Havana, Cuba – On June 9, Amelia Calzadilla, a 33-year-old mother of three, posted a video on Facebook. It was an impulsive decision that would turn her into one of Cuba’s most prominent new dissidents.
“I was never interested in being famous, in being an influencer or a journalist. I’m interested in telling the truth,” she said. Now Calzadilla is in a public battle with the Cuban government, which has been trying to censor her for months.
She has become part of a rising force in Cuba’s political resistance: mothers who publicize their daily struggles as the country grapples with one of the worst economic crises in recent memory.
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 a government natural gas supply, and the bill for her electric stove was more than her monthly salary.
“I exploded on social media because there was no formal way to make complaints to anyone who could possibly help,” she said.
Her video took off, gaining tens of thousands of likes in the first 24 hours online.
Calzadilla began sharing more videos with openly anti-government perspectives on Cuba’s deteriorating living conditions. It was a risky thing to do: expressing dissent can not only be taboo, but also illegal on the island.
Now Calzadilla combines activism with the care of three children and 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 Cuban Revolution of 1959. But the government reacted harshly and human rights groups estimate that 1,400 people were eventually arrested, many of them young men.
Hundreds have since been sentenced to 30 years in prison. Many of the island’s most visible dissidents have been arrested or fled.
But in recent island-wide protests, 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, you can often see matriarchs leading protests through the streets, sometimes banging pots and pans for hours until electricity is available again. Local media has reported that more than 30 such protests have taken place in small towns in recent weeks.
Economic reforms, coupled with the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, a decline in foreign tourism and the ongoing US embargo, have left the Cuban economy in deep trouble. The country is plagued by shortages of basic necessities such as food, medicine and fuel, and the median salary in Cuba is roughly equivalent to $19 a month.
Calzadilla sees the country’s struggles reflected in her household. “If a mother has a problem, it’s Cuba’s problem, even if it doesn’t affect everyone personally,” she said.
Previously, Calzadilla explained, she was an outspoken defender of Cuban-style communism. She even worked for the Cuban government at the Ministry of the Interior after graduating from the University of Havana. But the changes she observed in her country spurred her to action, she said.
“Now the areas of agriculture, public health, housing and basic goods are in complete crisis and need restructuring, which is not happening,” Calzadilla said.
She said she believes officials are more interested in keeping up appearances than dealing with Cuba’s economic crisis: “I no longer believe they have the awareness or the preparation needed to solve these problems.”
So Calzadilla has taken it upon herself to make dozens of videos and write posts detailing 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 broadcasting allegations on national television that she is a contractor for the US Central Intelligence Agency, citing remittances she has received from the US.
However, a quarter of Cuban households receive remittances from the US, mostly from relatives. Calzadilla explained that she depends on the support of her family in the US to provide food and clothing for her children.
Calzadilla admits she’s been afraid of a mock trial and being thrown in jail ever since, but the fear doesn’t stop her.
“It’s like the fear of losing your job for everyone in a capitalist country,” she said, brushing it off as an everyday fear.
According to Elva Orozco Mendoza, a professor of political science at the University of Connecticut, mothers like Calzadilla have been important figureheads of resistance movements throughout Latin America, particularly in Mexico and Argentina.
“Mothers feel the effects that certain government policies or inaction can have on their children,” she explained. That, in turn, spurs the women into action, and their participation can serve as powerful symbols for protest movements.
“This larger history of mothers standing against injustice also legitimizes their direction,” said Orozco Mendoza. “The public in general tends to think their fight is legitimate.”
Elizabeth Leon is one of the mothers in Cuba who was inspired to speak out against what she sees as government injustice. On July 11, 2021, Leon, who is in her 50s, heard screams erupt in her street, so she walked out and joined a protest in her neighborhood.
One of her sons videotaped what happened next: a police officer hit her repeatedly with a baton, causing her to fall to the ground. Leon’s three adult sons stepped in to defend her, but they too were beaten.
That evening they took pictures of their bloodstained 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 put it online to prove it was real,” she said.
The next morning, the police went door to door and detained dozens of people. They arrested all four of Leon’s sons.
One, Adonis, hadn’t even been to the protest. Leon was able to prove he was elsewhere, but it took 52 days to secure his release.
However, her two youngest sons were sentenced to eight and 10 years in prison last March. One of them, Frandy Leon, has a learning disability. At the age of 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 is in prison awaiting sentencing – but that would mean the two youngest brothers would be caught under the bus. thrown and possibly extend their sentence.
Leon decided to share her predicament online, as well as through local underground journalistic collectives, in an effort to raise awareness and free the three sons who are still trapped. She also uses Facebook to post videos and updates on her sons’ affairs.
Each son has two or three young children, and Leon’s extended family has struggled with three less salaries to rely on. Adonis and the inmates’ girlfriends are now raising their children together in Leon’s house, which is bursting at the seams.
Almost all the furniture is ripped and leaking stuffing. The staircase at the entrance has crumbled, leaving the only way into the residence by a rickety wooden ladder. And several walls have fallen, replaced with plastic sheeting to protect the rooms from rain.
During meals, the children eat first and the adults eat the leftovers. The family’s allocation of bread, milk powder and rice, provided by the government, is not enough to feed even the youngest children. Leon has started selling items from her house to buy packs of hot dogs.
“I had no choice but to turn to online activism, even if it could hurt my cause,” Leon said. “They punish us for living – for living and having nothing.”
In her grief, Leon consulted a Santería religious leader and built an altar at the entrance of the house, with plastic dolls and old photographs intended to bring positive transformations to the lives of those inside.
“Right now I’ll do anything,” she said, turning to the group of children behind her and preparing their lunch: milk and sandwiches.
A few hours later, when the electricity went out again, Leon was back on the street, back where it all began, banging her pots and pans.