Mothers emerge as leaders in Cuban resistance movement
Matriarchs are often seen leading protests on the Caribbean island beset by widespread discontent and economic hardships.
Havana, Cuba – On June 9, Amelia Calzadilla, a 33-year-old mother of three, posted a video to Facebook. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision that would transform her into one of Cuba’s most prominent new dissidents.
“I never had any interest in being famous, in being an influencer or a journalist. I’m interested in telling the truth,” she said. Now, Calzadilla is involved in a public battle with the Cuban government, which has been trying to censor her for months.
She has become part of an emerging force in Cuba’s political resistance: mothers who are making their daily struggles known as the country contends with one of its worst economic crises in recent history.
In the video, Calzadilla makes a simple request: She asks local authorities to run a gas line to her block. Her family lives in one of the few areas in Havana without government-provided natural gas service, and the bill for her electric stove had shot higher than her monthly salary.
“I exploded on social media because there was no formal way to submit complaints to anyone who could possibly help,” she said.
Her video took off, getting tens of thousands of likes in its first 24 hours online.
Calzadilla began sharing more videos with openly anti-government perspectives about Cuba’s worsening living conditions. It was a risky thing to do: Voicing dissent can not only be taboo but illegal on the island.
Now, Calzadilla juggles activism on top of caring for three children and working a job in the island’s struggling tourism industry.
Women like Calzadilla are increasingly filling a void in Cuba’s opposition movement. In 2021, the country experienced historic protests on a scale not seen since the 1959 Cuban Revolution. But the government responded with a crackdown, and human rights groups estimate 1,400 people were ultimately arrested, many of them young men.
Hundreds have since been sentenced to up to 30 years of prison time. Many of the island’s most visible dissidents have either been arrested or have fled.
But in recent protests across the island, mothers unable to feed their children have blocked highways with human chains, holding hands with their children and each other.
And during the country’s frequent blackouts, matriarchs are often seen leading protests through the streets, banging pots and pans sometimes for hours until the electricity resumes. Local media have reported that more than 30 such protests have occurred in small towns over the past several weeks.
Economic reforms, coupled with the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic, a decrease in foreign tourism and the continued US embargo, have left Cuba’s economy in dire straits. The country is plagued by shortages of basic supplies like food, medicine and fuel, and the median salary in Cuba roughly equates to $19 a month.
Calzadilla sees the country’s struggles mirrored in her household. “If a mother has a problem, that’s Cuba’s problem, even if it isn’t affecting everyone personally,” she said.
Previously, Calzadilla explained, she was a vocal defender of Cuban-style communism. She even worked for the Cuban government in the Ministry of the Interior after graduating from the University of Havana. But the changes she observed in her country have spurred her to action, she said.
“Now, the areas of agriculture, public health, housing and basic goods are in complete crisis, in need of restructuring that isn’t happening,” Calzadilla said.
She said she believes officials are more interested in keeping up appearances than addressing Cuba’s economic crisis: “I no longer believe they have the consciousness or preparation necessary to resolve these issues.”
So Calzadilla has taken it upon herself to make dozens of videos and write posts outlining how she believes the current government has mismanaged the country’s finances.
The Cuban government has responded to the popularity of Calzadilla’s Facebook videos by spreading allegations on national television that she is a contractor for the United States Central Intelligence Agency, citing remittances she received from the US.
A quarter of Cuban households, however, receive remittances from the US, mostly from relatives. Calzadilla explained that she relies on support from her family in the US to provide food and clothing for her children.
Calzadilla admits that she has since been afraid of facing a sham trial and being thrown in prison, but the fear does not inhibit her.
“It’s like the fear of losing your job for anyone in a capitalist country,” she said, brushing it off as a commonplace anxiety.
Mothers like Calzadilla have been important figureheads in resistance movements across Latin America, particularly in Mexico and Argentina, according to Elva Orozco Mendoza, a political science professor at the University of Connecticut.
“Mothers feel the effects that certain policies or certain government inaction might have on their children,” she explained. That, in turn, prompts the women to act, and their participation can serve as powerful symbols to protest movements.
“This larger history of mothers resisting injustice also legitimises their direction,” Orozco Mendoza said. “The public in general tends to think their struggle is legitimate.”
Elizabeth Leon is among the mothers in Cuba inspired to speak out against what she sees as government injustices. On July 11, 2021, Leon, who is in her 50s, heard shouts erupting on her street, so she walked outside and joined a protest in her neighbourhood.
One of her sons took a video of what happened next: A police officer struck her repeatedly with a baton, knocking her to the ground. Leon’s three adult sons intervened to defend her, but they ended up beaten too.
That evening, they took photos of their blood-stained faces, arms and chests. Leon said her shoulder was knocked out of place by the officer’s baton and remains sore to this day.
“We documented everything and posted it online just to prove that it was real,” she said.
The next morning, police went door to door, detaining dozens of people. They arrested all four of Leon’s sons.
One, Adonis, had not even been at the protest. Leon was able to prove he was elsewhere, but it took 52 days to secure his release.
Her two youngest sons, however, were sentenced in March last year to eight and 10 years in prison. One of them, Frandy Leon, struggles with a learning disability. At age 27, he is functionally illiterate.
Leon’s lawyer told her there was a chance she could fight for the release of her eldest son, José Antonio — who sits in jail, awaiting sentencing — but it would mean throwing the two youngest brothers under the bus, possibly extending their sentences.
Leon decided to share her predicament online, as well as through local underground journalism collectives, in a bid to raise awareness and free the three sons who remain incarcerated. She also uses Facebook to post videos and updates about her sons’ cases.
Each son has two or three young children, and Leon’s extended family has suffered with three fewer salaries to rely on. Adonis and the girlfriends of those in prison now raise their children together in Leon’s house, which is falling apart at the seams.
Nearly all of the furniture is ripped and leaking stuffing. The stairs at the entrance have crumbled, making the only way to enter the home a rickety wooden ladder. And several walls have fallen away, replaced with plastic sheets to shield the rooms from rain.
At mealtimes, the kids eat first, and the adults make due with the leftovers. The family’s allotment of bread, powdered milk and rice, provided through the government, is not enough to keep even the youngest children fed. Leon has begun to sell off items from her home to buy packets of hot dogs.
“I had no choice but to turn to online activism even though it could hurt my case,” Leon said. “They’re punishing us for living — for living and having nothing.”
In her grief, Leon has consulted a santería religious leader and constructed an altar near the entryway of the home, featuring plastic dolls and old photographs meant to bring positive transformations to the lives of those within.
“I’ll do anything at this point,” she said as she turned to the huddle of children behind her and attended to their lunch: milk with bread rolls.
Several hours later, when the electricity would go out once more, Leon would be out on the street again, back where everything began, banging her pots and pans.