The rehearsals for Havana’s annual May Day celebration went on for weeks. The Plaza of the Revolution was to host hundreds of thousands of Cubans as they marched past top government leaders in the best Soviet tradition.
But a man who came out of nowhere rewrote the monotonous script this year.
Self-proclaimed dissident Daniel Llorente waved a large U.S. flag as he ran down the plaza and demanded freedom at the top of his lungs. His performance lasted just a few seconds, until security forces tackled and pummeled him before a shocked audience that included several foreign journalists.
“He had everything figured out. My father is an educated man. A few days before he had bought books on the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis,” his son, Eliezer Llorente Perez, 17, recently said by phone from Havana. “He says that you have to know history to understand what we’re going through.”
As he ran in front of the marchers, Llorente shouted, “Freedom for the Cuban people.” His words were drowned out by the official song, produced by members of the Young Communists’ Union, to energize young Cubans long indifferent to government propaganda.
“This is what I am. It’s time to open my heart and show life that this is what I am,” says some of the lyrics to the song titled, “Gallo de Pelea (Fighting Rooster).”
Seven men carried Llorente out of the plaza. He is currently being held at the 100 y Aldabo detention center in Havana.
Llorente assured his son that he “was not beaten” but was told by police that he’s been charged with public disorder and resisting arrest and will remain in jail until his trial, his son said. A trial date has not been scheduled.
Llorente’s anti-government protest was not his first, but it was the most visible. He also waved the U.S. flag when President Barack Obama visited Havana last year, and when the cruise ship Adonia first sailed into Havana harbor. His social network posts claim that he also protested on Aug. 31, 2016, at the airport when direct U.S.-Cuba commercial flights resumed.
He was arrested at almost every protest.
“This system has not done anything to benefit the people,” he told the Mexican television channel EjeCentralTV during Obama’s visit in March 2016.
“The people are afraid,” Llorente said at the time. “Although many Cubans are afraid to do it, here you do have one who’s decided to do it because I trust Obama’s plans for the Cuban people.”
Llorente was born in 1963, one year after the Cuban Missile Crisis. He traveled to East Germany in the 1980s to study automotive mechanics, said his former wife, Yudiza Pérez.
“He’s very intelligent and has a big heart. He speaks perfect German because he learned it when he studied about cars there,” said Pérez, 39.
“I was married to him for 10 years and I am the mother of his only child, who is also the only relative he has in this world because the rest of his family died,” she said.
The government-controlled newspaper Granma, official voice of the Cuban Communist Party, broke the silence it traditionally maintains on anti-government protests and accused Llorente, without naming him, of being a convicted criminal who is padding his “opposition” resume to win U.S. asylum. It also blasted the foreign media for reporting the event.
According to Granma, Llorente was convicted of robbery and sentenced in 2002 to five years in prison.
“It’s true that he was in prison, but it was for a crime he did not commit. Everything they said in the newspaper is pure lies,” said his former wife.
Pérez, who lives in the San Isidro neighborhood in Havana, said the conviction and prison changed Llorente’s life because “he missed out on his son’s childhood and his marriage” for something “that he did not do.”
The son, Eliezer, who has studied to be a car mechanic and aspires to be an actor or model, described his father’s absence from the age of 3 as traumatic.
“I was distanced from my father because he was in prison. We started to talk after he came out of prison and today he is my best friend,” Eliezer said. “He is a good father, and was a good son when his mother was alive.”
Llorente drives a taxi at night and financially supports his son, who lives with his mother and a younger sibling. After he left prison, he decided to become a “self-employed” dissident — not tied to any group — and speak out against the government.
“Why did he protest with a U.S. flag? Because he says that’s where there is a true sense of patriotism and family, things that have been lost in Cuba, that all human values have been lost in Cuba,” Eliezer said.
Still, Llorente does not want to leave Cuba.
“I support my father. His biggest hope is for a change in the governing system,” his son said. “He always tells me that he wants to live in Cuba, but in a free Cuba, with opportunities for all.”
Follow Mario J. Pentón on Twitter: @mariojose_cuba