The episode might have remained a Cuban urban legend, a whisper of rare public dissent on the communist-run island, were it not for the island’s recent mobile internet upgrades.
But that summer, Cubans across the country could watch live and in real time the unfolding protests in San Antonio de los Baños and join them. Almost immediately, across the island, thousands of other Cubans took to the streets, some complaining about the lack of food and medicine, others denouncing high-ranking officials and calling for more civil liberties.
Unprecedented demonstrations have even spread to small towns and cities, where there are more horses and carts in potholed streets than cars.
In the city of San José de las Lajas, Martha Perdomo said her two sons, Nadir and Jorge, both teachers, immediately joined the protests as soon as news of unrest in other parts of the country arrived.
“My sons left because, like all Cubans, they were desperate about the situation,” Marta Perdomo told CNN. “They are fathers. There are fewer of us here every day. There were no medicines. It was a very sad moment with the pandemic. Children and old people were dying too.”
In a video taken by Marta’s son Nadir that day, crowds of anti-government demonstrators are seen peacefully marching down the street, with the demonstrators themselves clearly in shock at what is happening.
“It’s authentic! It’s spontaneous!” Nadir speaks excitedly in the video.
According to Perdomo, the protesters in San Jose de las Lajas did not rob state hard currency stores or overturn police cars, unlike other cities.
As more and more Cubans took to the streets, it became clear that the Cuban government was facing the biggest domestic challenge to its power in decades.
“We call on all revolutionaries in the country, all communists, to take to the streets, to all places where they can repeat these provocations,” he said. “The order to fight has been given.”
Government supporters with bats, along with the police, began to disperse the protests. Hundreds of Cubans were arrested; some for clashing with officials, others for simply filming the riots on their phones.
When protests in San José de las Lajas were thwarted by government supporters and police, Nadir and Jorge Perdomo returned to their home and filmed a video on their phones, which they were able to post online despite the government’s attempts to cut off internet access on island.
“Nobody paid us,” Nadir says in the video, dismissing government claims that the protests were fabricated.
“We just react in the same way that all people do.”
Both brothers were arrested a few days later and charged with alleged crimes including disorderly conduct, assault and insult. Their mother, Martha, said the charges against her sons were trumped up and that they were being punished for peacefully opposing the government.
Cuban officials say many of the arrested protesters were delinquents and “counter-revolutionaries”. But prosecutors note in their court records that neither Nadir nor Jorge had a criminal record and both were “respected” in their community. In February, Nadir was found guilty and sentenced to six years in prison, while Jorge was sentenced to eight years.
To date, Cuban prosecutors say they have convicted about 500 people in connection with protests in the island’s largest mass trials in decades.
Preventing future protests
But international human rights organizations say the Cuban government is using the prosecution to intimidate Cubans into not daring to protest again.
“We found that prosecutors consistently accused Cubans of exercising their fundamental rights, such as the right to peacefully protest, the right to insult their president, or the right to insult police officers, for exercising the right to freedom of expression,” said Juan Pappie, senior fellow at Human Rights Watch (HRW) Americas.
On Monday, HRW released a report on the protests that said it documented 155 cases of alleged mistreatment of people who participated in last year’s demonstrations, “including harassment, arbitrary detention, insult-based prosecutions, beatings and other cases of mistreatment, which in some cases constitute torture.”
The organization also accused the Cuban government of further suppressing civil liberties in order to prevent more protests.
Martha Perdomo said she experienced the tightening of restrictions first hand after she was invited to Europe in June to speak about her sons to human rights groups and lawmakers. When she reached the airport in Havana, officials told her and another mother of an imprisoned protester that they would not be allowed to travel.
“They said I was being ‘regulated’ and I couldn’t walk,” Perdomo said.
Cuban officials did not respond to a CNN inquiry about why Marta Perdomo was not allowed to leave the island.
Although Perdomo says she’s worried about when her three young grandchildren will see their fathers again, she doesn’t regret it.
“They didn’t have to go out, but they felt Cuba’s pain,” Perdomo said. “That’s why they came out. That day my sons were free.”
It remains to be seen whether the July protests will be remembered as a rare burst of public anger or as a new stage in the fight for greater openness.
In June of this year, hundreds of Cuban students from the University of Camaguey began a nightly demonstration after the power went out in their dormitory.
“Damn these blackouts! Turn on the electricity!” they chanted while banging pots, as seen in videos the students uploaded to social media.
Cuban officials quickly turned on the lights.