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Cuba protests demanding change spread to Tampa

The largest international protests against the Cuban regime in decades sparked calls for support in Tampa.
A crowd chants at a protest in solidarity with Cuba outside of Kathy Castor's office on Monday in Tampa.
A crowd chants at a protest in solidarity with Cuba outside of Kathy Castor's office on Monday in Tampa. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]
Published Jul. 12

TAMPA - One of the largest international demonstrations in the last 60 years against the Cuban regime found its way to Tampa over the last few days with hundreds of people demanding freedom and democracy on the island.

The demonstrations erupted amid a deep economic crisis in Cuba and to protest food shortages and high prices amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In Tampa, protesters and members of the Cuban exile community gathered Monday morning outside the local office of Democratic U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor to express their support for the protests over the weekend in Cuba.

The day before, up to 200 people waved Cuban flags in front of Jesuit High School on Himes Avenue, prompting police to shut down nearby roads.

At least 100 protesters outside Castor’s office Monday criticized the government of Miguel Diaz-Canel. In Cuba, Diaz-Canel denounced the protesters.

Among the group of protesters in Tampa was Raquel Zuaznabar, a 27-year-old Cuban who arrived in exile two years ago. Zuaznabar said that conditions on the island are difficult. She said every time she talks to her friends on social media, the criticism is overwhelming.

“People in Cuba have nothing to eat, they lack work and the government does not make many efforts to help people overcome the coronavirus, " Zuaznabar said.

Sonia Pelegrin, 53, another Cuban protester who arrived in Tampa a decade ago, said her relatives in Havana are desperate.

“It is a situation that has deteriorated over time and the Cuban authorities are totally disconnected from the people,” Pelegrin said. “There is no future and there are no options for the Cuban families.”

On Saturday, a group of opponents inside and outside the island called for the opening of a “humanitarian corridor” to help Cubans overcome the crisis, but the initiative was rejected by Cuban authorities.

“As a longtime advocate for human rights, I stand with the Cuban people who are exercising their fundamental rights of free assembly and expression,” Castor said in a statement. “The Cuban people deserve freedom and human dignity. America hears you and supports your calls for freedom from dictatorship, disease and poverty.”

Cuban-born journalist Wilfredo Cancio of Miami said the demonstrations on the island were “a spontaneous explosion of people” burdened by deficiencies of all kinds.

“The regime has nothing to offer other than rhetoric and repression,” Cancio said. “The system is exhausted and there is a generation of Cubans who do not want to know more about empty promises.”

President Joe Biden also expressed his solidarity with the Cuban people. Biden demanded that the island’s authorities address the needs of its people at this vital moment “rather than enriching themselves.”

“We stand with the Cuban people and their clarion call for freedom and relief from the tragic grip of the pandemic and from the decades of repression and economic suffering to which they have been subjected by Cuba’s authoritarian regime,” Biden said in a statement.

“The Cuban people are bravely asserting fundamental and universal rights. Those rights, including the right of peaceful protest and the right to freely determine their own future, must be respected. The United States calls on the Cuban regime to hear their people and serve their needs at this vital moment rather than enriching themselves.”

Local and state leaders also weighed in.

“Tampa stands with the brave people of Cuba, whose ancestors helped build our community. The fight for freedom and against repression is all of our fight,” Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said in a tweet.

Gov. Ron DeSantis tweeted: “Florida supports the people of Cuba as they take to the streets against the tyrannical regime in Havana. The Cuban dictatorship has repressed the people of Cuba for decades & is now trying to silence those who have the courage to speak out against its disastrous policies.”

Former political prisoner Roberto Pizano, 82, a member of Casa Cuba in Tampa, was among the protesters in front of Castor’s office.

He remembered what it was like to live in Cuba as a political prisoner for 18 years under the late Fidel Castro: forced labor, hunger, torture and the fear of dying without seeing his family.

“The Cuban people are still hungry for freedom and democracy,” he said. “Do we need to wait another 60 years? Of course not.”