Dispatch

In Cuba, Protesting While Poor Is Now a Crime

A year after mass demonstrations, the island continues to crack down on its most vulnerable communities.

A man walks along a street in Cuba.
A man walks along a street in Cuba.
A man walks along a street in La Güinera neighborhood, on the outskirts of Havana, on June 30. As Cuba marks the first anniversary of the unprecedented protests of July 11 and 12, 2021, the community of La Güinera still has dozens of people incarcerated. YAMIL LAGE/AFP via Getty Images
By , an independent journalist based in Mexico City.

HAVANA—“And how are my daughters?” is Walnier Aguilar’s first question when he calls his dad, Wilber Aguilar, from prison. Walnier Aguilar, who is 22 years old, has two toddlers, ages 1 and 3, growing up just as he did in La Güinera, a neighborhood of dirt streets and crumbling cement buildings 20 minutes outside central Havana.

Last year, before he was arrested, Walnier Aguilar made a video for his parents, his girlfriend, and their two kids: a slideshow of family photos with little phrases professing his love for each of them. His family describes him as distinctly childlike himself, having lived since birth with a neurological disability that makes it difficult for him to follow conversations.

“Sometimes, when you’re talking to him, he’ll just freeze and look at you,” his dad said in his living room in March. Walnier Aguilar is facing 23 years behind bars and may not see his daughters until they are older than he is now. His crime was attending a protest on July 11 last year.

A man walks along a street in Cuba.
A man walks along a street in Cuba.

A man walks along a street in La Güinera neighborhood, on the outskirts of Havana, on June 30. As Cuba marks the first anniversary of the unprecedented protests of July 11 and 12, 2021, the community of La Güinera still has dozens of people incarcerated. YAMIL LAGE/AFP via Getty Images

HAVANA—“And how are my daughters?” is Walnier Aguilar’s first question when he calls his dad, Wilber Aguilar, from prison. Walnier Aguilar, who is 22 years old, has two toddlers, ages 1 and 3, growing up just as he did in La Güinera, a neighborhood of dirt streets and crumbling cement buildings 20 minutes outside central Havana.

Last year, before he was arrested, Walnier Aguilar made a video for his parents, his girlfriend, and their two kids: a slideshow of family photos with little phrases professing his love for each of them. His family describes him as distinctly childlike himself, having lived since birth with a neurological disability that makes it difficult for him to follow conversations.

“Sometimes, when you’re talking to him, he’ll just freeze and look at you,” his dad said in his living room in March. Walnier Aguilar is facing 23 years behind bars and may not see his daughters until they are older than he is now. His crime was attending a protest on July 11 last year.

That day, tens of thousands of people took to the streets across the island to protest skyrocketing prices of essential goods. It was the largest event of civil unrest in Cuba since the 1990s. Local advocacy group Justicia 11J has counted around 1,500 Cubans arrested in subsequent weeks and months, with around 700 still in prison. The actual number “could be double,” said Camila Rodríguez, one of Justicia 11J’s founders, since the group relies on word-of-mouth accounts from family members and witnesses to gather these figures. The group also says more than two dozen minors have been arrested: The youngest, who is 12 years old, remains in detention.

In March, after a new wave of sentencing, the U.S. Embassy in Havana released a statement saying the government had placed “disproportionate” sentences on “peaceful and innocent young people.” The Cuban public prosecutor’s office denied that the sentences were too severe, stating the trials displayed “verified compliance with constitutional rights and guarantees of due process.”

Yet a disproportionate number of those arrested are indeed from Havana’s poorest enclaves. According to Justicia 11J, of the approximately 500 people detained in the province of Havana, around 165 are from La Güinera alone, and 135 of those people remain incarcerated. La Güinera, a neighborhood of around 25,000 people, contains only 1 percent of Havana’s population.

The largest protest—the one pictured in the vast majority of news clips—took place at the promenade in front of the capitol building, at the center of Havana’s tourist zone. The poorer neighborhoods like La Güinera had smaller demonstrations, and protesters were at times outnumbered by police and government supporters from other areas. Yet it is neighborhoods like La Güinera that have experienced the strictest retaliation for their acts of rebellion one year ago.


Wilber Aguilar displays his son's medical documents.
Wilber Aguilar displays his son's medical documents.

Wilber Aguilar, father of Walnier Aguilar, who was prosecuted for participating in the July 11 protests, shows his son’s medical documents at his house in La Güinera on June 28.YAMIL LAGE/AFP via Getty Images

On July 11, 2021, Wilber Aguilar later recalled, his son walked from the three-room home he shared with his parents and young children to a construction site. There, he was working an odd job, stripping rebar in a demolished house. After collecting his earnings, Walnier Aguilar joined a crowd that had formed in the street. Angry people were shouting anti-government slogans, calling Cuba’s president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, an “asshole.”

Several La Güinerans had seen viral videos on Facebook of fights breaking out that morning between protesters and police in another poor Havana neighborhood, San Antonio de Los Baños. They decided to follow suit and protest the government. The videos continued to spread across the island, and by mid-afternoon, Cubans in more than 50 cities ran into the streets, flipping over police cars, setting them on fire, and standing on top amid the flames, waving Cuban flags and shouting, “Down with the dictatorship!”

Anti-government demonstrations are extremely rare in Cuba, but it was as if civil disobedience in one area had given the rest of the island license to air their grievances with daily life: food scarcity, rolling blackouts, lack of accessible transportation, and inadequate medical care due to medicine shortages.

Many of these problems can be traced to the tourism industry’s collapse in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the Cuban government opened “dollar stores” to wring foreign currency out of the population to use for international trade. These are now the only stores where many household necessities, such as diapers, cereal, and laundry detergent, are sold, and yet only people who have foreign currency in hand—namely those who receive remittances from family abroad—can enter.

The U.S. embargo prohibits domestic and international companies from operating in both Cuba and the United States, leaving Cuba economically isolated from the rest of the world. The Trump administration strengthened sanctions against the Cuban regime, slowly suffocating the island’s access to oil as well as cash from tourism. Although the Biden administration has lifted some of these regulations, it has kept most sanctions in place, even as the pandemic has plunged the Cuban economy into peril. (It even introduced new sanctions against Cuban leaders last July in response to the government’s crackdown on protesters.)

The decision to open dollar stores forced most Cubans to scramble to find enough food without spending what would amount to far beyond the average government salary. Those who cannot access the stores must buy their necessities from those who can, often at four to seven times the original price.

The July 11 protests were a spontaneous reaction to these prices as well as a plea to the government to close the dollar stores and let people buy what they need in Cuban pesos. While each citizen is theoretically guaranteed free food, as well as free medical care and education, the bread rolls and beans allotted are nowhere near enough to survive on, and though it is possible to see a doctor for medical care, there is no guarantee even commonly used medicines will be available in pharmacies.

Leading up to and immediately following the protests, hundreds of Cubans died of COVID-19 in their homes, as the state did not have enough oxygen canisters, and ambulances could not make it to and from hospitals due to gasoline shortages. The entire province of Guantánamo, with a population of more than 500,000, had only one ambulance operating during one of Cuba’s worst surges in the days leading up to last July 11.

That day, on La Güinera’s largest thoroughfare, residents first faced off against police officers—some dressed in plainclothes—in a shouting match. La Güinerans say the police, alongside civilian supporters of the government, reacted by shoving the protesters; several beat them with batons. The protesters responded by throwing rocks. At its height, the clash in the neighborhood attracted between several hundred and 3,000 people, according to estimates included in court documents relating to cases against protesters from La Güinera. One local man died after a police officer shot him in the back. Although Cuban authorities acknowledged his death, they justified it under self-defense.

According to his family, Walnier Aguilar did not participate in the rock-throwing, but he shouted along with the crowd. The following week, eight officers showed up at the family’s home, and he was interrogated in the living room before the officers quietly led him away. That day, Wilber Aguilar, who had never been politically active, began a futile campaign to free his son.

The Aguilars are privileged compared with many parents and spouses of imprisoned youths in Cuba. The household can afford to access the internet every day, and the signal is strong enough to view and upload videos. However, cracks have formed in the family’s finances. Without their son’s added income, the family has begun to eat the chickens they raised behind the house for eggs. In March, when I visited the house, there was only one chicken left.

Since his son was imprisoned, Wilber Aguilar regularly posts videos of himself to Facebook. He stands in his living room in a white T-shirt, a symbol of the Cuban dissident movement, giving impassioned speeches to his phone camera about his son’s case.

Even though it led to his son’s imprisonment, Wilber Aguilar still defends what happened on July 11. “They were shouting everything they wanted to shout,” he said, defending his son’s participation in the chanting of anti-government slogans. “They were in the streets because they didn’t have shoes.”


In trials against the young protesters from La Güinera, prosecutors aimed to depict their actions as a premeditated attack. They said an organized group attempted to take over administrative buildings near the bus station, the only way to get to or leave La Güinera for the majority of Cubans who do not own a car. Yet La Güinerans say the day’s melee was unplanned and occurred on the other side of the neighborhood, where Walnier Aguilar joined in. Videos of the protests also show this.

La Güinerans also say the majority of the violence was perpetrated by police against civilians, including women and minors, and that many of those sentenced to years in prison for assaulting police officers were nonviolent spectators. On the Calzada de La Güinera, a neighborhood street where the protests occurred, one woman recounted exactly which pothole she stood in when a police officer had beaten her.

In December 2021, Walnier Aguilar was part of a mass trial with 16 other co-defendants, all combating charges of sedition. Such charges were uncommon in Cuba prior to the protests but have been overwhelmingly used for cases related to July 11. They apply to anyone who commits organized actions against the state—in this case, throwing rocks at or otherwise assaulting a law enforcement officer. (In the future, the barrier to prosecution will likely be even lower; on May 15, the Cuban National Assembly passed a new set of laws that criminalize any participation in an unauthorized demonstration of two or more people, punishable by four to 10 years in prison.)

Most people charged with sedition are not implicated in video evidence, according to Justicia 11J, and it is nearly impossible to prove who threw rocks and who stood on the sidelines.

According to Wilber Aguilar, a psychologist took the stand and said he had examined Walnier Aguilar and determined he was clear of physical or mental disabilities. Walnier Aguilar’s lawyer, who had years of medical records in hand saying otherwise, protested, but the judge refused to hear his argument or accept these records.

After the trial was done and his son received a 23-year sentence, Wilber Aguilar was told by the defense lawyer, “If the law doesn’t work, I can’t be a magician.”

“The law in Cuba is imposed in selective ways. It’s largely arbitrary, but the majority of people who are facing the strictest penal processes are poor people,” said Rodríguez, the Justicia 11J co-founder. Though a handful of famous dissidents were sentenced to years behind bars for participating in the protests, she said most people who have been arrested did not have any history of anti-government activism.

“Those who have been sentenced to decades are generally those who have the fewest communicative resources in the eyes of the state,” Rodríguez said. 

Wilber Aguilar believes his son is a prime example of the state taking advantage of those incapable of fighting back. He keeps his son’s medical records inside a bursting folder, incongruously covered in images of smiling cartoon Minions. Though everything in La Güinera wilts from heat and humidity, he has kept these photocopied records dry and pristine, touching only the backside of each paper with his fingertips. “I’ve been to the Office of the Provincial Court, the Supreme Court, the National Attorney’s Office, the District Attorney’s Office—and nothing,” he said. “They will never agree to see the papers.”

One of the documents is a letter from the Cuban government officially disqualifying Walnier Aguilar from the mandatory two years of military service at age 18 on account of his neurological condition. The folder contains a thick stack of doctors’ notes describing the diagnosis: an abnormal formation of the left side of his frontal lobe that makes him unable to focus for even short periods and that has hampered his mental and emotional development. Wilber Aguilar believes the documents have not been accepted in court, preventing the opportunity for an appeal, because they prove his son is incapable of making rational decisions and therefore could not be guilty of treasonous offenses.

Meanwhile, Wilber Aguilar said, police trucks now cruise through La Güinera more frequently. “They’re punishing our neighborhood,” he said, “because there are a lot of people here who want something different.”  

Lillian Perlmutter is an independent journalist based in Mexico City. She has covered volcanic eruptions, kidnappings for ransom, marijuana legalization, and black-market abortions among other topics in the Caribbean.

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