Street protest in Cuba draws at least 500, sparks clash with police

At least 500 Cubans staged a rare street protest and clash with police in the eastern city of Holguin after municipal authorities confiscated household goods being sold in an open-air market by the island’s nascent private business owners, according to witnesses.

“This has been something immense. In my 31 years, I never saw anything like this,” said Holguin business owner Wilian Zaldivar Perez, who added that patrons in a restaurant near the protest also threw rocks at the police during the confrontation Tuesday.

Communist-ruled Cuba has not seen street protests of any significant size since 1994, when thousands of people rioted in downtown Havana amid a false rumor that the ferry that takes people across Havana Bay would take anyone to South Florida.

The protest Tuesday was the result of “the dissatisfaction that has been accumulating” with the Raúl Castro regime and his halting economic reforms, said Eduardo Cardet, an Holguin physician and member of the opposition Christian Liberation Movement.

“It’s no longer the opposition protesting. Now, it’s the people,” Cardet said in a recorded statement posted on YouTube. Although many Cubans have argued that protests achieve nothing, he added, the marchers in Holguin “know that it’s worth protesting.”

Zaldivar said 50 to 60 of the small business owners known in Cuba as “self-employed” and anywhere from 500 to 700 supporters marched Tuesday for more than a half-mile to the offices of the municipal government, demanding the right to work.

The protest was all the more daring because the offices are next door to the local headquarters of the feared Interior Ministry, in charge of domestic security. Its State Security agents are in charge of repressing all forms of dissent.

Zaldivar and other witnesses said the protest started after uniformed National Revolutionary Police officers and plainclothes State Security agents raided Holguin’s Central Plaza and confiscated household goods on sale at several kiosks.

Castro has opened some spaces for the “self-employed” to launch 182 types of small-scale businesses. But authorities have been cracking down on people who are licensed to sell household goods but obtain them at state-run shops and sell them at much higher prices in what the government considers to be illegal profiteering.

Zaldivar said police and municipal inspectors acting in a harsh manner confiscated the goods at the Central Plaza, revoked the licenses of the merchants and slapped them with fines of about $30 — a large sum in a country where the average monthly wage officially stands at about $20.

Once the protest reached the municipal offices, some of the protesters scuffled with police and plainclothes agents, he told El Nuevo Herald by phone. Several protesters were arrested and he was detained for three hours at a nearby police station but then released.

Another dissident, Zuleidy Pérez Velásquez, put the number of protesters as high as 1,000 and reported “enormous beatings” of the marchers by police, according to the Spain-based Web site Diario de Cuba.

A video of the Holguin protest showed a long but thin line of people marching in the same direction, and then a large crowd jammed outside a building, but the number of participants could not be established.

One dissident reported that places with public Internet access in Holguin had been put under heavy guard after the confrontation, apparently to keep word of the unrest from seeping out.

The kiosks had moved to the Central Plaza at the request of government officials who wanted to move them out of their previous location, in front of the local Lenin Hospital, according to the Diario de Cuba report.

Police and two truckloads of plainclothes agents returned to the Central Plaza Wednesday and confiscated more of the household goods, “but today the police acted more civilized,” Zaldivar said in a telephone interview from Holguin.

“Today, the situation is pretty tense,” he added, but there were no public protests on Wednesday because city residents believe that police were ready to crack down harshly on any further disturbances.

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