Alleged witness asks Florida friend to let world know police brutality followed Havana protest

MIAMI – Vito LaNave said his friend in Cuba was panicking. The South Florida resident said his friend in Havana sent him text messages asking him to tell friends in Miami that Cuban police officers were arresting, beating, and killing unarmed civilians.

LaNave, an 81-year-old New Yorker of Italian descent, said he made many Cuban friends while he was a member of an organization in Hialeah. He learned how to use an encrypted app to stay in touch with those who went back to Havana to be with family.

Cuban officials did not report the alleged violence during a Monday news conference. On Sunday night, LaNave received text messages from a friend in Havana.

“My life and my family’s could be at risk ... Things are getting out of hand here,” his friend wrote, later adding, “I have video of the government killing civilians ... Please, they’re killing us.”

LaNave shared two videos he said were from witnesses of police brutality. He said witnesses who didn’t participate in the protests were afraid to go public. LaNave said he told his friend to stay home and avoid speaking English because he could be wrongly accused of working for the U.S. government.

“It’s real bad. He is never in that much panic ... He said he witnessed a couple of people being shot,” LaNave said. “He said a policeman shot somebody in the head.”

LaNave said there are more witness videos, but since the Cuban government disrupted internet connections it has been impossible to “smuggle out the videos.” Patrick Oppmann, CNN’s Havana-based correspondent, said locals know the government shuts down the internet to shut up critics, but Cuban officials haven’t talked about the tactic.

Andy Gomez, a retired professor of Cuban studies at the University of Miami, and other experts said the government’s repression after the protest is not surprising.

“They don’t want the images that we saw yesterday being shown around the world,” said Gomez, the former dean of international studies at UM.

LaNave said his friend in Havana also told him that he is pretty certain there are foreign nationals working with Cuban police. He told him there are witnesses who said some of the officers who were dressed as civilians had “strong” accents.

“Russians! He saw how they looked! He said it sounded like they were Russian,” LaNave said.

Orlando Gutiérrez-Boronat, of the Cuban Democratic Directorate, a Miami-based organization that advocates for democracy in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, said he fears Russians and Chinese agents will help Cuban police officers enforce a violent crackdown.

“We are asking for the international community led by the United States to intervene, to protect the Cuban people from a bloodbath,” Gutiérrez-Boronat said during a news conference Monday in Miami-Dade County.

Gomez and Michael Bustamante, an assistant professor of Latin American history at Florida International University, agreed with Gutiérrez-Boronat, who earned a doctorate from UM on the philosophy of international studies.

“It seems difficult, or unlikely on the surface that things would continue at kind of the pace they did yesterday given that government security forces are clearly out in force,” Bustamante said.

LaNave said the violence and fear his friends are experiencing needs a response from Americans who care about human rights. He said Cuba has a special place in his heart.

“Havana was the paradise of North America in the late 1950s,” LaNave said.

Before communism took hold, LaNave said he and his friends used to take a bus from New York to Florida. He said they traveled to Key West where they would hop on a ferry to enjoy the nightlife in Havana.

“Out of Key West, there were two or three ferry boats. You would drive your car right onto the ferry and when you got to Cuba you drove it off,” LaNave said. “Everybody went to the Tropicana. It was loaded with Americans and Europeans. It’s was like Las Vegas.”

LaNave said he traveled to Cuba again when Americans were allowed back to the island. His friends had warned him the glitz had faded and the patina had turned into ruin. Still, he said he was shocked to see how empty the stores were.

“I saw the desperation in people’s faces,” said LaNave, who has a practice as a life coach.

LaNave said he met his Cuban friends’ relatives. He said he met an underpaid surgeon who was going to work on a bicycle and a physician who was hitchhiking to work. He has thought about them during the coronavirus pandemic.

“It was a shame the amount of suffering and pain that these people were at because they wouldn’t even look you in the eye,” LaNave said, adding it was alarming to think that the situation had gotten any worst.

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For more about the situation in Cuba, visit the Local 10 News’ “en español” page.

About the Authors:

In January 2017, Hatzel Vela became the first local television journalist in the country to move to Cuba and cover the island from the inside. During his time living and working in Cuba, he covered some of the most significant stories in a post-Fidel Castro Cuba. 

The Emmy Award-winning journalist joined the Local 10 News team in 2013. She wrote for the Miami Herald for more than 9 years and won a Green Eyeshade Award.