Stunned and shaken by islandwide street protests Sunday, Cuba's communist regime sought on Monday to deflect responsibility for the causes of political "dissatisfaction" while Cuban Americans hoped this round of unrest will lead to a long-desired change in government.
"Let's hope this is finally the moment so many of us have been waiting for," said Luis Obregon of Royal Palm Beach, Florida. "I'm optimistic."
Obregon said he drove from his home to Miami's Little Havana on Sunday to rally in support of demonstrators in Cuba.
"You can only step on people for so long before they defend themselves," said Obregon, who came to the United States in 1985. "People had nothing to eat, no way to lead a better life when I was there and nothing has changed. It's time for a change. Been time."
COVID-19, food and power shortages triggered Cuba unrest
That was a common sentiment expressed across Cuba – and Florida – Sunday as thousands of people took to the streets in the Caribbean nation to demand change. The spark was a weekend of bad news in Cuba's failing battle against COVID-19 – which included record numbers of infections and deaths.
In addition, the island nation's 11 million people have been suffering through daily, prolonged power outages amid a summer heat wave. And long-standing shortages for everything from food to medications.
Across Cuba, protesters chanted "Libertad", Spanish for "freedom," and “Patria y vida” – a play on “Patria o muerte,” "Fatherland or death" – the closing exclamatory for the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro's speeches.
The “Patria y vida” chant has become the battle cry for many younger Cubans demanding change on the island. It was popularized in a protest song recorded by a group of popular musicians in Cuba led by Orishas band rapper Yotuel Romero.
The song's lyrics condemn a history of repression on the island: “We are artists; we are sensitivity, the true story, not the badly told one. We are the dignity of a people trampled at gunpoint and by words that still mean nothing.”
Those themes were megaphoned in solidarity rallies across Florida on Sunday.
In West Palm Beach on Sunday, Cuban exiles gathered for a solidarity demonstration on the corner of Military Trail and Forest Hill Boulevard. They waved Cuban flags before the passing traffic and hoisted signs that read “Cubans are dying!”
At Tropical Bakery, a West Palm Beach Cuban institution for nearly 32 years, server Lauren Camacho, 23, said Monday she was monitoring the protests on the island with particular anxiety. Most of her immediate family remains in her native Villa Clara province, which she left three years ago to seek out a better life in Palm Beach County.
“My husband found out his brother was arrested for protesting in the street. Nobody knows where he is. They’ve made him disappear,” says Camacho, who lives here with her husband and their 8-month-old daughter.
The reports she hears from her mother, father, brothers and other relatives on the island paint a grim picture of Cuba, she says.
“Things are horribly difficult in our Cuba. Children are convulsing at hospitals because there are no resources," she added. "People are dying of common flus and other illnesses. There’s no food. The only ones that have food are those in power. There are daily power outages."
She said the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a lot of failures by "those in power" that the population is paying dearly for right now.
“Some might blame it on the coronavirus but this was happening way before that," she said. "It’s just coming to light now.”
Others worried that the government would violently repress the protests.
“I’m worried about bloodshed, but I’m cautiously optimistic. One would hope that goodness and democracy will ultimately prevail,” says Maribel Alvarez, the Cuban-born president of Altima International, a West Palm Beach public relations firm with a solid Palm Beach clientele. “These people have had enough violence, repression, lack of basic medical and the complete disregard for the most fundamental human rights.”
Cuba's communist leadership blames U.S. embargo
In Havana, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel on Monday held a choreographed press conference with state media representatives to address national frustrations he said were being manipulated by "social media influencers" and "YouTubers" to undermine the revolution.
Díaz-Canel sat at a rectangular conference table with other officials from government and industry where they discussed efforts to alleviate electric blackouts, the dearth of medications, food shortages and the rise in COVID-19 infections and deaths.
Díaz-Canel, who assumed the reins of the 61-year-old communist revolution when Raúl Castro retired, blamed the country's woes on the U.S. economic embargo.
"All those issues that are present in our society as sources of dissatisfaction, what is their origin? What is the cause of them? It's the blockade," he said.
Frustrating for some exiles to watch Cuba protests from afar
Mario Chaoui, 42, of Cape Coral, was born in Cuba and lived there until he defected from the Cuban national baseball team in 2000, he said.
One of his cousins was jailed after participating in Havana protests, he said.
“They just got fed up,” he said of the Cuban people. “They are fighting literally with rocks and sticks.”
It’s frustrating to watch from afar as Cuban people suffer without food or medicine. “There is no food around even if you have the money to buy it,” he said.
“Right now, we cannot go there and do anything. What we can do is what I am doing. We’re taking to the streets here, putting the Cuban flag out there, sharing, and making sure our voices are heard.”
Gloria Jordan, 53, chef-owner of La Trattoria Café Napoli in Fort Myers, left Cuba as a young adult but her family remains in Cuba. She led culinary and cultural trips to Cuba until the pandemic stopped them in 2020.
“It’s a pressure cooker and it exploded because it has to explode,” she said. “It’s a scary time. We don’t know how it’s going to end. But don’t forget, they started the revolution just like that.”
Cubans “are hungry, and they need food in their stomachs.”
Several friends have asked her, what can I do for Cuba?
“Right now, nothing,” she said. “Any small charities or foundations or groups, those people cannot do anything.” “I want to hear about the Red Cross, someone neutral, or a big huge organization like the United Nations. Big organizations are the only ones I can see helping.”
Just to send her family money, as she does each month to help them with basic expenses like food and medicine, she pays about $60 in fees for every $100 sent.
“Emotional support, that’s all I can do for family and just share, share, share,” she said. “The more you share the more people can understand what’s going on in Cuba. That problem has to only be resolved by the Cuban people.”
“You know what has to happen there? The police, the army would have to say, ‘I’m not doing it,’” she said.
“It’s one of those places that you can’t find the exit.”
Cuban Americans says focus should be on Cuban people
“To see these images of the protest makes me very proud. My heart goes out to the Cuban people, who have gone into the streets protesting for the first time in more than 60 years. I hope it brings an end to this dictatorship,” says Frank Steinhart, a former network television producer who is production manager at Stubbs and Wootton shoe company in Palm Beach. Born in Cuba, he left the island in 1960, when he was 6 months old.
West Palm Beach Cuban American artist Rolando Chang Barrero, who has been socially and politically involved in local and world causes, believes it’s time to move beyond political differences and focus on the needs of the Cuban people.
“I’m calling for unity among all groups. We need to check our egos at the door. This is what we've been waiting for in Cuba, for the Cuban people to revolt, and we have to stand in solidarity with them,” says Chang Barrero, who owns The Box Gallery in West Palm Beach.
There’s common ground to build upon, he says.
“What we have in common is that we want a free Cuba. The movement is coming. The revolution is coming from the inside – and it will be televised and on social media,” he says, offering a twist on a Gil Scott-Heron classic. “We have to listen to them, not tell them what they need.”
This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Cuba protests cheered by Florida exiles who call for a 'revolution'