July 16, 2021

-Miami Herald


Nearly 300 people boarded buses in Grapeland Park on Friday for an overnight trip to Washington, D.C. Their hope, organizers said, is to bring a “show of love” for the cause of Cuban freedom amid unprecedented protests right to the steps of the Cuban embassy and the White House.

“My mother’s been crying for a week every time she watches the news, but she couldn’t be here because I have a little sister,” said Gabriela Lastra, 21, as tears streamed down her face. She came to Miami from Cuba at the age of 3. “No one else is going to help us, unless we make them help us.”

She and her cousin, Amanda Velazquez, 22, said they’re hoping to make their voices heard in the capital. Over the past week, Velázquez said some of her co-workers have asked why she is on the streets protesting each day, with many assuming the central issue in Cuba is the lack of access to the COVID-19 vaccine. Protesters in Cuba have chanted for freedom and the end of the authoritarian government.

“If I can make even one person aware,” she said, “I would be satisfied.”

The trip was planned primarily through social media channels over the course of two days, according to Carlos García, one of the organizers. All six tour buses making the trip were hired for the weekend through private donations, he said.

Seven staff members from the office of Miami Commissioner Alex Diaz de la Portilla were at the parking lot. Karla Fortuny, the commissioner’s chief of staff, said the Cuban American National Foundation reached out to the commissioner Thursday asking for help with providing free parking for the weekend for the 200 cars that were expected to arrive.

Several former Cuban political prisoners, including Jorge Luis García Pérez, known as “Antúnez,” spoke as people boarded the buses — carrying Cuban flags, protest signs with the faces of those missing amid protests in Cuba and posters bearing slogans like “Patria y Vida” — Homeland and Life — and “Cuba Libre.” Many families brought children, who joined in the chants with their parents.

“We’re not going to allow the Biden administration to laugh at the sacrifice, pain, and tears of the Cuban people,” Antunez yelled to the crowd in Spanish as they boarded.

José Barrera, 56, had brought crates of water bottles to the parking lot — a gesture of support, he said, “for my people.”

“If we bring it to where Biden is, to his house, he can’t look away,” Barrera said.

Once in Washington, D.C., protesters’ plan is to arrive at the Cuban Embassy, joined by other Cuban-American protesters from across the country, at 11 a.m., then move to the White House in the afternoon, said Luis Enrique Ferrer García, the head organizer.

“We want to send a clear message to the Biden administration,” Ferrer, a leader with the Cuban opposition group UNPACU, told the Miami Herald. “The Cuban people want liberty, the Cuban people want freedom, and they’re looking to the United States to take the side of the people.”

He said that, in total, he expects around 1,500 people to show up to protest at the embassy, most of them from places other than Miami. Buses are expected to come in from across the country, including New York and New Jersey.

Cristina Canales, a director with the Cuban American National Foundation who assisted with the rush to organize, said that as soon as Ferrer posted about the possibility of the trip on social media channels, members of the community began to reach out to him, hoping to join. “His phone blew up,” Canales said.

“If they are on the streets in Cuba, we need to be as well,” Canales said. “If we have the ability to use our voice and not get arrested, not get shot at, we have to use that voice.”