The group began arriving at 4:30 p.m. at the marina on the 79th Street Causeway on Monday, drawn by a mysterious post on Instagram that said there would be a flotilla of boats headed for Cuba. Soon, dozens had shown up to support the mission with bottled water, flashlights and boxes of canned Chef Boyardee pasta.
“We’re going to Havana. If we have to intervene, if we have to stay, we’ll do what we have to do,” said Santiago Rivero, a local Cuban-American personality who has a following of over 93,000 on Instagram in his account, @santyogbetua. “The [U.S.] president has done nothing, supposedly. At a minimum, we want to stand at the border of what are the Havana limits.”
The group is one of several in Miami who have been moved to support Sunday’s massive demonstrations in Cuba by claiming they will go there themselves. The protests throughout the island drew thousands of people to demonstrate against the Cuban government and calling for the end of the communist regime, sparked by recent shortages in food, medicine and vaccines driven by the COVID-19 pandemic. Several videos have since surfaced showing repression of peaceful protesters from special forces on the island. Dozens have been arrested or gone missing.
In response, Cuban influencers and other social media personalities in Miami posted on Monday that they would make the 10-hour boat ride across the Florida Straits to Cuba to show their support, maybe bring some aid — and guns, just in case. Most importantly, people should offer up their boats, they said.
Rivero himself shared the post to his followers asking them to show up on Monday evening. And for several hours, the group that had proposed leaving the Pelican Harbor Marina in North Bay Village and showing up near Cuba unannounced to “see what happens” seemingly had everything — a crowd eager to send them off, ham and cheese sandwiches, speakers blasting the viral protest song “Patria y Vida.”
Everything, that is, except a boat.
“We’re not going with weapons,” Rivero said, contradicting what some posts on social media promised. “This is not some political problem or anything. Simply and plainly, it’s for whatever the police is doing in Cuba, to do it to us instead.”
Eventually, the group of about 10 committed men managed to secure an open fishing boat without a cabin, much to the glee of the crowd that had gathered, including several young children and a woman wearing hospital scrubs. And by 8:30 p.m., the leaders had confirmed several other vessels planned to go as well. The group of men, some dressed in Michael Jordan sneakers and Adidas sweatpants, would make the journey historically made in reverse by Cuban refugees for decades, into the uncertainty of the sea to seemingly confront the government some of them had fled. They used the TV cameras to spread the message and swear to their friends over text messages that the trip was serious.
The gathering attracted the attention of authorities, who showed up at one point at the parking lot of the 79th Street marina in patrol cars, a helicopter and a boat. Rivero, who had become the informal emcee of the hyped-up audience, told the cops it would be a peaceful gathering. In fact, if they managed to get on the water, for Rivero and a few others who’ve left family behind on the island, it would be a homecoming.
Close to 9 p.m., rain poured and lightning flashed. Some of the volunteers who had brought cases of water and other supplies helped move them quickly onto the dock. A few in the group who had been intent on saving their countrymen from communism ran back to their cars. It’s unclear if the rest boarded the boat. The rain blurred the horizon.
An hour or so later, Rivero broadcast the journey live on Instagram. But when he panned the horizon it was clear they were still close to the Miami coastline.