‘The beginning of the end,’ says an ex-Cuban political prisoner a year after mass protests

‘Libertad, Libertad, Libertad, were the screams of thousands of Cubans who took to the streets to protest on July 11, 2021. The July 11 protests or as activists and opposition have hash-tagged, #11J, was the first time there were mass demonstrations against the government in over 60 years of a totalitarian regime.

Cubans inside and outside the island believed the final days of the Communist government were ahead; many rejoiced.

Last summer, Cuba saw its highest peak of COVID-19 cases since the pandemic started. According to the Minister of Public Health (MINSAP), 6,000+ cases were reported the day after the July 11 protests.

But according to CubaNet, an opposition news media based in Miami, cases could have been much higher.

The city of San Antonio de Los Baños, located in the province of Artemisa, was the first city where protestors were recorded.

It came as no surprise, days previous to the protests, San Antonio de Los Baños experienced a sanitary emergency after hospitals could not respond to all those affected by COVID-19. People were dying inside hospitals, houses, and streets, according to videos submitted to Facebook by residents of San Antonio de Los Baños.

Residents of other provinces soon followed and posted videos on Facebook demonstrating hundreds of Cubans not receiving appropriate medical care.

By the time noon arrived on July 11, 2021, thousands were out on the streets shouting,“Patria y Vida (Homeland and life), Libertad (Freedom), and Abajo la Dictadura (Down with the Dictatorship).”

People that went out and protested were met with repression by the Cuban government after President Miguel Diaz-Canel called for an “orden de combate (a combat order).

That day, the rest of the world got to see how the Cuban government responded to those who protested.

Countries who were sympathetic to the regime, like Spain, demanded that the government attend the “shouts of freedom” coming from Cubans inside the island.

According to Prison Defenders and the Center for a Free Cuba, withing a year after the protests, 1,000+ people currently sit in jail, including minors under the age of 17. They have been charged with sedition and can face up to 20 years in jail.

For some July 11th did not signify anything, especially for some inside the island, as it did not overthrow the regime, for others #11J is the beginning of the end, and the ability to keep advocating with more force for a “Cuba Libre.”

Kemel Jamis is an ex-political prisoner from the province of Sancti-Spiritus who spent 14 years in prison during the early years of the Revolution for being against the Castro government.

“July 11 marked a before and after, I don’t think the dictatorship expected something like this to happen, it brings me hope.” Said Kemel.

As to whether he was surprised by the protests, he says, “I always knew this generation had the same fight that lived within us when we saw the horrors the Castro regime was doing to Cuba, it is not surprising to me at all.”

Gerardo Morera is also an ex-political prisoner sentenced to six years in prison for conspiring against the Castro regime. He spent six years in multiple jails in the early days of the Revolution.

“I spent six years in jail, I did not see my kids grow up, the fight for freedom has always been personal to me because of this and many more reasons—they took away my freedom.” Said Morera.

“Seeing the youth on the streets screaming down with the dictatorship, was wow, incredible—I do think we are starting to see the downfall of the regime,” said Gerardo regarding the young people who went out and protested.

Another consequence of the July 11 protests was the outpour of activists from Miami, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, Boston, and many other cities across the United States that came together to demand freedom for Cuba.

Many of these activists are first and second-generation Cuban-American or left Cuba when they were young.

The organizers of the Cuban Freedom March, Alian Collazo, Stephanie Cepero, Caridad Fernandez, and Jason Canela continue to advocate through marches around the United States, “la realidad cubana (Cuba’s reality).” The organizers are first-generation Cuban-American, except Alian who was born in Cuba and left at seven years old.

“It’s what we’ve always known, this has been the story for the past 60 years,” said Alian.

The last Cuban Freedom March event happened in Washington, D.C. on July 9.

Alian, Stephanie, Caridad, and Jason, accompanied by activists, like John Suarez from the Center for a Free Cuba, marched from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial advocating for freedom and democracy for Cuba and the immediate release of all political prisoners.

“July 11th lit a spark that continues to shine. In the name of all of those who asked for freedom that day, I am here.” Said Reynier Cedeño a Cuban activist based in Maryland while attending the Cuban Freedom March.

As the Cuban people keep fighting for freedom, these activists will stand alongside them in the name of “Patria y Vida.”

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