As Cuba tries more protesters, is it making an example of historically defiant Holguín?
From the Spanish empire to the Castro dictatorship, Holguineros — especially their youth — have been at the forefront of revolt in Cuba. Can that flame last now?
When Cubans staged unprecedented street protests across their island last July — aimed at communist regime repression and economic misery — some of the largest, loudest and longest demonstrations took place in the eastern city of Holguín. Masses of angry protesters stood outside government and communist party buildings for two days shouting, "Holguín is not afraid!"
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So it wasn't surprising last week when, as a new round of trials began for some 60 of the estimated 1,300 people arrested for taking part in Cuba's summer protests, most of the defendants were Holguineros. Among them: Yosvanis García, who in an audio statement said he was going on a hunger strike in jail.
In court documents, Cuban prosecutors accuse García of throwing rocks at state buildings — which he denies, asserting it was regime agents and supporters who attacked protesters — and “being disaffected from the [communist] revolution.”
They've charged him with sedition and are seeking a 30-year prison sentence.
In her own protest video, García's wife Maylín Rodríguez said, “My husband wants the world to know the injustices of all these trials of Cubans who were simply demonstrating for their rights.”
Scores of Cuban protesters have already been convicted in swift trials and given lengthy prison terms, and human rights groups have condemned those tribunals for trashing due process and fairness. But Cuba experts say proceedings like García's suggest the government of President Miguel Díaz-Canel was especially spooked by the unrest in Holguín.
“Holguín has always been a hotbed of resistance to dictatorships," said Orlando Gutierrez-Boronat, a Cuban exile leader in Miami and coordinator of the nonprofit Assembly of the Cuban Resistance.
He points out four of the protesters who went on trial in Holguín last week were minors. Amid an international outcry, the regime over the weekend reduced their charges from sedition to public disorder.
But Gutierrez-Boronat says the large youth presence of the Holguín protests is a big reason the regime wants to make an example of the city. That, and the fact that Holguín and the province where it’s located have a centuries-long reputation for defiance. The late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro — who was one of the world's most famous revolutionary guerrilla leaders before he took power — was himself from that corner of Cuba.
“In Holguín you have a long history of struggle for freedom and democracy," Gutierrez-Boronat said, "and a deep-rooted citizen insurgency way back into Spanish rule.”
I was a 13-year-old kid when I decided to fight against the Batista dictatorship. But I thought it was my duty — you know, you have that Holguín tradition to respect.
In the 19th century, Holguín produced more army generals in Cuba’s fight for independence from Spain than perhaps any other place. They included Cuban national hero Calixto García.
In 1952, when Fulgencio Batista overthrew a democratically elected Cuban government and became dictator, young Holguineros like Pedro Fuentes Cid were among the first on the island to march and fight against him.
“I was 13 years old – I was a kid," said Fuentes, who hailed from an affluent Holguín family. "But I thought that it was, you know, my duty. You have that [Holguín] tradition to respect.”
Fuentes says he met Fidel Castro in Miami when Castro sought U.S. support for the insurgency that later toppled Batista. But then Castro set up his own, communist dictatorship — and Fuentes says he felt no choice to but to follow that hometown tradition.
"When Castro betrayed this revolution," Fuentes said, "I started fighting against Castro."
In 1961 Fuentes was arrested for taking up arms against Castro’s regime. He was to face a firing squad before being sentenced to prison instead. Fuentes was released 16 years later in an amnesty and came to Miami. He still practices law today — and he sees himself in the young Holguineros on trial right now.
“For a time, the regime terror keeps people quiet," Fuentes said. "But Holguineros — deep inside their souls something is cooking. And then if they have a chance, they will demonstrate it.”
It was demonstrated in 2014 when independent artisans and vendors in Holguín marched on government offices demanding the regime let them do business without official harassment.
One Holguinero on trial now for the July protests is 18-year-old economics student Marco Pintueles. His family friend Edgar Cardet — who heads a leading Cuban dissident group, the Christian Liberation Movement — is following the case closely.
"I think what really unnerves the regime about the Holguín protests is the unusually large number of young people who took part in them," Cardet told me from Holguín. "The future of Cuba, but a generation that isn't able to see a future in Cuba.
“That's why they’re subjecting even 16-year-olds to these Inquisition-style trials — to try to put out that flame.”
Cuba experts like exile Andy Gomez, a former director of the University of Miami’s Cuban studies center, agree the regime sees Holguín — especially its youth — as a more urgent phenomenon to stamp out. And Gomez fears it may succeed.
“The Cuban government realizes that this is the group they need to castigate and send out a message that ‘we will not tolerate any of this stuff,’" Gomez said.
"So is protest going to continue there? When you look at these scary sentences being handed out, prison sentences even for young teenagers, I…I find it very difficult to think it will.”
And whether protests continue in Holguín may tell us a lot about the future of protests in Cuba.