Ninety miles from the land of the free there is an island bound by its government.
On an island home to over 7,000 different species of flora and fauna, distinctive waterfalls and fine powdery white sand, its inhabitants live with little electricity and lack everything from groceries to medications.
On July 11, when the protests began on the island for the first time since 1994, they were not marching for necessities. They had adapted to survive without them.
They marched for freedom.
Thanks to social media, residents of Gainesville staged more than three protests over the summer. At the height of the protests, about 70 Cubans, second-generation immigrants, students and residents attended.
Yet the country has remained silent in terms of progress. The protests have slowly waned since the summer. The residents and students of Gainesville continue to hope that one day the island will change.
Despite the decline in protests in Gainesville, residents are now turning to social media to keep up to date with political unrest around the country.
Throughout the summer, protesters in Cuba posted videos of the police brutally beat people walking peacefully. There were also videos of the police enter the houses and get children to be questioned for possible participation in events.
Today, almost seven months later, where are Cuba and its displaced people?
The organizers of the event
Elio Piedra came to the United States from Cuba at the age of 19 and launched Gainesville’s first Spanish-language radio station, Tu Fiesta Radio in 2021.
After spending a day on a boat with his two daughters on July 11, the 30-something started receiving frantic texts and messages on Facebook.
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Have you seen the news? Cuba is awake.
“I had a lump in my throat,” Piedra said in an interview translated from Spanish. “It was a mix of emotions, like wow could this be the time Cuba will truly be free.”
While Piedra felt incredibly hopeful, he also felt a pang of guilt.
“It was a mixture of worry, pride, fear for the people who were there and at the same time, if I’m being completely honest, I was even ashamed of myself,” he said.
He regretted not being able to walk with the people in Cuba, not being among the people who started the fight. Inspired by what he saw on social media, Piedra sprang into action.
Community members messaged him, asking where to meet and what to do. He posted two messages, one in Spanish and one in English, on Facebook asking people to meet at Bo Diddley Square walk to Cuba.
Within an hour and a half, the Cubans and Latinos in the Gainesville community had organized themselves. If Cubans weren’t afraid to pick up sticks and defend themselves against armed police, how could it be?
“The Cuban government is the worst – they are like a mafia, tyrants,” he said.
Piedra stressed that the protests were for freedom and liberty. He said that democracy does not exist in Cuba.
“Cuba is a prison. It is an island surrounded by water where no one can go out unless they risk their life by swimming,” he said. “Hundreds of Cubans die every month trying to get to Nicaragua, trying to get to Florida.”
Since the protests in July, Piedra believes people are losing faith because Cubans keep dying. The opposition movement in Cuba tried to organize another demonstration of November 15; however, it was crushed by the government.
Piedra noticed that each protest after the July 11 premiere had dwindling crowds. He attended a march in Gainesville in support of the November protest, but said few people attended.
“There’s no way to hide it,” he said. “They kill Cubans, either with sticks or with gunfire, making them disappear. Mothers suffer because of this – they are just children, maybe people your age.
The only solution left to Cubans is to escape the prison that is Cuba, he said.
“We Cubans do not want to negotiate with the Cuban government. We don’t want dialogue. We don’t want to discuss anything. We want them to go,” Piedra said.
Piedra thinks the Castros are behind the problem and that the system in Cuba is completely broken.
“In Cuba, they told us what to eat, how to dress, what to say. It was constant brainwashing. It was like a cult from the moment you were born,” he said.
He is grateful for the protests in July. The world finally got to see what Cuba really looked like. Somehow, he unified the Latin community.
Alexandra Quintana, a UF Spanish and political science graduate, felt that unity when she organized a protest for Cuba on University Avenue and NW 13th St. on July 16.
She grew up hearing stories about Cuba from her parents and the Cuban community around her in Miami. The 20-year-old’s parents fled their country of origin.
“Honestly, I wish I could protest with them on the island and that’s why I wanted to protest here in Gainesville, knowing how many Cubans are here, how many people came from Latin American countries that also suffer from dictatorships”, she said.
Quintana organized the University Avenue protest through Take Action Florida, an organization she co-founded.
Around 70 people took part in the demonstration; they waved decorated signs and chanted “Patria y Vida” ー “homeland and life”. It is a play on “Patria o Muerte”, which translates to “homeland or death” and was often said by Fidel Castro during the communist revolution.
Quintana has been following what is currently happening in Cuba by following organizations that amplify any information posted by people in Cuba.
Cuba is currently conduct of tests about the people who were caught protesting, some of whom were as young as 16. The government also cracked down on social media posts and even shut down Internet access across the country during the protests.
“If you are a Cuban citizen or live on the island, any information you possess or video or recording you attempt to post on the internet is investigated and monitored, so it may be used as grounds for arrest “Said Quintana. “Being able to speak freely in Cuba is not a reality.
Despite the difficult situation, the demonstrations have given hope to Quintana. She believes there is a better future ahead of her.
“I think the moment people stop caring, stop sharing, and stop giving support and love, it’s losing hope for anything possible,” she said. “That’s why we’re all fighting for this.”
The UF Community
Kevin Trejos, president of the Hispanic Student Association, was inspired when he saw people standing up for their values.
Many Cuban students have contacted the association via Instagram with questions about how to help and where to go to protest.
“HSA doesn’t take a political stance on things, so what we like to do is just take a people-educating approach,” said Trejos, a UF Master of Science in Management student.
The organization posted infographics and resource guides on its Instagram account. Trejos turns to student leaders on campus who are experiencing specific issues for guidance.
Daniel Badell, former chief of staff of the HSA, was involved with the HSA for three years. The 21-year-old UF political science and international studies junior came to the United States when she was six years old.
Badell’s family has made several attempts to leave Cuba since the 1980s. In 2006, his mother was lucky. The Costa Rican Embassy called her and she was finally able to leave Cuba. From Costa Rica, she hopped on the back of a semi-truck that took her through Central America until they reached the United States border.
They declared asylum and lived in Miami. Badell described Miami as Cuba but with freedom of speech and a stable economy.
“Growing up, I think I didn’t pay much attention to the importance of this cultural identity until I came to UF,” he said. “I realized I was obviously in a very different place. It wasn’t a Miami bubble anymore and it was important to recognize that because I had grown up in a place where my identity was never given up. in question.
When the protests began in July, Badell was very optimistic. He believes internet access and social media served as a catalyst for the protests.
People who have lived in Cuba all their lives and only heard stories of the rest of the world from departed family members have finally seen skyscrapers and limitless grocery stores filled with every product imaginable.
His generation grew up with a darker and more sterile Cuba than previous generations, he said. This reality forced his generation into action.
“They don’t care anymore. People don’t care about the repercussions of being against the government,” he said. “A generation that’s going to be there and that generation also has a lot of influence over their parents and the internet. There’s nothing more groundbreaking than that.
Today, many of the leaders who sparked the early protests are in jail. Badell believes the opposition is still alive and fighting but struggling due to the number of its members detained and killed.
“It’s totally consistent with what the current government has always done, they always took political prisoners, put them in jail, tortured them completely and gave them next to nothing to starve them, and then they died.” , did he declare.
Still, Badell stressed that the July protests were a vital step towards progress.
“It will be times like what happened last year, which will slowly start to unravel how people legitimize the regime, and people don’t find it legit anymore. That’s the most important thing. “, did he declare.
The question “Where are we?” does not exist for the Cuban people.
They adapt. They fight. They do whatever it takes to survive.
Where they are now is with each other, no matter the miles or the oceans that may separate them.
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Melanie Peña is a freshman majoring in business (hoping to major in pre-law) and journalism. This semester, she’s the reporter for the City and County Commission. When she’s not writing an article, she’s probably designing a graphic or exploring the cafes of Gainesville.