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Calls for Cuba freedom draw people to streets of Tampa for day of protest

Prohibited in Cuba, the demonstrations are taking place in West Tampa, Ybor City and in communities around the world with ties to the island nation.
People march Sunday from The Cuban Club to José Martí Park in Ybor City to show support for the “Civic March for Change," demonstrations in Cuba aimed at bringing democracy to the island nation.
People march Sunday from The Cuban Club to José Martí Park in Ybor City to show support for the “Civic March for Change," demonstrations in Cuba aimed at bringing democracy to the island nation. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Nov. 15, 2021
Updated Nov. 15, 2021

TAMPA — A key organizer of a planned anti-government protest in Cuba, playwright Yunior García Aguilera, found himself hemmed in by plainclothes police at home in Havana.

But in West Tampa, Ybor City and communities around the world with links to Cuba, people took to the streets with banners and flags to show their support for his cause.

“It’s sixty-two years of dictatorship,” said Rodrigo Delis, 58, of Tampa, a political prisoner in Cuba for four years before he fled 17 years ago. “It is time to live in peace.”

Dozens of people joined the local “SOS Cuba” marches and protests Sunday and planned to return Monday, Nov. 15 — the day declared by García Aguilera and others at Facebook’s Archipiélago initiative page to show their support for changing the communist government of Cuba.

Related: ‘SOS Cuba’ movement shows again that Tampa has a stake in island’s future

The Monday demonstrations have been called the “Civic March for Change. They come four months after a larger July protest that brought arrests and harsh crackdowns in Cuba.

But Cuban authorities have prohibited the demonstrations, saying they were organized by the United States to destabilize the government and steal the thunder from Cuba as it lifts its coronavirus tourism restrictions Monday.

“The Cuban government cannot, while respecting its basic obligations, allow the United States to organize and promote a provocation like this,” Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez told diplomats Friday in Havana. Rodríguez has said the demonstrators represent a minority of Cubans.

On Sunday, stuck in his apartment, García Aguilera tried to signal to journalists outside with a white sheet and a rose as people dropped giant Cuban flags over the side of his building to cover the windows, The Washington Post reported.

In West Tampa on Sunday, protesters lined up along the busy intersection of Dale Mabry Highway and Columbus Drive, each a 10-lane divided roadway. They carried American and Cuban flags and shouted, “Viva Cuba libre,” long live free Cuba, and, Patria y Vida, homeland and life — the name of a hip-hop song by Cuban musicians in exile that has become the soundtrack of the Cuban liberation movement.

They gathered at 3 p.m. and remained for five hours, encouraging drivers to honk their car horns in support.

People urge motorists to honk in support Sunday at Dale Mabry Highway and Columbus Drive as part of a rally aimed at bringing democracy to Cuba.
People urge motorists to honk in support Sunday at Dale Mabry Highway and Columbus Drive as part of a rally aimed at bringing democracy to Cuba. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times ]

“I feel like Cuba’s time has finally come,” said Eduardo Darna, 49, a Spanish teacher at Greco Middle School in Tampa who left Cuba in 2013. “People in Cuba have the right to live in freedom and with decency. It is too much suffering.”

In historic Ybor City, protesters and members of the Cuban exile community gathered at 4:30 p.m. and marched the few blocks from The Cuban Club to José Martí Park, named for the poet and revolutionary who helped lead Cuba’s liberation from Spain.

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“We will never give up,” said activist Danet Rodríguez, 29, of Brandon, one of the organizers. Originally from Matanzas, Cuba, Rodríguez — a wife and mother of children 6 and 1 — said the protesters speak a universal language of democracy.

“We are going to continue taking to the streets to ask for a change in Cuba. If not now, when?”

Another Ybor City marcher, José Batista, 47, said Cubans are tired of living under what he called an inhuman political system.

“It is time for a real change for everyone,” said Batista, a political prisoner for six years in Cuba’s dreaded Boniato prison, 460 miles from Havana. His crime: organizing activities against the Cuban government.

“This demonstration is a wonderful act,” said Batista, visibly moved. “We can breathe freedom, the same that we want for Cuba.”

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, the Tampa Democrat, and Tampa City Council member Luis Viera expressed their support Sunday for the cause of the protesters.

“My neighbors are lending their voices and rallying in the streets in support of their families and friends who are living in desperation on the island,” Castor said in a statement. “The Tampa Bay community stands in solidarity with the Cuban people for human rights, freedom of expression and a better life.”

Viera said on Twitter, “Proud to join my fellow Cuban Americans & allies today for # 15NCuba. … Our Tampa stands behind those Cubans who just want a voice & say in their future. #SOSCubaLibre.”

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.