TAMPA — Cuban dissident Daniel Llorente came to the United States last year seeking political asylum after a long and dangerous journey through Central America and Mexico.
Four years before, he had stormed into Revolution Square in Havana waving an American flag and shouting “Freedom!” during a celebration of the communist revolution. He became known as “flag man.”
In the U.S., Llorente was planning to find a job and save money to rent a modest apartment. But a year after his arrival, he is sleeping in his car and has been unable to find affordable housing in Tampa.
Curled up with his few belongings — a pillow, a blanket, a bag of clothes, bathroom supplies — Llorente hasn’t lost hope of a better future.
“Sometimes you have to start from scratch,” said Llorente, 58. “Life is complicated in any part of the world.”
Llorente became homeless in October after he had to leave the house of a friend who temporarily welcomed him while Llorente was organizing his life. Since then, he has not been able to find a permanent place to live.
He has been limited to minimum-wage jobs. His legal case is still pending. He has been waiting for months for his interview with an asylum officer to explain the reasons he’s applying for protection and to prove the details of his story of persecution. If he wins his asylum status, Llorente can file for a 10-year green card, which is required before seeking citizenship.
Llorente arrived in the United States with his son, Eliezer, 22. Both have been working in construction, maintenance, landscaping and cleaning offices. With no credit history, they managed to buy an old Mazda that broke down. The car required $900 in repairs, money that Llorente was saving for a deposit on an apartment.
It was a difficult moment, and father and son took different paths: Eliezer went to live with the family of his Cuban girlfriend in Tampa and found a full-time job in a local restaurant washing dishes and helping in the kitchen.
Things have not been going well for his father.
He had trouble paying bills and has been unemployed for some time. He has no family to turn to for help, and finding a new home is far from guaranteed. He has spent nights in Salvation Army shelters and parking lots around the Tampa Bay area.
Llorente recently parked his car in front of the Good Samaritan Inn, a boarding home on N Florida Avenue, where he hopes he can bunk down with other tenants paying $130 per week. He doesn’t have more options: A minimum-wage worker would need the equivalent of nearly three full-time jobs to afford a two-bedroom rental in Hillsborough County, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
“There’s nothing available right now at the Good Samaritan but the administrator said it’s a matter of time,” Llorente said. “I’m a man of faith and I believe that when one door closes, another one opens.”
Llorente and his son talk every day on the phone. They share experiences, make jokes and have lunch together when possible. Llorente recently got a job as a painter on a construction site near the University Mall. However, sometimes he turns to charities for help and still relies on them for food, clothes and personal care products.
Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines
Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Despite the difficulties, Llorente said, the most important thing is to live in a democracy. He fled danger and found a new path.
In early 2000 Llorente was jailed in Cuba for nine years in the Combinado del Este prison due to his opposition to the Cuban government. He captured worldwide attention on May 1, 2017, when he unexpectedly ran through the Revolution Square for 12 seconds waving an American flag and shouting, “Freedom for the Cuban people” — thus the name “flag man.”
Cuban state security agents took him into custody. He was locked up in the Psychiatric Hospital of Havana, known as Mazorra. When Llorente was released in 2019, he was exiled to Guyana, where he stayed for almost two years.
Llorente has the flags of Cuba and the United States tattooed on the back of his hands. He also has decorated the rear window of his vehicle with a photo of him and his son, embracing an American flag.
“I get up every day at 5 a.m. I read my Bible, I have a cup of coffee and I’m ready to work anywhere,” Llorente said. “That freedom is priceless.”