Friday, March 23, 2007

night of decision

Habana 3/23 -- It is past midnight and the political battles continue in Cuba's capital city. I have returned to the office after an hour on the streets watching the ebb and flow of rival groups along the Malecon and other major thoroughfares. News of president Raúl Castro's heavy-handed cleansing of government leadership has spread quickly. The reported purges seem to have bolstered the ranks of reform-minded opponents, who number in the hundreds, if not thousands. But the police are also out in force, blocking parades of torch-carrying demonstrators as they move toward the zocolo and the center of the city.

Just moments ago, a skirmish broke out as demonstrators, many of them carrying pro-democracy banners and placards tried to outflank a riot squad blocking access to the Prado. The police, carrying rubber truncheons and shields waded into a group of 20 or so demonstrators, swinging their clubs randomly. Several demonstrators were hauled away screaming, while others were left bleeding on the cobblestones. One lay alarmingly still. The demonstrators retreated, but continued to shout anti-Castro slogans. "Castro, no, democracy si!"

Opponents of the government are not alone in demonstrating their views. Die-hard loyalists have also taken to the streets and reportedly have cordoned off several blocks in the old city. Crackling sounds can be heard in the area of the Almendares River, possibly gunfire, or perhaps lingering reports of celebratory fireworks.

At one point near my office building, the milling groups had reached a kind of standoff and I was able to speak directly to one of the armed policemen. "We are simply trying to maintain order," he said. "We don't want rival groups confronting each other."

I've returned to the office to catch my breath and to give myself a moment for reflection. But I know I have to go back out, however risky it may seem. History is being written in Havana and history is often an irresistible siren. This is a rare opportunity to witness dramatic and significant events. I find myself drawn to it, perhaps even drawn into it.

P.S. -- I had another phone call from Jorge. His unit was departing for Santiago. He has been issued live ammunition. His last words before he hung up were: "We are in a battle for Cuba's soul."

havana hombre

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