Caravan against the United States embargo against Cuba in La Habana, Cuba. Photo credit: Ricardo Tamayo IV

Cuban American demonstrations echo longstanding divisions over U.S. policy regarding Cuba

Two weeks after Cuban protests, two Washington D.C. demonstrations represent opposing positions on how Biden should effectively address the republic’s shortages: diplomacy or military intervention.

Tensions stirred between two groups who filled Lafayette Park across from the White House on July 25. Each blamed Cuba’s recent economic difficulties and civil unrest on different things. One modest-sized crowd of rally goers believes the U.S. imposed sanctions, along with the trade embargo, and restrictions on remittances are to blame. While the other, larger assemblage faults the Communist government’s financial mismanagement.

The smaller demonstration of approximately 400 people wanted to use a nonviolent, humanitarian approach to helping Cubans. In their gathering, they said that they were sending much needed supplies directly to them, such as medicine and food.    

The passive demonstrators also came to support Cuban-American Seattle high school Spanish teacher Carlos Lazo, who founded the national organization “Puentes de Amor,” or “Bridges of Love.” The campaign’s mission is to increase ties between Cubans in America and on the island. 

| Read: A tale of two islands: Biden caught between lifting Cuban sanctions or strengthening them

Lazo and his group walked and bicycled 1,300 miles from Miami to Lafayette Park, bringing a petition of 28,000 signatures. The appeal asked President Biden to lift the trade embargo and other economic blockades against Cuba. Since the embargo has cost Cuba $130 billion over six decades, the group urges U.S. economic investment in the Republic. In order to promote financial stimulation, the group also suggests the Biden Administration  allow cultural and scientific exchanges between the two nations. 

Contrastingly, a few yards away was a congregation, twice the size of the “Puentes de Amor” supporters. They consisted of conservative Cuban-Americans who viewed Cuban aid efforts as directly funding the communist government. One member from Orlando held a handmade sign reading: “No remittances,” the name for funds sent from the islands’ diasporans. Near him, participants held signs that read, “Cuba needs freedom, not handouts!”

 “The government takes that money. All it does is make the government rich,” the demonstrator claimed. Critics of Cuba’s government think tighter sanctions will anger the constituency on the island so much that they will overthrow their government.

La Habana, Cuba demonstration of support for the Cuban government under the statue of José Martí on August 28. Photo credit: Ricardo Tamayo IV

From one perspective…

In a recent interview, Latin America expert James Early explained that Cuban government officials are examining how economic inefficiencies contributed to financial problems. 

“Contrary to President Biden’s uninformed or intentional mischaracterization of recent protests in Cuba…President Diaz Canal Bermudez has proactively convened government officials and  Cuban citizens to assert national sovereignty, and assume responsibility for informing the nation of the causes of their economic predicament,” opined Early

The DC-based Early said the embargo is a major factor in Cuba’s economic crisis, a sentiment shared by the pacifist group. Slogans included, “Cuba si’! Bloqueo no!,” or “Cuba yes! Blockade no!” Aid, not military intervention, is their solution.

Public opinion polls of U.S. voters conducted during the last seven years indicate growing support for restoring relations with Cuba and ending the embargo. Such sentiments were expressed by speakers participating in the smaller demonstration, along with suggestions on how to support Cuba during the pandemic.

Women’s peace organization Code Pink co-founder Medea Benjamin inquired of the crowd, “How many of you have contributed to the Syringes for Cuba campaign?” 

Cuba manufactures its own COVID vaccines. Of the five available, the country claims that Abdala is 92.28 percent effective. But each vaccination requires three shots, causing doctors to quickly run out of syringes to administer vaccines.  Thus, Code Pink and a coalition of organizations raised money to purchase and send six million syringes to Cuba.  

Exasperated with Biden for “listening to the voices of Cuban right-wing extremists,” she too called on POTUS to end restrictions on the country, like Lazo.

“We thought that because Biden had been the Vice President under Obama, he would normalize relations between Cuba and the U.S.,” Lazo told The Ark. “Biden even promised he would [normalize relations] during his Presidential campaign. Instead, he’s acting like [former U.S. President] Trump.” 

. . . to another

In contrast, Cuban American hardliners like those comprising the bigger demonstration, oppose Cuba’s government. They view proponents of Cuba as “communist” and most vote Republican.

When running for a second term, they favored Trump’s stricter sanctions against Cuba. More recently, conservative Cuban-Americans have been bombarded with social media alleging Trump’s loss was a stolen election. They view the loss as an indicator of communism coming stateside. 

Having come ahead of a July 26 rally, the conservative Cuban American group demanded even more severe penalties and a possible U.S. military invasion of Cuba. They believe anything that destroys Cuba’s economy will destroy their government. Thus, instantly bettering the lives of people there.

“These haters have even forced their followers to go on the same day, at the same time, to provoke confrontation, chaos, and violence,” asserted Lazo in a Prensa Latina interview prior to his arrival at the Capitol. He implied that conservative Cuban-Americans would do almost anything to make his Puentes de Amor movement appear to be a bunch of brutish, leftist extremists by coercing them into fights.

Lazo claims that the larger groups were coming to sabotage the smaller demonstration he was participating in. Despite this, the demonstration was peaceful. Among speakers were representatives of unions and politically progressive organizations.

As the smaller demonstration ended, a speaker warned the crowd to be careful leaving the park due to the other, hostile demonstrators. “Walk in twos, and don’t let anyone provoke you,” the speaker cautioned. Lazo picked up the thick spiral bound petitions and left the park with his group to deliver them, hoping they could convince Biden to change the outmoded policy that punishes Cuba for being Communist to treating Cuba as its “neighbor to the South.” 

On the other hand, the conservative Cuban American demonstrators were even more certain that Biden would not stray from the 60 year economic policy. Florida is a swing state and Biden will need their votes if he chooses to run for President in 2024.

Margaret Summers has worked as a print and radio news reporter and a media relations professional. She lives in Washington, D.C.

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