Cuban rafters: 20 years after the crisis

Uprising on Havana’s Malecón 20 years ago set off exodus


An uprising on Havana’s seaside thoroughfare known as Malecón 20 years ago sets off an exodus from Cuba to Miami.

It was a scene unlike anything ever captured in Cuba on camera under the Castro regime.

“Freedom!” the angry young men shouted for the first time.

“Down with Fidel!” as they stared straight into the cameras. “They are killing us” and “Let them film it all, all the police repression, so that outsiders can see what happens in Cuba.”

Video footage captured the short-lived, spontaneous uprising in Havana on Aug. 5, 1994, that came to be known as the “Maleconazo.”

The disturbances served as a prelude to a mass exodus that summer of more than 35,000 Cubans, a civil action that resulted in a change in U.S. policy toward Cuban migrants that remains in effect.

The “Maleconazo” remains an unprecedented fleeting memory in Cuban Revolution history. It would mark the first — and so far, only — popular protest against the regime since Fidel Castro took control in 1959.

It was “an extraordinary and spontaneous popular protest, unlikely to be repeated in Cuba under the current circumstances,” said Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.

“While the crisis [in Cuba] continues today,” he said, “the relative improvement of the Cuban economy, compared to the sharp decline experienced between 1989 and 1994, seems to have reduced the social tensions that led to the street riots.”

Back then, the uprising erupted amidst a complex social and political climate. With the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba lost its strongest ally and was going through its worst economic crisis under Castro.

On this day, brewing hunger and discontent exploded under the blazing sun near La Punta, along Havana’s famed seaside thoroughfare known as the Malecón. There had been an increasing number of departures by sea and rumors had spread that boats from the United States were standing by to pick up those who wanted to flee the island.

People began to arrive at the Malecón hoping to leave on a boat.

“My cameraman and I were on our way to an event in Regla to report on boats that had been stolen,” recalled Rolando Nápoles, then a reporter for CHTV in Havana. “We arrived at La Punta and began to run into people telling us they had heard that a small boat was en route to pick them up.”

Hundreds started shouting slogans, breaking windows and throwing garbage cans.

“What caught my attention most was the level of desperation among the people, that they were prepared to do anything to get out,” said Manuel Cuesta Morúa, a Cuban opposition leader who lived near the area and witnessed the unrest. “I saw young men destroying windows in buildings. It was a spontaneous protest, not unified or exclusively political.”

The Cuban opposition movement had no “ingrained awareness of the value of street protests,” Morúa said.

“[Dissidents] gambled on external pressure with a call for dialogue to push the government toward negotiation.”

The protests were unexpected, he said.

“It was also a surprise for the government and for the very people who were protesting because at the root of this outburst was the desire to abandon Cuba.”

In an unprecedented gesture for the times, Pedro Hernandez, director of the local television station, sent out teams of reporters, including Nápoles and Oscar Suárez.

“I don’t know if they consulted the government or not, but the news director was very brave,” Nápoles said.

Another team, recording from the Hotel Deauville, documented how authorities dispersed the crowds along the Malecón.

“Trucks were filled with members of the Blas Roca ‘construction brigade,’ who beat up the demonstrators,” Suárez said in an emailed statement to el Nuevo Herald.

The station was the first to transmit the images of angry youths.

“Afterward, officials from State Security and the Ministry of the Interior asked us for all the recordings,” Nápoles said.

When authorities finally took control, Fidel Castro arrived on the Malecón on a jeep.

Suárez asked if there would be another Mariel.

Castro responded: “We are not opposed to anything, to letting those who want to leave, leave.”

His words ultimately served as a green light for those who wanted to flee. And flee they did. Over the next two months, thousands took to the sea on homemade rafts, inner tubes, anything that would float across the Florida Straits.

More than 35,000 Cubans left in what came to be known as the “rafter” or balsero crisis, which resulted in a significant change in immigration policy under President Bill Clinton. The new “wet-foot/dry-foot” policy denied automatic U.S. entry to those intercepted at sea.

The U.S. Coast Guard picked up thousands of rafters and transported them to Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where a new chapter on U.S.-Cuba relations unfolded.

Experts agree that the Maleconazo marked perhaps the lowest point in support of the Cuban Revolution, but Castro executed a “smart tactic” by allowing the protestors to leave — thus minimizing popular discontent on the island, said Holly Ackerman, of Duke University, who has done in-depth studies of the experience of Cuban rafters.

In a speech made a year later, Castro called his actions a success.

“Every year, we should remember the great victory of Aug. 5, 1994, in which the people smashed the counter revolution without firing a single shot,” he said.

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