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SOS Cuba protesters granted bail after being held in Tampa under ‘anti-riot’ law

The judge made reference to Black Lives Matters protests last summer in allowing release of the two Tampa men. They were arrested during a demonstration Tuesday.
Protesters chant "they are killing us" in Spanish while blocking Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa on Tuesday in support of ongoing protests in Cuba.
Protesters chant "they are killing us" in Spanish while blocking Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa on Tuesday in support of ongoing protests in Cuba. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Jul. 15
Updated Jul. 16

TAMPA — Two men arrested in a protest against the Cuban government were scheduled for release Thursday after they were held without bail for nearly two days under the state’s new anti-riot law.

Julian Rodriguez-Rodriguez, 30, of Tampa, and Maikel Vazquez-Pico, 39, of Riverview, qualify for release on bail because they represent no danger to society and were merely advocating for individual freedoms, their attorney argued during a hearing Thursday in Hillsborough Circuit Court.

The two men face charges that include battery on a law enforcement officer, resisting law enforcement and taking part in an unlawful assembly that blocked streets or sidewalks.

Circuit Judge Catherine M. Catlin granted the request for bail pending trial, $17,500 for Rodriguez-Rodriguez and $4,000 for Vazquez-Pico.

In announcing her decision, Catlin noted her rulings during bail hearings last summer following the Black Lives Matter protests in Tampa.

“I am proud of this country that allows us to express our opinions,” she said, “but I encourage you to always make these protests peaceful.”

Maikel Vazquez-Pico, 39, of Riverview, left, and Julian Rodriguez-Rodriguez, 30, of Tampa, were arrested during protests Tuesday against the Cuban government.
Maikel Vazquez-Pico, 39, of Riverview, left, and Julian Rodriguez-Rodriguez, 30, of Tampa, were arrested during protests Tuesday against the Cuban government. [ Family photos ]

Neither Catlin nor defense attorney Victor L. Zamora made reference during the hearing to the anti-riot law, known HB 1. But afterward, Zamora said he blamed the law for the two days his clients spent behind bars.

“What I do have is an opinion on how that law should be applied and, in this case, I think they should never have been incarcerated,” he said.

Zamora said he will investigate why his clients were not released immediately after their arrests.

HB 1 was passed by the Republican-led Legislature and championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, who signed it into law in April. Among its many provisions, the law says anyone arrested on unlawful assembly charges must be held without bail until a first appearance in court, when a judge decides what, if any, bail amount should be set.

Before the new law, Vazquez-Pico and Rodriguez-Rodriguez would have been able to post bail immediately, according a pre-set bond schedule.

The two men were among protesters who blocked traffic at Dale Mabry Highway and Interstate 275 on Tuesday night, according to arrest reports. Rodriguez-Rodriguez put an officer into a bear hug and Vazquez-Pico struck the hand of an officer who tried to block his path, the reports say.

They were the first large-scale demonstrations in the city since DeSantis signed HB 1.

The new law also includes a provision that people who “willfully obstruct the free, convenient, and normal use of a public street, highway or road” are guilty of a pedestrian violation and subject to a $15 citation. Tampa police did not issue any such citations Tuesday to any of the scores of protesters who blocked city streets Tuesday.

The Tampa Bay Times asked why not, and what directives Tampa police gave officers in advance regarding HB 1. The department replied with a two-sentence statement.:

“The Tampa Police Department will continue to work with demonstrators to have their voices heard,” the statement said. “Persons committing criminal acts during protests will be addressed and charged appropriately.”

Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren, a critic of HB 1, said in a statement to the Times that the arrests ”just reveal that the new ‘Anti-Riot Law’ is pointless.“

”It didn’t prevent an unlawful assembly from taking place, and it didn’t give law enforcement any important new tools to handle it as it was unfolding,” Warren said. “The key is, as it always has been, supporting the First Amendment while stopping dangerous activities that threaten public safety.”

Vazquez-Pico works as a security guard and Rodriguez-Rodriguez is a house painter. Both men came from Cuba about five years ago. Their families say they have never had a run-in with the law before.

Yesenia Riveron, Vazquez-Pico’s wife, said this was the first time the couple took part in a protest for freedom in Cuba, where some of the worst economic strife in three decades has been blamed on a stifling bureaucracy aggravated by U.S. sanctions and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“He is concerned about the situation in Cuba, “ Riveron said, “like thousands of other Cubans in this country.”