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Cuban Court Fines Man for Act of Civil Disobedience

Prosecutors in Cienfuegos wanted jail term for defendant who blocked road to stop pollution from cement company trucks.
By Alejandro Tur Valladares
  • Elio Rojas Sabina shortly after his arrest. (Photo: Alejandro Tur Valladares)
    Elio Rojas Sabina shortly after his arrest. (Photo: Alejandro Tur Valladares)
  • Dust cloud caused by passing trucks in Guabero. (Photo: Alejandro Tur Valladares)
    Dust cloud caused by passing trucks in Guabero. (Photo: Alejandro Tur Valladares)

A military tribunal in the Cuban city of Cienfuegos has fined a local man for blocking a road with rocks to stop trucks from a nearby cement plant driving past his home and kicking up clouds of dust. 

In a one-day trial on June 25, judges found Elio Rojas Sabina guilty of defying authority and resisting the police, but rejected a prosecution request for a two-year jail term. Instead, they imposed a fine of 600 pesos, about 25 US dollars, more than the average monthly wage in Cuba.

At about nine in the evening of February 3 this year, Rojas returned to his home in the rural community of Guabairo, 20 kilometres from Cienfuegos, after finishing his bartending work at the local social club. He found his 12-year-old daughter Alina Rojas Días in bed with a fever brought on by a throat infection, which the village doctor said was caused by dust from the production process at the Karl Marx Cement Plant.

Rojas could see how freight trucks from the plant churned up dust from the road, which the wind then blew directly into his house.

“I just had to do something to stop it,” Rojas said. He decided to “put large rocks in the road to make the vehicles slow down and at least alleviate some of the problem… with the job done, I went home to bed.”

According to local doctors, the thick clouds of dust from the trucks, as well as the powdered rock used in making cement, cause respiratory complaints and skin conditions among residents of the area.

That same evening, Eutelio Álvarez Domínguez, the local government chief for the area, reported the road block to the National Revolutionary Police’s Municipal Police Unit.

Rojas’s wife Marisol Sabina Mendoza said they were woken by Area Police Chief Roberto Bragado Acosta, who told her husband to clear the road because vehicles were unable to get through.

“He rudely demanded that Elio remove the rocks. My husband refused, and then [Acosta] went off, promising he’d be back with reinforcements,” she said.

Later that night, two police officers detained Rojas with Álvarez’s assistance.

Clemente Ávarez Días, a local resident, says he saw four people, including police officers, enter Rojas’s house that night, forcing the door open with a kick. Ávarez says they attacked his neighbour in a “violent and unjustifiable” manner, throwing him to the floor and handcuffing him in front of his daughter. He was only half-dressed when they took him into custody at the Municipal Police Unit.

Throughout the legal process, police have maintained that the detainee resisted arrest so they had to use force. Rojas himself says he was forcibly removed from his home and beaten for no reason.

The trial opened at nine in the morning of June 25 with testimony from the prosecution witnesses, the police officers involved in the arrest. After a rigorous cross-examination of the officers, the defence lawyer pointed out contradictions which he said called into question the veracity of their testimonies.

Judges decided to hear only one testimony for the defence case, that of Roja’s wife Marisol, and rejected other evidence which the defence lawyer regarded as vitally important, such as photos that he said showed injuries sustained by his client during the arrest. These injuries were not mentioned in the case documents which the prosecution submitted to the court.

At three in the afternoon, the judges returned from their deliberations and declared Rojas guilty of the charges against him, while replacing the prison sentence requested by prosecutors with a 600-peso fine payable in 200 instalments of three pesos.

The cement plant was launched in 1980 close to Guabairo. At the time, the government promised residents new houses outside the area to guarantee their health and safety. That promise was not delivered on, and the village has since expanded so that houses on the edge are only ten metres from the plant.

The provincial assembly awarded Cementos Cienfuegos the Quality Prize 2011 for its plant at Guabairo. The company’s official website says the prize was in recognition of its excellence in areas including “savings on energy consumption and reduction of pollution”.

Alejandro Tur Valladares is an independent journalist in Cuba.