Demonstrations may herald new political force as Sarasota Cuban community gains visibility – Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Unlike Miami and Tampa, the Sarasota region is not known for having a large Cuban community, and most Cubans who do live in the area have not been highly visible.

That low-key presence changed last week when hundreds of people with Cuban roots descended on downtown Sarasota to demonstrate in solidarity with anti-government protesters on the island.

The size of the Sarasota demonstrations even surprised some local Cubans.

“We didn’t know there was that many,” said Palmetto resident Ana Maria Milan. “We didn’t even know we had so many Cubans in Sarasota.”

Background: People across Florida are marching and holding protests in solidarity with Cuba

In Sarasota: Demonstrators gather in downtown Sarasota to support Cuban anti-government protesters

The Sarasota demonstrations stretched for days and drew upwards of 200 people earlier in the week.

Milan and others said they’d never participated in political activism before.

Milan moved to the U.S. from Cuba eight years ago when she was 27 to reunite with her father. She works at a Sarasota medical device company.

“I’m informed about politics… but I’ve never participated in any protest before,” Milan said. “This is my first time. I’m moved by the pain of my people right now.”

While Sarasota’s Cuban community has been relatively under the radar, the events of last week may signal a more active political presence going forward.

“This has brought a lot of visibility to the Cuban community and a positive light,” said George Ortega. “And we need to make sure we use that visibility to affect change.”

Speaking Thursday during the fifth straight day of demonstrations in downtown Sarasota, Ortega said he wants to organize local Cubans so they can communicate more effectively with political leaders. He was planning to schedule a meeting with other Cuban activists at a Cuban restaurant the next day.

“We are going to attempt to organize the community and give it more guidance,” Ortega said.

Like Martin, Ortega said he’s never been involved in political activism before. He has no desire to be a political leader.

“I like my life,” said the 38-year-old Sarasota resident.

Yet Ortega, who moved to the U.S. from Cuba when he was 15, feels strongly about the need for change on the island. He said if being more engaged in politics “is what I have to do, I will.”

Ortega and Martin both said they want elected officials in Sarasota and Manatee counties to hear their concerns and advocate for greater freedom and respect for human rights in Cuba. They mentioned a number of local officials by name, including U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, U.S. Rep. Greg Steube and state Sen. Joe Gruters.

Martin held up a sign mentioning Sarasota Mayor Hagen Brody. It read: “Hagen Brody help Cuba.” Brody might not “have all the answers,” Martin said. But she wants to know he’s listening, and she wants local elected officials to “elevate our requests and represent their people.”

“We’re their people too, even though we’re immigrants,” Martin added.

Brody posted on Facebook last week that he stands “with the Cuban people’s fight for democracy.”

“Having spent years in Miami I can tell you a Cuba free from communism means everything to so many Floridians,” Brody wrote.

Very few individuals with Cuban roots have been elected to public office in the Sarasota region. Former state Rep. Julio Gonzalez couldn’t think of anyone other than himself.

Gonzalez, a Republican from Venice whose parents fled Cuba in 1961, said “it’s wonderful that these events have piqued the curiosity and captured the attention of the Cuban brethren in our region and throughout Florida.”

Gonzalez hopes local Cubans stay involved in politics.

“Involvement doesn’t necessarily have to be by taking to the streets and protesting,” he noted. “Calling your congressman, going to meet and greets, and finding like-minded organizations where they can gel into a larger voice, all of those things are avenues they can take.”

The Cuban vote has been critical in Florida for years.

Gonzalez noted that former President Donald Trump’s hardline policies on Cuba and aggressive critique of socialism are credited with helping to improve his performance in Miami-Dade County in 2020, which led to him winning Florida by a larger margin.

How both parties respond to what’s happening in Cuba could be critical to statewide elections in the future.

Ortega said he hopes both Republicans and Democrats are united to help the Cuban people.

“This is a bipartisan issue,” he said. “This is about humanity.”

Follow Herald-Tribune Political Editor Zac Anderson on Twitter at @zacjanderson. He can be reached at zac.anderson@heraldtribune.com