TAMPA — Daniel Llorente has the flags of Cuba and the United States tattooed on the back of his hands.
“They are my two great inspirations,” Llorente said. “I have them because I want to see unity between these two countries.”
Three weeks ago, Llorente, 57, and his son Eliezer, 21, arrived in the United States, seeking political asylum after a long and dangerous journey that began two months ago in Guyana and continued through Central America and Mexico.
They have settled for the time being in Tampa because they have a relative who lives in Town N’ Country.
“We are very happy to be here, in the land of freedom,” Llorente said. “But if the Cuban authorities had not taken me off the island, I would still be there, with my people.”
Llorente was locked up for a year in the Psychiatric Hospital of Havana, known as Mazorra, and later exiled to Guyana. The reason: He captured worldwide attention May 1, 2017, when he unexpectedly stormed into Revolution Square in Havana during an official celebration and ran through the square for 12 seconds waving an American flag and shouting, “Freedom for the Cuban people.”
Cuban state security agents took him into custody with blows and kicks, all recorded by international media. The arrest occurred not far from the platform occupied by then-president Raul Castro and other leaders of the communist revolution.
Llorente soon became known as “the flag man.”
“I thought I had to do something big. And, Revolution Square was the right place,” Llorente said.
At Mazorra, he said, he lived alongside murderers and other criminals.
“Conditions were very difficult. You couldn’t sleep in peace.”
Still, Llorente said, he painted freedom slogans on the walls and turned out flyers criticizing Castro. His resistance landed him in solitary confinement again and again. He received threats.
“They wanted to use electroshock to calm me down, but I told them that if they hurt me everyone would find out. They didn’t touch me, but It was a kind of miracle.”
Llorente is a true Cuban patriot, said Jose Batista, spokesman for the anti-communist group Casa Cuba de Tampa.
“He had the courage to face the Castro regime in Cuba using an American flag — with freedom, love and heart,” Batista said. “They couldn’t beat him and they wanted to drive him crazy. He is a man who tirelessly fights for freedom.”
Batista’s comments were echoed by Cuban dissident Orlando Gutierrez, spokesman for the Assembly of the Cuban Resistance in Miami.
“He has deep religious and patriotic values,” Gutierrez said. “He is honest in what he says and I think he speaks for the people.”
The Cuban government bought the one-way plane ticket that took Llorente to Guyana on May 16, 2019. He was given 100 Cuban pesos, about $4, and carried only had a Bible and a copy of the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution was a gift from fellow prisoner Óscar Elías Biscet, a physician and advocate for democracy and human rights in Cuba.
At the Havana airport, minutes before Llorente boarded his flight, an agent of the Cuban political police called him “a lucky man” to still be alive, Llorente said.
“Until the last minute, they harassed and mistreated me. That police officer told me that they normally make people like me disappear.”
In Guyana, Llorente lived two years with the help of supporters while working in construction. With the sale of the family’s house in Havana, his ex-wife, Yudiza Pérez, arranged for son Eliezer to leave Cuba. He had been prohibited from working and from leaving Havana. He arrived in Guyana in December 2020.
“He was constantly being watched,” Llorente said. “That was not life.”
Confinement strengthened Llorente’s commitment to democracy and human rights, he said.
But his disenchantment started when he was young and intensified when he returned to Cuba in 1987 after living four years in the former communist East Germany, where he studied auto mechanics.
“I did not like what I saw in my country and used my voice to denounce injustice.”
In early 2000, Cuban authorities arrested Llorente for his opposition to the government and he served nine years in the Combinado del Este prison, he said.
“I did not stop my protest,” he said, holding a Bible that he takes “wherever I go.”
“I am not religious but I am a believer. I have a personal and spiritual relationship with God and I believe he will lead the Cuban people back to the path of faith.”
Llorente sees faith in God as the beginning of a democratic transition for his homeland.
“That is why I was never part of a specific opposition group in Cuba.”
Llorente’s arrival comes during a time of uprising in Cuba, where people are exhausted by rising prices, shortages of food, medicine and electricity, and by an explosion in the number of coronavirus cases. In addition, Trump-era restrictions have reinforced the economic toll on Cuba from a U.S. travel and trade embargo that has stretched six decades.
Lorente attended a Cuba freedom rally Monday in Washington, D.C., that was organized by Alian Collazo, 26, of St. Petersburg. Protesters in Miami and Tampa have shown solidarity with the campaign, often marching under the banner, “SOS Cuba.”
Llorente and his son may qualify as political refugees in the U.S. because of the danger they say they would face if they return to the island. Their applications were received last week by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Now, they await word on whether they can get work permits or driver’s licenses while their case is pending in immigration court.
Llorente had waved the U.S. flag in opposition to the Cuban government a number of times before his actions in Revolution Square made him famous.
The first time was in 2015 during the reopening of the U.S. embassy in Havana. He did it again when President Barack Obama took steps to normalize relations with Cuba and visited the island nation in March 2016. Next, he protested when the cruise ship Adonia arrived in Havana in May 2016 and a month later when commercial flights between the U.S. and Cuba resumed.
Llorente was temporarily incarcerated after each protest. But each time, the police returned his American flag.
“I did not understand why,” he said.
That luck ended when they took his flag after the 2017 protest, he said.
“But it doesn’t matter. I have that flag tattooed on my hand.”