TAMPA — Julian Rodriguez-Rodriguez and Maikel Vazquez-Pico did not know each other, but they have come to realize they have more than one thing in common.
The two men left Cuba five years ago in search of freedom and reached the United States by traveling through Ecuador and finally to Texas. And on Tuesday, they became the first protesters in the Tampa area to be held without bail under Florida’s new “anti-riot” law,
Rodriguez-Rodriguez, 30, of Tampa, and Vazquez-Pico, 39, of Riverview, spent 26 hours behind bars on charges that, before the new law, would have qualified them for immediate release to await trial. Instead, they had to wait to appear before a judge and have bail set — $17,500 for Rodriguez-Rodriguez case and $4,000 for Vazquez-Pico.
In interviews Friday at the office of their attorney, the two men dismissed their part in the divisive debate over the anti-riot law and focused instead and their passion for overthrowing the government in Cuba. They would take the streets again for their cause, they said.
“I am proud to participate peacefully,” Rodriguez-Rodriguez said.
“I will always support my people peacefully,” added Vazquez-Pico. “It hurts that, day by day, our piece of land continues to be destroyed.”
Their attorney, Victor L. Zamora, prevented his clients from talking about details of the charges against them — that Rodriguez-Rodriguez put one law enforcement officer into a bear hug and Vazquez-Pico struck the hand of another who tried to block his path. Tampa police were trying at the time on Tuesday to keep protesters from blocking Dale Mabry Highway and Interstate 275.
Zamora said he is working to prove his clients innocent on all charges.
“There are many things that we have to review,” he said. “With the evidence and our investigation, we are sure that everything will be solved. "
The two men took part in the first large-scale demonstrations in the city since Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the anti-riot bill in April. The bail requirement is one of many provisions in the law, fueled by Republican outrage over the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer.
The protests in Tampa and Miami have shown solidarity with the recent uprising in Cuba, often under the banner “SOS Cuba,” where people are exhausted by shortages of food, medicine and electricity, rising prices and an explosion in coronavirus cases. Trump-era trade restrictions also have reinforced the toll of a U.S. embargo that has stretched six decades.
Rodriguez-Rodriguez settled in Tampa in 2016. Two years later, he opened his own business with his Cuban girlfriend, Sulayne Lastra. He learned English and they want to start a new family.
“I never asked anyone for help,” said Rodriguez-Rodriguez. “I bought my house three years ago. This country has given me great opportunities.”
He worked as a barber in Havana, earning $3 to $4 per day.
“That was a lot of money,” he said.
In Cuba, he lived in a house that his mother left to him after she died. He always wanted to escape the restrictions of life under a communist government in Cuba and live in the United States.
Still, leaving Cuba was a difficult decision, he said. He had to separate from his 7-year-old daughter, Yelaine, and sell his small house for $5,000.
He used the money to buy a ticket to Ecuador and begin his journey to the United States.
“Now, thank God, I have a future in this country and I am able to help my daughter,” Rodriguez-Rodriguez said. “I talk to my family every week. That’s how I know what’s happening in Cuba, the lack of medicine and food.”
Cubans have a responsibility to call the attention of the world to the nation’s problems and to work for “real change.”
“We need a democratic system like the one this country has,” he said.
Rodriguez-Rodriguez found irony in his experience at the Hillsborough County jail, a place where people accused of crimes are meant to be isolated from the community.
“It is incredible,” he said, “that a jail in Florida is cleaner than a hospital in Cuba. That hurts.”
Vazquez-Pico said he left Cuba because of injustice and a lack of opportunity. He and his Cuban-born wife Yesenia Riveron have a 3-year-old daughter, Yeyma, and bought a house in Riverview a year ago.
He served two years in the Cuban Army, but left the military to become a mechanic because of abuses he saw committed against the Cuban people.
“I saw a lot of bad things and I didn’t want to be part of that,” he said. “That’s why I left Cuba.”
Vazquez-Pico was born in Guantánamo and grew up in Ciego de Ávila. In the United States, he has never been part of a Cuban opposition movement, he said. But he has kept up with current events in his homeland.
“That is why I supported the demonstration in Tampa. I went with my flag, with great pride.”