ST. PETERSBURG — Alian Collazo was 8 when his mother brought him from Cuba to the United States to reunite with his father.
It was a long and dangerous journey.
It began in July 2003 when a group of Cubans left by raft from the coastal province of Pinar del Río in southwest Cuba, crossed the Gulf of Mexico to the Yucatán peninsula then traveled overland to Texas. They feared for their lives when mechanical failure left them stranded eight hours in the Gulf.
“It was not easy,” said Collazo, 26, of St. Petersburg. “But it is the story of hundreds of thousands of Cubans who risk their lives for something better.”
Almost two decades later, Collazo decided he needed to do something so more Cubans could escape what he sees as oppression in communist Cuba and enjoy the freedom he now knows. He settled on a march, where it might do the most good — in Washington, D.C.
Permits have been granted for a march Monday from Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House to the Cuban Embassy at 2630 16th Street NW, about two miles away. The event begins with a rally at 2 p.m. followed by the march at 3:30 p.m.
Collazo hopes to draw 10,000 people. He’s been spreading the word on social media platforms and appeared on national Fox News to talk about the rally.
“We want our voices and the voices of Cubans to be heard throughout the world,” Collazo said.
On Tuesday, Collazo and volunteers under 30 who are working with him have arranged for discussions in the offices of key Congress members, Democrats as well as Republicans, including Rep. Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg and Sen. Rick Scott of Florida.
“We have to find effective ways to make a real change on the island,” he said.
The office of U.S. Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar, a Miami Republican, praised Collazo for his efforts to draw more attention in Washington to his cause, saying, “The Cuban people have taken to the streets demanding freedom.”
Collazo attended Dixie M. Hollins School in St. Petersburg and graduated from Florida International University in Miami with a degree in international relations. He owns the Horizons Adult Day Care Center in St. Petersburg and is a state director of The LIBRE Initiative, a Washington-based nonprofit that promotes economic opportunity and limited government.
Collazo’s parents, Lemis Nectalier Collazo Ruiz, 50, and Linet Avalo Hernandez, 47, live in St. Petersburg and have worked 20 years in elder care. Collazo’s father left Cuba three years before his family and lived in Spain before settling in the United States and working to bring them here.
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“My parents decided it was the only way to reunite as a family and live in a country with a totally different system,” Collazo said. “If they hadn’t done that, I don’t know what would have happened.”
The rally in Washington comes during an unprecedented uprising in communist Cuba, where people are exhausted by shortages of food, medicine and electricity, rising prices and an explosion in coronavirus cases. Trump-era trade restrictions also have reinforced the toll on Cuba from a U.S. travel and trade embargo that has stretched six decades.
Protesters in Miami and Tampa have shown solidarity, often under the banner “SOS Cuba.”
Adding urgency to the cause, Collazo said, is summary trials underway for dozens of people arrested during peaceful protests in Cuba on July 11, including activists and independent journalists.
“We have to let President Joe Biden know that it is important to punish the people who gave the order to arbitrarily arrest and beat the Cuban people since July 11 for shouting freedom,” Collazo said.
The protests were seen as the most important since the so-called Maleconazo riots of 1994, when hundreds of Cubans gather in Havana’s iconic Malecon to demand relief from the economic calamity that followed the collapse of Cuba’s patron the Soviet Union.
Collazo said he chose July 26 for the march to signal his rejection of the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. It’s the day the revolution is celebrated in Cuba, when in 1953 Castro led 135 guerillas in a failed attempt to overthrow dictator Fulgencio Batista. Castro founded the July 26 Movement afterward and rose to power three years later.
“It is not a day of celebration for the Cuban people,” Collazo said. “After more than 60 years it is a day of mourning because it is truly there where the national tragedy of Cuba began.”
Collazo said that earlier this month, he joined protesters in a peaceful march at Al Lopez Park in Tampa and those who tried to block traffic on Dale Mabry Highway.
In Washington, he will emphasize the importance of getting access to information and the internet for people in Cuba — echoing a priority of elected officials including Rep. Salazar.
“The Castro regime has cut off the internet to hide how they brutalized and repress the protesters. The Biden Administration must grant the green light to provide uncensored internet access to the people of Cuba — now!”
Collazo is not calling, as some U.S. leaders have, for military intervention in Cuba.
“We prefer to focus on more specific issues,” he said.