Cuba protests reach South Florida with drama and questions. ‘Where does this go from here?’

South Florida Sun Sentinel

Jul 12, 2021 7:11 PM

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Widespread protests Sunday in Cuba ripped open a festering wound in South Florida, with Cuban Americans and others wondering, once again, if the brutal, decades-long dictatorship might finally crumble, what the U.S. should do to help the island nation’s people and accelerate the path to freedom, and how family and friends are affected.

Visually the protests were dramatic, and set off an outpouring of passion across Cuba — and in the U.S.

But no one knows what will come from the powerful protests. Amid a dearth of reliable information, rumors were rampant.

Michael Bustamante, an assistant professor of Latin American History at Florida International University said the impact of the protests “are still in many ways to be determined. Does this continue? Does it not? The government very much has a monopoly on force. I would be surprised in a way if they continued at the same level of intensity as they did [on Sunday],” he said.

Bustamante said a surprising and inspirational element to the protests was that they seemed spontaneous.

“This wasn’t coming out of a kind of organized political opposition movement,” he said. “This started with just everyday people. This is a kind of leaderless phenomenon. Which is not good or bad but sort of raises the question: Where does this go from here?”

“The protests [Sunday] were the biggest anti-government protests we’ve seen in Cuba ever, certainly in 30 years. It was remarkable the way in which they were not concentrated in just one place or one town,” Bustamante said. “They extended across the island in a lot of different places and were kind of being spread by social media.”

Internet outages were reported in Cuba on Monday, suggesting the suggesting the government is trying to tamp down the medium used to spread word of the protests. Large contingents of police were reported in Havana on Monday.

The current protests come at a time of “great difficulty” for the Cuban government because of its own policies, the impact of U.S. sanctions, and the challenges posted by the COVID-19 pandemic, said Bustamante, who specializes in modern Cuba and Cuban America.

“Cubans are tired,” said Alina Calero, former president of the Cuban American Club in Palm Beach County. “It is not easy. They do not have weapons, they only have hearts, hunger, diseases, and they are suffering a lot. … They don’t even have any fever-reducing medicine. I think [the protest] is the best they have been able to do.”

Hungry and lacking medicine, Calero said, “Cubans have been filled with courage. And I think lives are going to be lost, but it’s the only way they can get to freedom.”

Other activists said the pandemic exacerbated longstanding problems.

“There is a lot of abuse of power and a lot of ineptitude and corruption on the part of a dictatorship that is not willing to listen to the people, that when there is a manifestation of discontent, the government says that is something instigated by Washington as if the people had no right to protest,” said Ramon Saúl Sánchez, 67, born in Colon, Matanzas, and a Miami resident.

“The pandemic has made things worse, but also the way the dictatorship has handled the pandemic,” said Sánchez, an activist for the Movimiento Democracia (Democracy for Cuba Movement) which has organized “flotillas” since 1992 that have been stationed off the coast of Cuba to protest the Cuban government.

The reaction in the U.S. was immediate and broad.

  • Demonstrators gathered in support of the Cuban protesters at Versailles Restaurant in Little Havana, the iconic site for political expression in the South Florida Cuban community, and in West Palm Beach.
  • Another demonstration is planned for Tuesday afternoon at Tamiami Park in Miami. An Instagram post suggested an armada might head from Miami to Cuba Monday evening.
  • Support for the Cuban people came from many quarters. On Monday, the Miami Marlins tweeted the hashtag #SOSCuba, along with an image of a Cuban flag and the declaration “Patria Y Vida” which means “homeland and life.”
  • Music producer Emilio Estefan sent a message of solidarity and hope to Cubans in Cuba via Instagram. Estefan also released “Libertad,” a powerful, dramatic new song, in effect an anthem in support of the Cuban people. “Cuba is on the street and Miami is on the street (Si Cuba está en la calle, Miami está en la calle). The world has to know our pain and what Cuba has gone through. And this is the moment we’ve been waiting for so long. A light of hope for our country that has suffered so much. Long live free Cuba.”
  • Public officials across the political spectrum, from mayors to the president, condemned the Cuban government and expressed solidarity with its people. “The Cuban people are demanding their freedom from an authoritarian regime. I don’t think we’ve seen anything like these protests in a long, long time if, quite frankly ever,” President Joe Biden told reporters at the White House on Monday. “The US stands firmly with the people of Cuba as they assert their universal rights. And we call on the government of Cuba to refrain from violence in their attempt to silence the voices of the people of Cuba.”
  • The mayors of Doral, Hialeah, Hialeah Gardens and Miami Lakes issued a statement calling for U.S. intervention. “This tyrant dictatorship needs to know that the United States will not stand by while they abuse and kill innocent people in the streets. We must send a strong united message that bloodshed will not be tolerated. We ask that our nation intervenes to help the Cuban people break the chains that have kept them in shackles for so many years,” the four mayors wrote.

Especially heated rhetoric coming from South Florida — such as suggestions that the U.S. use the occasion to intervene militarily — could end up hurting the movement by giving the Cuban government a propaganda advantage and claim the protest movement comes from outside the country.

Initially, the Cuban government was somewhat cautious in the way it describes the protesters. “They’re having to confront the reality that you can’t just attribute this to something that is cooked up in Washington or Miami,” Bustamante said. “The reaction on this side needs to avoid providing a pretext for that kind of an accusation.”

For decades, the trade embargo on Cuba was supported by presidents of both parties. Restrictions were loosened by former President Barack Obama, tightened by former President Donald Trump — and kept strict under Biden.

Bustamante said there had been rumblings in the last week or so that the Biden Administration was going to consider unwinding some of Trump’s tightening of travel and remittances to Cuba, which he said have affected the Cuban people.

The president declined to respond to questions about possible changes in policy toward Cuba or about whether the U.S. would send troops to Haiti. “We are going to have more to say on Cuba and Haiti,” he said. “Stay tuned.”

The latest developments may make it politically problematic for Biden to make any moves that critics will claim are signs of softness toward Cuba.

“What’s the upside of touching Cuba policy? Politically, it seems to be a loser,” Bustamante said, calling that “deeply concerning because foreign policy should not be about domestic politics, but of course it is — especially about this issue and especially in South Florida.”

Cuban exiles rally at Versailles restaurant in Miami's Little Havana in support of protesters in Cuba as thousands of Cubans took to the streets in rare protests on Sunday to complain about a lack of freedom and a worsening economic situation.

Cuban exiles rally at Versailles restaurant in Miami’s Little Havana in support of protesters in Cuba as thousands of Cubans took to the streets in rare protests on Sunday to complain about a lack of freedom and a worsening economic situation. (Pedro Portal/AP)

Sunday’s developments produced immediate reactions from Florida elected officials of both political parties. Cuban American and non-Cuban officials expressed support for the Cuban people and condemned, as they always have, the nation’s dictatorship.

“We have NEVER seen a day like today in #Cuba 62 years of misery, repression & lies boiling over into organic, grassroots protests in over 32 cities,” U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R- Fla., wrote on Twitter.

His Twitter feed — he posted or reposted about 70 times from about 2:30 p.m. Sunday through 3:30 p.m. Monday — was filled with news and videos from the island, an analysis about what’s going on there, and U.S. policy. Cuba policy has long been a top issue for Rubio, whose parents emigrated to the U.S. from Cuba in 1956, about 2½ years before the late Fidel Castro came to power.

“We stand in solidarity with the thousands of peaceful protestors throughout Cuba who have risen up to challenge the repressive dictatorship,” U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Broward/Miami-Dade County Democrat, wrote on Twitter. “We will support the Cuban people’s demands for basic freedoms, including the freedom of speech, assembly, and ability to choose their own leaders. May their courage creating this historic moment bring about real change and a future of #PatriaYVida.”

“Patria y Vida,” a rap song that’s gone viral since its posting earlier this year, is a protest anthem aimed at the Cuban regime.

It’s a dicey political issue in South Florida, where older Cuban Americans have generally been reliable supporters of Republican candidates, especially in Miami-Dade County.

Republican politicians have sought to brand themselves as the true champions of freedom in Cuba, often successfully out-maneuvering Democrats on the subject, even though Florida Democrats have generally been as hardline on Cuba as Republicans.

In 2020, Cuba and Venezuela were a subtext as the presidential campaign played out in Florida. Republicans painted Biden and Democrats as socialists, and despite Democrats saying that wasn’t true, the conventional wisdom is that the message resonated with significant pockets of voters.

The messaging paid off for Republicans in heavily Cuban-American Miami-Dade County.

Biden received a majority of the vote in Miami-Dade County, 53.3%, but Trump’s 46% was a dramatic improvement from 2016, when he received 33.8% of the vote. The share of the vote for Biden was a big decline from Hillary Clinton’s 63.2% in 2016.

Bustamante called that a “far too simplistic read of why the Democrats did so poorly in the communities and places they did.”

Besides expressing support for the Cuban people’s struggle, several Republican officials attacked Biden.

On Monday, Biden issued a statement in which he said the U.S. “stand[s] with the Cuban people and their clarion call for freedom and relief from the tragic grip of the pandemic and from the decades of repression and economic suffering to which they have been subjected by Cuba’s authoritarian regime. The Cuban people are bravely asserting fundamental and universal rights. Those rights, including the right of peaceful protest and the right to freely determine their own future, must be respected. The United States calls on the Cuban regime to hear their people and serve their needs at this vital moment rather than enriching themselves.”

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U.S. Rep. Carlos Gimenez, R-Miami, asserted in a Twitter post that Biden was “carefully avoiding the word ‘communism’ in describing the Cuban regime.” He said the U.S. “needs to make it clear that the evils of communism have brought nothing but poverty, misery, and death.”

And Rubio tweeted an image of Biden’s statement, adding the words “socialism and communism” and telling the president, “you forgot something.”

Later, Rubio was somewhat more conciliatory in a letter to Biden. Rubio thanked the president “for recognizing these heroic protests as a ‘clarion call of freedom’” — before giving Biden a list of things he wants the president to do, including things that won’t happen, like promising Trump policies will remain in place.

Rubio’s other requests include:

  • Warning the Cuban regime that “any effort to encourage mass migration will be viewed and treated as a hostile action against the United States.”
  • Pushing for “open and free” satellite internet access in Cuba.
  • Providing COVID-19 vaccines and other humanitarian assistance to the Cuban people, but only via independent international organizations, not the Cuban government.

Views on embargo

Cuban Americans in Miami-Dade County have broad agreement on the decades-long U.S. trade embargo limiting U.S. economic activities in Cuba, which was an attempt to squeeze the Cuban regime.

Few think it’s worked. But many want it to continue.

A total of 44% of people surveyed in a 2020 Florida International University Cuba poll said the embargo hasn’t worked at all and 27% said it hasn’t worked very well.

Just 19% said it worked well and 10% said it worked very well.

Yet, even though seven in 10 said the embargo hasn’t worked, 60% in the 2020 poll favor continuing it.

Overall support for the embargo has declined significantly over time. A far higher share — 78% — favored continuing the embargo in 1997. Still, support for continuation has increased since a low of 34% in 2016.

The question produces one of the biggest divides within the Cuban American community.

Among people who migrated to the U.S. before 1995, 68% favor continuing it. Among people who’ve come since 1995, 56% want to continue the embargo.

Those not born in Cuba are evenly split, with 49% wanting to continue the embargo and 50% opposed. Also, the intensity of support for continuing the embargo is much stronger among those born in Cuba than among those who weren’t born there.

The 2020 FIU Cuba Poll surveyed 1,002 Cuban Americans living in Miami Dade County from July 7 to Aug. 17, 2020.

Interviews were conducted in Spanish and English, on landlines and cellphones.

The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. It’s been conducted periodically since 1991, with many of the same questions asked in poll after poll so trends can be seen over time.

Florida International University FIU’s Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs

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