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One Sunday last summer, 18-year-old Eloy Cardoso left his mother’s house on the outskirts of Havana to pick up an Atari game console from a friend.

He had stayed at home the day before as the biggest anti-government protests since the revolution tore Cuba apart.

Authorities had managed to quell protests across most of the country overnight, but not in La Güinera: Unrest still raged in the humble and normally quiet neighborhood, and Eloy emerged in a bloody scuffle.

Shops were destroyed and looted, party supporters brandished batons, police fought with youths and a man was shot dead. Amid the uproar, Cardoso began throwing stones at the police.

He was arrested days later and in a closed trial earlier this week was sentenced to seven years in prison.

The trial is one of scores currently unfolding across the island, as, six months after the protests, Cuban courts have quietly begun imposing draconian sentences on protesters who – sometimes peacefully, sometimes less – have flooded the streets last summer.

Although the state has a history of imposing harsh penalties on organized political dissidents, the penalties currently being meted out are unusually harsh.

“They want to make an example out of him,” Cardoso’s mother, Servillia Pedroso, 35, said as she fought back tears.

“They want to set an example”: Cuban demonstrators hit with heavy sentences |  Cuba
Eloy Cardoso’s mother, Servillia Pedroso, left, and Migdalia Gutiérrez, whose son, Brunelvil, was sentenced to 15 years. Photography: Ed Augustin/The Guardian

Because her son is in college, the police initially told him he would get a ‘second chance’ accusing him of ‘public disorder’ and telling him he would get off with a fine .

But in October, the charge was elevated to sedition: in other words, incitement to rebel against state authority.

Since December, more than 50 people in La Güinera have been convicted of sedition, according to civil society organization Justicia 11J. Most are poor young men.

Justicia 11J said more than 700 people remained in detention following the July protests, including 158 charged or already convicted of sedition. Last week, a man from the eastern province of Holguín was sentenced to 30 years.

Erika Guevara-Rosas, director for the Americas at Amnesty International, said the detainees were subjected to summary procedures without due process or fair trial guarantees.

“Prosecutors have called for disproportionate sentences against those arrested during the protests. In addition, many people are charged with vague crimes that do not conform to international standards, such as the ‘contempt’ that has been consistently used in Cuba to punish those who criticize the government,” she said.

“The state is trying to send the message that there are dire consequences to rebelling against the government,” said William LeoGrande, professor of government at the American University in Washington.

“The fact that the government feels and is under unprecedented threat – not only from increased US sanctions, but also from the pandemic and the global economic situation – makes it less willing to tolerate any kind of dissent.

Trump-era sanctions contributed to the food and medicine shortages people were protesting about. The sanctions also slowed vaccine production, worsening a Covid surge that was sweeping the island at the time and contributing to the furor. But many protesters also wanted to break free from the communist regime.

Economic complaints are a constant in La Güinera: it is difficult to afford shoes and medicine. A school bag costs 2,500 pesos, more than half of a teacher’s monthly salary.

“I’m sure without the economy none of this would have happened – but the economy never gets better,” said Yusniel Hernández, 36, a teacher turned taxi driver, who said a dozen friends had been imprisoned for throwing stones and assaulting police officers.

Analysts say the government is using exemplary sentences to stifle any further protests as it prepares for further economic hardship. While sanctions have tightened, a longstanding siege mentality among the leadership appears to have frozen in recent years. The fact that the Biden administration reversed its normalization policy with the island after July could be another contributing factor.

But the pain of repression is palpable.

“None of these children were militant, they don’t belong to any organization,” said Migdalia Gutiérrez, 44, whose son, Brunelvil, 33, was sentenced to 15 years.

“If someone has nothing to do with politics and you accuse them of political stuff, then you make them political prisoners,” she added.

“They want to set an example”: Cuban demonstrators hit with heavy sentences |  Cuba
Maria Luisa Fleitas Bravo. Photography: Ed Augustin/The Guardian

His neighbor next door, María Luisa Fleitas Bravo, 58, lives in poverty. The roof of her kitchen, living room and second bedroom collapsed when Hurricane Irma hit in 2017. The state provided her with the cinder blocks she needed to rebuild, but four years later the cement has still not arrived.

Its rotting wooden ceiling is covered with plastic sheets secured with clothespins, but it leaks when it rains.

His 33-year-old unemployed son, Rolando, was sentenced to 21 years for assaulting a police officer during the protests (a charge he denies).

Pedroso led a small online campaign to free his son. But shortly after she and seven other mothers in the neighborhood made a video demanding justice, she was visited by the police, who informed her that the video was being shared on Facebook for “counter-revolutionary” purposes. .

She has since been questioned by state security and told that if she took to the streets to protest her son’s release, she could be charged with disturbing the peace.

Pedroso, a housewife, had applied for a job at Havana International Airport, to work in immigration. The job was all but in the bag, she said, until she was asked about her son during a final check-up interview.

It was in September. She hasn’t heard from her since.

“Nobody who has a child accused of anything can work at the airport,” she said, before adding, with a touch of gallows humor: “Actually, yes: they can be accused of murder, but not of counter-revolution.”


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