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Shared pain: Local Cuban-Americans speak out

By CJ HADDAD - | Jul 15, 2021

Members of the local Cuban-American community show their support during a Cape Coral gathering earlier this week. Picture via Cubanos_CapeCoral on Instagram

After decades of silence out of fear, Cubans are making their voice heard despite what the consequences may be in a passionate cry for decency.

From the island south of the states to Southwest Florida streets, Cubans and Cuban-Americans are pleading for equality and a voice after more than six decades of oppression via a communist government.

In Cape Coral, Fort Myers, and neighboring communities, the local Cuban-American population is standing with their brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, and countless other family members still feeling the weight of the day-to-day life of living in Cuba.

Cape Coral resident, Cuban-American, University of Florida International Studies major, and a former chair of the Cape Coral Youth Council, Amanda Benitez said these recent events are bringing long-standing issues for Cubans to the forefront.

“These protests and gatherings see many Cuban-Americans in the community coming together in a demonstration of solidarity for what our people are going through in Cuba,” said Benitez, 19, a daughter of two parents from Cuba.

“This is the first time in 62 years that the Cuban people are protesting, which is illegal in Cuba. In Cuba, freedom of speech and freedom of press is illegal. We’re seeing people all around the country spontaneously go to the streets and speak out against 62 years of oppression.”

Thousands of protestors, who were under-armed as compared to the police and militaristic forces they encountered, have been speaking out against the lack of basic rights, shortage of basic goods, and the lack of government support concerning human rights and the coronavirus pandemic. The Cuban-American community of Southwest Florida and beyond has joined in the outcry, including many that, at one time, experienced before being one of the lucky ones to have found refuge in the United States.

“You have all of these things that have led to a condition that’s inhumane,” Benitez said. “Those who live in the U.S. cannot imagine what you face. Every time I go visit, it’s difficult. Imagine the struggle for someone who is living through it their entire lives.”

Benitez recalls a conversation with a fellow Cuban-Americans about the current climate. The topic involved the realization that so many Cubans who find exile from their native country go on to find success, while those who remain in the country are essentially hindered from flourishing.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly taken a turn for the worse recently in Cuba, Benitez said it is certainly not the sole reason for the recent protesting, though it may have exacerbated the situation.

Reports from Cuba to Southwest Florida indicate many protesters are young and drastically overmatched when it comes to protecting themselves against governmental forces impeding their actions.

“They’re facing large armed groups of military and police,” said Benitez, who pointed out arms are not accessible in Cuba for the average citizen.

She added many protesters are being sought out after the protests and executed, as the act is seen as treason.

The current economic climate in Cuba has been pushed to the brink, and a higher number of individuals are attempting to seek refuge now more than ever according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas (the first Latino and immigrant confirmed to serve in the role) in a press conference on Tuesday warned Cubans to not travel to the U.S. by sea to seek refuge.

“If you take to the sea, you will not come to the United States,” he said. “To those who risk their lives doing so, this risk is not worth taking.”

Benitez said, luckily, the majority of her family no longer lives in Cuba, and that her cousin, when she was 3 years old, made the trip with her family in a raft from the island to the states to seek refuge.

“They crossed the ocean on a raft. That just goes to show how desperate the situation is,” she said. “Not a lot of times do you see individuals willing to risk their lives, especially with a child, for a better future unless the situation is dire.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday penned a letter to President Joe Biden urging him to provide internet access to those in Cuba.

“As you know, the Cuban people are taking to the streets to protest the Communist regime, and the Cuban government has responded with violence,” DeSantis wrote. “At first, the world could see the images and videos of this mass movement, but now the tyrannical regime of President Miguel Diaz-Canel has shut off access to the Internet. The Cuban people have lost their ability to communicate with one another, and many Floridians born in Cuba have no information on the safety of their loved ones. Equally as important, the world has also lost the ability to see what is happening on the ground as the Cuban people rise in support of freedom.”

Benitez said many Cuban-Americans in the states feel “hopeless” and that they’re seeing their families continually suffer. She even said she’s heard that some young individuals in Cuba have been forced by the Cuban government to stand against the protestors.

Benitez said the goal of these protests and gatherings in the U.S. are to ask for solidarity and support from the international community with the Cuban people.

“Cuba is in dire need of intervention,” she said. “These people are fighting with rocks against bullets. The only hope they see is if they get help from our Cuban-American allies. This is not a political issue, but a humanitarian issue. An international intervention in what the Cuban people need.

“We recognize the gravity and historical implications of this. We need real action to be done and real resources.”

Benitez added the crux of the issue is to not help Cubans escape the island, but to make Cuba a place free of a tyrannical government and a place where people want to live.

“We want to succeed on our own land, just as we do all around the world,” she said.

–Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj