Alfredo Suarez Leandro did not think twice when he decided to travel to Washington, D.C., to call for the freedom of Cuba in a massive march held Monday in front of the White House.
Suarez, 48, a Cuban refugee who arrived in the United States in 2009 after being imprisoned for 10 months for his opposition to the Cuban regime, took the first bus that left Tampa early Sunday. He only carried a Cuban flag and a T-shirt with the phrase ‘Homeland and life,’ a popular slogan of the Cuban anti-government protests.
“It was a natural reaction to be here, in Washington, because it fills us with great pride and encourages us to continue supporting the opposition movement on the island,” he said.
The march was organized a month ago from St. Petersburg by Alian Collazo, 26, who left Cuba on a raft at age 8 with his mother. The demonstration brought together several thousand protesters, many carrying flags, megaphones used to shout their support for a democracy in Cuba and banners that read “SOS Cuba.”
Among the protesters was Rosa María Payá, the daughter of the late Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá, founder of the Christian Liberation Movement. Oswaldo Payá and dissident Harold Cepero died nine years ago in a car crash near Bayamo, in eastern Cuba. According to Payá's daughter and investigations by independent journalists, the crash was caused by a Cuban State Security car that was chasing them.
“We want freedom for our political prisoners and justice for our people who have been murdered and disappeared,” said Payá's daughter to thousands of Cuban protesters, many of whom had driven in caravans and buses from Florida to Washington, D.C.
Sen. Rick Scott of Florida and fellow Republicans such as Rep. María Elvira Salazar, Rep. Dan Crenshaw, Rep. Carlos A. Giménez and Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart joined the demonstration with brief speeches and calls for the end of communism.
Scott said that President Joe Biden’s administration needs to be proactive and take a stronger stance against the authoritarian regime. He also called for the closing of the Cuban embassy in the nation’s capital.
“We want the freedom of Cuba,” Scott said.
The event was preceded Sunday night with a vigil in which hundreds of Cubans gathered in front of the White House.
Salazar, who also joined the protests on Sunday night, said that in the fight for democracy in Cuba, it’s vital to be persistent and make contacts with international organizations to demand more actions against the Cuban regime.
“It’s important to tell the White House that there are many of us fighting for freedom,” Salazar said, calling for God’s help “to free Cuba from this satanic force.”
“Free us,” she said.
Last Thursday the Biden administration announced new sanctions against a Cuban official and a government special brigade that it says was involved in human rights abuses during a government crackdown on protests on the island earlier this month.
Biden also has ordered a review of the viability of increasing staff at the U.S. Embassy in Havana to provide consular services. In addition, he has called for the State Department to launch a working group to review U.S. remittance policy. Biden also said he wants to ensure that money that Cuban Americans send home makes it directly into the hands of their families without the regime taking a cut.
“This is just the beginning — the United States will continue to sanction individuals responsible for oppression of the Cuban people,” Biden said in a statement.
The march in Washington started from Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House and traveled to the Cuban Embassy at 2630 16th Street NW — about two miles away. Interactions between protesters and police remained peaceful.
The rally comes during an unprecedented uprising in communist Cuba, where people are exhausted by shortages of food, medicine and electricity. The island also is confronting rising prices and an explosion in coronavirus cases.
Collazo, the organizer of the Cuban Freedom March, said he chose July 26 for the demonstration to signal his rejection of the revolution that finally brought Fidel Castro to power. July 26 is the day the revolution is celebrated in Cuba because on that date in 1953 Castro led 135 guerillas in a failed attempt to overthrow dictator Fulgencio Batista.
Castro founded the July 26 Movement afterward and rose to power three years later.
Former political prisoner Roberto Pizano, 82, a member of Casa Cuba in Tampa, and his son, Rafael, 40, also traveled to Washington for the protests.
Pizano said he was excited by the number of people who had come to the demonstration.
“This is very emotional,” said Pizano during a phone interview with the Tampa Bay Times. “It’s like the ‘90s.”
Pizano, a prisoner for 18 years under the late Fidel Castro, said he was impressed by the role of a new Cuban generation fighting for the freedom of Cuba.
“We’re seeing a new rebirth,” Pizano said. “It is a blessing, we are not alone.”