Young Cuban protester tells of arrest caught on camera

Havana (AFP) –


A dramatic AFP photo of Rolando Remedios being arrested has come to symbolize the Cuban government's crackdown on last month's unprecedented street protests.

Remedios, who was released from detention on Friday, has now spoken about his arrest and the "traumatic" experience of spending 26 days behind bars after taking part in the anti-government demonstration.

Speaking by telephone, Remedios told AFP that while his own rough treatment "didn't hurt much," it was hearing the screams of other prisoners beaten with "hoses and sticks" that shook him the most.

Protests broke out spontaneously all over the island nation on July 11 as citizens demanded freedom of expression and improved living conditions in the one-party communist state.

The 25-year-old's arrest was photographed by AFP, showing him being bundled into a police car as a plain-clothed agent grasps him around the neck.

The moment Rolando Remedios was arrested and manhandled into a police car during anti-government protests in Havana on July 11, 2021
The moment Rolando Remedios was arrested and manhandled into a police car during anti-government protests in Havana on July 11, 2021 YAMIL LAGE AFP/File

He said he learned about the protests via social media pictures of people demonstrating in the southwest of Havana and on the capital's famous Malecon beachfront promenade.

He then joined a gathering outside the parliament.

"I was arrested while trying to help a protester who was on the floor after being struck," Remedios said.

Simultaneous protests in 40 Cuban towns and cities to cries of "Down with the dictatorship" and "We're hungry" descended into clashes with security forces, leaving one dead, dozens injured and hundreds arrested.

The Cuban government blamed the unrest on foreign powers manipulating its citizens through social media.

Authorities have not revealed how many people were arrested but on Thursday the Supreme Court said 62 people had been tried, 53 for "public order" offenses.

Remedios, an online medical sciences student at the University of the People in California, says the protests took him by surprise.

"I thought this could mark the end of the system, although I knew it wouldn't end that day, but that it would be a tough blow" to the one-party state headed by President Miguel Diaz-Canel.

He said he protested because of "the government's terrible management of the health crisis" brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

He said he also wanted to show support for the nation's political prisoners and those that have died trying to "flee this nightmare."

- 'Many were beaten' -

After his arrest, Remedios was taken to a police station where he refused to give a statement.

At 4:00 am he was moved with around 50 others to another prison in the south of Havana where "the welcome was horrible."

"There were dogs, the idea was to terrorize us. Then they forced us up against a wall with our hands behind" their backs where "many were beaten."

Initially placed in isolation, apparently as a punishment for refusing to give a statement, he was then taken to a communal cell.

Rolando Remedios holds a book by Cuban idol Jose Martí
Rolando Remedios holds a book by Cuban idol Jose Martí YAMIL LAGE AFP

"It was a traumatic night ... because I felt totally impotent and there were lots of screams and the sounds of hoses and sticks beating bodies one after another, it was painful."

He was locked up without outdoor exercise before he was transferred two weeks later to another prison where he had to ask his parents for a bucket to wash as there was no running water.

His family was waiting for him outside the prison when he was released.

"They didn't tell me if it was a conditional release. Neither me nor my lawyer know what action was taken" against him, Remedios said nervously.

Despite the fear that telling his story could come back to haunt him, he said the protests were "historic," "necessary" and "could mark a before and after" in Cuba's 70-year communist rule.