods
with high poverty rates and dissatisfaction, such as San Miguel del
Padrón, Cerro, Guanabacoa, Arroyo Naranjo and areas of Central Havana
closest to Zanja Street, only found out what happened hours after the
uprising had been smothered.

The lack of reinforcements exhausted those who set the spark and left
them surrounded by a repressive pincer that closed around them, without
new forces coming to their aid. The fact that the revolt started in a
place as exposed as the Malecon demonstrates its spontaneity. Protesters
were corralled against the sea wall. There was no way out. The place
should have been their escape and its horizon were transformed into the
worst trap.

If that uncontrolled mob had started on streets such as the Paseo del
Prado, Galiano Avenue or Belascoaín it would have been fed by
neighborhoods with high anti-government sentiment.

The driving engine of the revolt was not political change but
emigration, and this weakened the Maleconazo. When many of those
involved in the protest realized there wasn’t going to be any boat to
leave on, they turned away from the crowd and in the worst cases turned
to looting the stores and hotels. There wasn’t a united democratic goal,
just the most basic human instincts: fear, hunger, flight as a form of

The absence of an articulated leadership also conspired against the
revolt. In the absence of a leader who would shout “This way!” or “Go
over there!” the avalanche of people scattered and was an easy target
for the repressive troops. Nor was an “open neck” possible in the middle
of a crowd that stretched for miles along the Malecon and didn’t receive
any directions.

The Maleconazo was doomed to be crushed. However, it was a wake-up call,
a jolt that forced the government to open the borders to the mass exodus
of some 30,000 people and to take a number of measures to ease the
economy that gave people a break. We owe the small bubbles of autonomy
and material development that came afterwards to these men and women who
faced beatings and insults.

The Maleconazo also demonstrated the apathy of a lethargic population,
who observed more than participated in those events. Instead of joining
the revolt, Amalia, Robert and Vivian hid behind blinds and waited, “for
what would happen, what had to happen.”

Source: The Maleconazo Seen Through the Blinds / 14ymedio, Ignacio
Varona | Translating Cuba –

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