Maykel Rodríguez had gone out to buy food when he came upon the crowd. His neighbors in the Cuban city of Holguin were yelling that they wanted change. They were part of an extraordinary surge of protests across the communist-ruled island last July, as citizens unleashed pent-up frustrations about the lack of food, electricity and freedom.
Rodríguez, a 34-year-old father of three, joined in.
Six months later, his family says, Rodríguez is facing up to 28 years in prison. He is among scores of people facing stiff sentences in trials this month for their roles in the demonstrations of July 11 and 12, according to relatives and human rights groups.
“He’s being accused of sedition, but Maykel never belonged to an organized group,” said his sister, Elaine Rodríguez, who lives in Miami. “He’d never previously taken part in any protests — ever.”
The demonstrations were the biggest in Cuba in decades, a national brushfire of anger fanned by messages and videos on social media, which has flourished in recent years. Human rights groups say the government is now holding mass trials and seeking harsh penalties in an effort to deter further unrest.
Joseph Gonzalez, a professor of Cuban history at Appalachian State University, noted that the country did not experience such demonstrations even during the “Special Period” in the 1990s, when the economy withered after the demise of the Soviet Union, its benefactor.
“This is different because everyone has a cellphone,” Gonzalez said. “So this is a very unusual occasion in Cuban history, and the government knows it and wants to shut it down.”
Cuban authorities have acknowledged the legitimacy of some of the protesters’ concerns. The economy was bludgeoned by the coronavirus pandemic and a decrease in aid from socialist ally Venezuela; the gross domestic product dropped 11 percent in 2020. But authorities blamed the demonstrations on Washington-backed “counterrevolutionaries” it said were taking advantage of a crisis caused by U.S. economic sanctions.
While the demonstrations were mostly peaceful, some participants vandalized shops or vehicles. At least one person died, and several were injured.
The government has not said how many of the demonstrators were arrested or charged, and did not respond to a request for comment on the trials. The U.S.-based human rights group Cubalex says 1,373 protesters were detained, and more than 700 remain in prison.
Cuban court officials said in August that 67 people had been tried on relatively minor charges, such as public disorder. Trials that began in December have involved more serious charges, human rights groups say. By the end of this week, about 300 protesters will have gone to court in the most extensive collective trials in decades, according to the groups.
Rodríguez, who ran a small business repairing cellphones, went on trial last week with 20 other people who had joined the demonstration in Holguin, his sister said. He was accused of throwing a rock that hit a police officer in the stomach, she said. He has denied the accusation, she said — he told his family he simply joined people chanting “We want change.”
Elaine Rodríguez said she does not understand why her brother was charged with sedition. “The lawyer said that these are measures aimed at serving as an example to others.”
The ruling is expected on Feb. 11, she said. Her account, like those of other relatives, could not be independently confirmed.
Eloy Bárbaro Cardoso, an 18-year-old student, was also swept up in the demonstrations. His mother, Servilia Pedroso, said he was leaving his grandmother’s house in Havana’s poor La Guinera neighborhood on July 12 when he ran into a crowd protesting the lack of food and medicine. The teenager was detained several days later, accused of public disorder, and freed after paying a fine of 2,000 Cuban pesos — around $83 — his mother said.
But in September, she said, he was detained again on additional charges, including sedition. At his trial last week, authorities played a video showing Eloy in the midst of a crowd, throwing stones. Prosecutors initially asked for a 15-year sentence, his mother said, but reduced that to seven years due to the youth’s age. The ruling is expected within weeks.
Pedroso said other parents are afraid to speak out. “I can’t be afraid if this involves my son, I can’t be afraid if he’s going to spend seven years in prison,” she said. “It’s not fair. Everyone speaks well of my son.”
Juan Pappier, a senior Americas researcher at Human Rights Watch, said most of the defendants judged so far have been found guilty. “The crimes are very broadly defined,” he said, including sedition, which includes the use of violence to “disturb the socialist order” or impede government actions. “And the penalties are grossly disproportionate.”
Cuban officials say they respect the rights of all of the detained protesters.
The government is facing one of its greatest crises since the triumph of Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1959. The pandemic virtually shut down tourism, a mainstay of the economy. Inflation is soaring amid a shortage of imported goods and a monetary reform that effectively devalued the Cuban peso.
Further squeezing the economy are sanctions imposed by the Trump administration, including restrictions on flights to Cuba and limits on remittances. President Biden had pledged to return to the Obama administration’s policy of engagement with the island, but has held off, due in part to concerns about the crackdown on the July protests.
Emilio Román said his two sons joined the demonstrations in Havana spontaneously. He watched in anguish this week as they went on trial for sedition. Emiyoslan, 18, and Yosney Emilio, 25, face possible sentences of 15 and 20 years, the father said. His third child, a 24-year-old daughter, is awaiting trial.
The children are “the part of my life that I live for, that I die for,” he said. “For them, I wake up every morning, and fight for their freedom.”