TAMPA — As home to former political prisoners, research partners and advocates for travel and trade, Tampa has stood at the forefront of debates over shifting relations between the United States and Cuba,
A new and largely younger group of local Cubans have joined the latest debate, energized by developments that surprised Cuba watchers and now dominates discussion of how the U.S. should treat Cuba.
Beginning July 11, for one of the few times during six decades of communist rule on the island nation, people took the streets to demonstrate — over a shortage of food and medicine, COVID-19 restrictions and their authoritarian government. The government responded by imprisoning hundreds, conducting summary trials and doubling down on security measures across the island.
The demonstrators’ rallying cry of “SOS Cuba” has been picked up in U.S. cities including Tampa, Miami and Jacksonville. Nearly 400 people turned out for an SOS Cuba demonstration July 13 in Tampa, blocking traffic on Dale Mabry Highway as they marched around Raymond James Stadium and gathered outside the local office of U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa.
“We are not going to stop or rest until we reach the end of the dictatorship and the liberation of a Cuba that lives in crisis,” said Adrian Medina, 22, a native of Pinar del Río, Cuba, and one of seven anti-government activists in Tampa Bay and Florida recently interviewed by the Tampa Bay Times.
Many of the local activists left Cuba in the past 10 years. They inherit historic and cultural ties dating to the late 1800s and the cigars made in Ybor City from Cuban tobacco. Institutions such as the Florida Aquarium partner with Cuba on research, local leaders like St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman have visited and worked for normalizing relations, and nonstop flights from Tampa to Havana have drawn crowds.
The Tampa Bay area has the third-largest population of Cubans in the country — behind only Miami and New York-New Jersey.
Medina was beaten and arrested in Cuba by political police when he was 18 for comments challenging Cuban authorities. He was harassed for months while doing his mandatory military service. He came to the United States three years ago under the U.S. Law of Historical Memory, a 2007 measure that makes grandchildren of Spanish immigrants in Cuba eligible for U.S. citizenship.
Medina works at a factory in Tampa and studies at Ana G. Méndez University at night to be a medical assistant.
“We came to stay, and to be heard, and to be very loud,” said Medina, who founded the group Los Plantados de Tampa to coordinate anti-government initiatives and publish news about Cuba on Facebook and WhatsApp.
So far, he has attended rallies in Tampa, Miami and Sarasota.
“It was phenomenal,” said Medina. “I had never seen anything like that.”
Wilfredo Cancio Isla, a Miami-based Cuban-American journalist and former news director of U.S.-run Radio and TV Martí, sees this new generation of Cuban activists as a positive sign of change.
Cancio said more than 700,000 Cubans have emigrated to the United States in the last 20 years. Now, the pace of change is fueled by the internet and social media, he said. Information that used to take months to spread now has instantaneous impact outside the island among the most recent wave of Cuban emigrants.
“It has been a long battle, and the prominence of new faces, new strategies and new paths to claim a different future for Cuba are inevitable consequences in a historical process.”
Another face of the new Cuban opposition movement is Danet Rodríguez, 29, who lives in Brandon and works from home for Air Canada as a reservation agent.
Originally from Matanzas, Cuba, Rodríguez — a wife and mother of children 6 and 1 ― grew up in a family where her paternal grandfather was a fervent defender of the Castro revolution that still holds power in Cuba today.
Rodríguez was being groomed to be a “pioneer,” or spokesperson for a youth organization that promotes the principles of communism. She became disenchanted with the party during her freshman year of college.
“I started to question the shortcomings of the system. I had more questions than answers,” Rodríguez said. “But they immediately pushed me aside. My internal conflict only ended when I went to Canada and then to the United States.”
Rodríguez and her Cuban boyfriend David Granadillo, 30, initially settled in New York. Later, they decided to move to Tampa because it’s closer to Cuba and has an exile community.
She continues to follow events in Cuba and the well-being of its people. In the past two months, she has taken part in “freedom caravans” in Sarasota and Miami. She created Metamorfosis Cuba, a YouTube channel where she spreads the word about the need for a free Cuba. And she writes letters to the White House and to leaders in Congress seeking support for democracy and human rights in Cuba.
Rodríguez expects to see more uprisings in Cuba.
“It is an intense moment for all of us who fight for the freedom of Cuba inside and outside the island,” she said. “The Cuban people are trying to make their cause known despite the repression. That’s why July 11 is going to be repeated very soon.”
Circe Santos, a 33-year-old dental assistant from Santa Clara, Cuba, is convinced that change is coming to her homeland.
Santos arrived at Tampa International Airport in 2014 after 11 failed attempts to reach Mexico and Florida by sea. Her father, a Cuban exile living in Tampa, helped her get out after she grew weary with the repression and lack of opportunity on the island.
“Cuban women are persevering and fighting,” Santos said. “I am glad to have come to this great country because no person should be deprived of their liberty.”
In Cuba, Santos was a second-year computer engineering student at the “Marta Abreu” Central University in Las Villas. She was expelled for her resistance to government authority and her refusal to join the so-called Committees for the Defense of the Revolution.
Some of those in the Tampa Bay area who are agitating against the Cuban government saw their chance in an SOS Cuba demonstration held in Washington, D.C., on June 26.
The organizer was Alian Collazo, 26, who attended Dixie M. Hollins School in St. Petersburg and graduated from Florida International University in Miami with a degree in international relations.
Collazo owns an 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.
He said the opposition movement in Tampa is growing at levels no one imagined.
“It is a movement inspired by the people who came out to demonstrate in Cuba and who, for the most part, were young,” Collazo said.
He hopes he can help young people in America realize that they, too, have a stake in freedom for a communist nation just 90 miles from American shores.
“We have the ability to do that and we will continue to do so because we know how important it is for those who are risking everything in Cuba,” Collazo said. “It is the least we can do for them and for the liberation movement.”
Rafael Pizano, 41, is a Cuban-American and son of a former political prisoner who took up political activism, working with international movements seeking democracy for Cuba and the release of dissidents.
“It is a job that I am honored to do,” Pizano said.
A Tampa firefighter and paramedic, Pizano seeks ways to strengthen democratic institutions in Latin America and Europe. Every year, he said, travels at his own expense to meet with civil rights activists and leaders in former communist nations to hear their recommendations on how Cuba might achieve democracy.
“It is important to carry this message to all levels so that governments not only show solidarity with the cause for the freedom of Cuba but also understand the objective and importance of our efforts,” Pizano said.
“Cubans have the right to live in freedom,” said Julissa Orama, 38, a wife and a mother of children 19, 15 and 10, and owner of El Gallo de Oro restaurant in West Tampa.
Orama was born in Tampa in 1983, three years after her parents arrived during the Mariel Boatlift that brought some 125,000 Cuban refugees across the Straits of Florida to the Sunshine State.
Orama said she was never interested in politics before the July 11 demonstrations in Cuba.
“I have relatives in Cuba and we don’t want to remain separated forever,” said Orama, who has attended SOS Cuba demonstrations in Washington, Miami and Sarasota.
She meets with a group of friends at her restaurant every week to talk about what’s happening in Cuba and to organize local initiatives.
“It is not a large group, maybe there are four or five of us, but it is important because we must do our part,” Orama said. “There is so much to do. We have to keep moving forward and gain confidence. There are still some people who feel a certain fear.”
At 45, Gustavo Puente has lived half of his life in exile from his native Cuba, between Spain and the United States. Puente is editor of the monthly magazine El Puente in Tampa, focused on developments in Cuba. Those in the U.S. who oppose the Cuban regime are growing in number and effectiveness, he said.
“New generations have acquired a greater sense and political awareness,” Puente said. “Now we must find a leader who can seize on the sentiments of the Cuban exile.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story had Julissa Orama’s age incorrect.