The largest anti-government protests in Cuba since the 1959 revolution began with a blackout on a scorching summer day. Residents in the small town of San Antonio de los Baos had had enough of the government’s power outages. They took to the streets to protest on July 11, 2021.
If not for recent upgrades to the island’s mobile internet, the episode might have remained a Cuban urban legend, a whispered-about moment of rare public dissent on the communist-run island.
However, that summer, Cubans across the country were able to live stream and participate in the protests in San Antonio de los Baos.
Thousands of other Cubans took to the streets almost immediately, some protesting a lack of food and medicine, others denouncing high-ranking officials and demanding greater civil liberties.
The unprecedented protests have even spread to small cities and towns where horse and carriages outnumber automobiles on potholed streets.
On June 28, 2022, Marta and Jorge Perdomo stand in front of a sign on their home in San Jose de las Lajas, Cuba.
Marta Perdomo of San Jose de las Lajas said her two sons, Nadir and Jorge, both teachers, joined protests as soon as they heard about the unrest elsewhere in the country.
“My sons went out because they were desperate about the situation, like every Cuban,” Marta Perdomo explained. “They are both fathers. Every day, we have less here. There was no medicine available. With the pandemic, it was a very sad time. Children and the elderly were also dying.”
Anger boiled over for Cubans as food and medicine shortages, which were already a regular occurrence in Cuba, worsened. After years of government neglect, the aging power grids were failing more frequently.
While Cuban officials have long blamed US sanctions for the island’s woes, demonstrators on July 11 blamed their own government for their deteriorating living conditions.
Marta’s son Nadir captured footage of anti-government protestors marching peacefully down the street that day, with the demonstrators themselves appearing stunned by what was happening.
“This is genuine! It’s unplanned!” In the video, Nadir exclaims with glee.
Unlike in other cities, protestors in San Jose de las Lajas did not sack government-run stores selling hard currency or flip over police cars, according to Perdomo.
As more Cubans took to the streets, it became clear that the Cuban government was facing its most serious internal challenge in decades.
In a speech broadcast on state television, Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel blamed the island’s economic problems on US government sanctions, claimed the protests were the result of an international subversion campaign, and urged loyalists to reclaim the streets from protestors.
“We are summoning all of the country’s revolutionaries, all of the communists, to go into the streets, to all of the places where these provocations could be replicated,” he said. “The combat order has been issued.”
Protests were broken up by government supporters wielding bats alongside police. Hundreds of Cubans have been arrested, some for clashes with officials, others for simply filming the chaos on their phones.
As government supporters and police disrupted protests in San Jose de las Lajas, 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 internet access on the island.
“No one paid us,” Nadir says in the video, denying the government’s claim that the protests were staged.
“We’re just reacting like everyone else is doing in Cuba.”
Days later, both brothers were arrested and charged with alleged crimes such as public disorder, assault, and contempt.
Marta, their mother, claimed that the charges against her sons were fabricated and that they were being punished for peacefully protesting the government.
According to Cuban officials, many of those arrested were delinquents and “counter-revolutionaries.” However, prosecutors note in their court records that neither Nadir nor Jorge had a criminal record and that both “were well regarded” in their community.
Nadir was found guilty and sentenced to six years in prison in February, while Jorge was sentenced to eight years.
To date, Cuban prosecutors claim they have convicted and sentenced nearly 500 people in connection with the protests, in the island’s largest mass trials in decades.