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In a show of solidarity with Cuban people protesting against the country’s communist dictatorship, South Florida demonstrators shut down a major expressway Tuesday afternoon in Miami-Dade County.
The blocking of Florida’s major roads by protesters sparked discussion about the state’s new anti-protest law — championed and signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in response to 2020 social justice demonstrations the MAGA movement didn’t like. The law makes illegal some of what anti-Cuban government protesters are now doing.
When he signed the legislation into law in April, DeSantis said: “Just think about it, you’re driving home from work, and all of a sudden, you have people out there shutting down a highway, and we worked hard to make sure that didn’t happen in Florida. … They start to do that, [then] there needs to be swift penalties.”
The Palmetto Expressway/State Road 826 was closed for hours, starting at about 1 p.m. Video from television station helicopters showed the highway closed in both directions, and there was an extensive police presence.
Video from multiple TV stations showed people of all ages, many with Cuban flags draped over their shoulders, converged on the highway and remained through the afternoon rush hour. Miami-Dade Police encouraged people to disperse — to no avail.
About 9 p.m. Tuesday, crowds of protesters were still standing on the expressway. A video posted on social media shows a Florida Highway Patrol trooper using a bullhorn to tell protesters that if they did not leave, they would be considered part of an unlawful assembly and could be arrested or face tear gassing or other police action.
“We welcome those that wish to peacefully demonstrate; however, the obstruction of roadways is unacceptable & illegal. Officers are enforcing traffic laws to ensure the flow of traffic,” the police statement said. WPLG-Ch. 10 showed people pushing through police tape.
Late in the afternoon, WPLG-Ch. 10 also reported that demonstrators were blocking traffic on Okeechobee Road, then clearing to allow traffic to pass, then blocking the road again.
Cable news channel Bay News 9 reported a Cuba-related protest was blocking northbound lanes of the Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa, and WESH-Ch. 2 reported that Semoran Boulevard in Orlando was also shut down. The Orlando Sentinel reported that police arrested one person for unlawful assembly. Protesters as far north as Jacksonville blocked traffic on I-95, too, one TV station reported.
The Palmetto demonstration and other road closures were the day’s most visible sign of solidarity with the Cuban people. Other signs of support came from a range of elected officials, groups gathering in less disruptive ways, and people planning to use boats to bring supplies to people who can’t get necessities on the island.
Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, a Cuban American, tweeted that he has never “felt such raw emotion from the people of Miami desperate for intervention by the government and by themselves on behalf of Cuba.” He added that “this is the moment of freedom” for Cuba.
Suarez said in an interview with Fox News Tuesday that military intervention in Cuba should be considered and that the U.S. should consider air strikes similar to interventions in Panama and Yugoslavia.
“What I’m suggesting is that option is one that has to be explored, and one that cannot be just simply discarded,” Suarez told Fox News.
Hundreds of protesters gathered across South Florida on Tuesday, from Tamiami Park in Miami to City Hall in downtown Boca Raton.
Video posted to Twitter by The Miami Herald showed a sea of protesters holding umbrellas and Cuban flags as they chanted “Libertad” as they waited for speakers to address the crowd at a rally sponsored by The Assembly of Cuban Resistance began at Cuban Memorial at Tamiami Park.
Standing in front of the Cuban memorial at the park, Jorge Luis García Pérez Antúnez, a former political prisoner in Cuba for 17 years, placed a flower arrangement in front of the memorial as the crowd chanted, the Herald reported. The flowers were meant to honor Cubans who died under Fidel Castro’s dictatorship, he said. He placed his right hand over his heart, the other fist punching the air in rhythm with the crowd’s chants.
After holding a closed-door meeting with elected officials and dozens of others in the Cuban American community at the American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora, DeSantis expressed support for people fighting for their freedom on the island.
DeSantis said it’s essential for Cubans to have internet access restored and would like Florida companies to assist in that effort.
Protesters in Cuba have used the internet to communicate with each other. And it is the central way the outside world has been able to get information about what’s going on in Cuba.
“The Cuban regime owns the wi-fi services and the internet access,” said U.S. Rep. Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar, R-Miami. “If the Cuban people cannot upload what’s happening on the streets of Havana and all over the island there could be a major massacre of biblical proportions and we will not know about it.”
Salazar, whose parents were Cuban exiles, and U.S. Rep. Carlos Gimenez, R-Miami, said the U.S. should not have any dialog with the Cuban government.
Gimenez and DeSantis said the protests are about something more than shortages of vaccines, food and other basic items.
“We have to be very clear about what’s happening in Cuba. It’s not about [lack of] vaccines. It’s not about food. It’s about liberty. The Cuban people are fed up,” Gimenez said.
He said it’s a good sign that people no longer fear the Cuban government. “When the Cuban people no longer fear the Cuban government, it’s the beginning of the end. And God bless, and God thank that it is the beginning of the end and that’s the truth. It’s the beginning of the end.”
“The people have made their view very, very clear: they want an end to the regime. They don’t want a reform to the regime,” said Marcell Felipe, a Miami lawyer. “The Cuban people have spoken — they’re not taking a step back.”
Democratic elected officials, though not featured at the Republican governor’s event, also expressed support for the Cuban people.
“The Cuban People have spent the last 60 years under the yoke of a brutal communist dictatorship. South Florida has benefitted greatly from the influx of exiles from Cuba, but people should not have to flee their homeland to find peace, freedom and economic security,” Broward Mayor Steve Geller said in a statement.
Geller said he “stand[s] with the Cuban people, and call on the Cuban government to respect the rights of the Cuban Community to protest peacefully, without the arrests and physical violence that have been reported, and further to hold free and fair elections on the island to secure democracy.”
The protest on the Palmetto was reminiscent of some of the protests in Miami-Dade County in the middle of 2020. Demonstrators marching for racial justice in the aftermath of a white Minneapolis police officer killing George Floyd, a Black man, on occasion temporarily blocked traffic on South Florida expressways.
Florida protests were generally nonviolent but occasionally caused some property damage. DeSantis, who has been appealing to his conservative base as he moves toward his 2022 re-election campaign and a widely expected 2024 candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination, championed House Bill 1.
“The irony is ridiculous. The contradictory behavior is just hard to grasp,” said Tifanny Burks, a community organizer with Black Lives Matter Alliance Broward. “When we tried to do the same thing in a very peaceful way, DeSantis came for us.”
Burks and Michael Howson, an organizing member and community fellow with Black Lives Matter Alliance Broward, said the protests in support of people in Cuba illustrate why the DeSantis supported HB 1 was such a bad idea.
The organization is among many civil rights groups challenging the law in court.
“The basic feeling in the community right now [is] we absolutely support everyone’s right to protest. Free speech is essential. That is an essential right for all people,” Howson said. He said there is no point in trying to “compare struggles. It’s just that it is a very good demonstration of exactly why HB 1 wasn’t a good piece of legislation to begin with.”
The legislation vastly increased law enforcement’s powers to crack down on civil unrest. Democratic lawmakers and civil rights groups criticized the measure when it was considered by the Legislature, arguing it was unconstitutional for infringing on the First Amendment’s right to peacefully protest.
They warned it would make it easier for law enforcement to charge organizers and anyone involved in a protest, even if they had not engaged in any violence.
The law grants civil legal immunity to people who drive through protesters blocking a road, which Democrats argued might have protected the white nationalist who ran over and killed counter-protester Heather Heyer during the Charlottesville tumult in 2017. It also makes blocking a highway a felony offense.
The law also creates a broad category for misdemeanor arrest during protests, and anyone charged under that provision will be denied bail until their first court appearance. DeSantis said he wanted that to prevent people from rejoining ongoing protests.
It creates a new felony crime of “aggravated rioting” that carries a sentence of up to 15 years in prison and a new crime of “mob intimidation.”
DeSantis didn’t directly address the protests that shut down the Palmetto during his brief question-and-answer session with reporters Tuesday afternoon at the museum.
“What I think what’s happening in Cuba is there are people that are rebelling against a communist dictatorship. They are not necessarily, we were talking about this, necessarily designed to be peaceful. They are trying to end the regime. And so that is fundamentally different from what we saw law summer, when people were burning down buildings. And it fortunately wasn’t happening in Florida to any large extent — burning down buildings, looting, breaking windows, targeting law enforcement — and all those things,” DeSantis said.
“And so, I think that people understand the difference between going out and peacefully assembling, which is obviously people’s constitutional right, and attacking other people or burning down buildings or dragging people out of a car and doing that. So, they’re much different situations.
“What’s going on in Cuba in particular, those are not just simply normal run of the mill protests, like what we would see here in the United States,” he said. “They don’t have freedoms respected there, whereas in the United States you have a panoply of freedoms that are respected. They are seeking an end, an end to the regime itself.”
The U.S. Coast Guard in Miami has been monitoring any activity aimed at increasing “unsafe and illegal” crossings between Florida and Cuba in response to rare street protests on the island.
Rear Adm. Eric C. Jones issued a warning statement Monday night as groups of Cuban immigrants said they planned to travel in boats filled with supplies to Cuba to show support for the Cuban protesters.
In Miami, Cuban social media personalities posted Monday that they would make the 10-hour boat ride to Cuba to show support after rare street protests broke out over the weekend, the Miami Herald reported. The influencers said they would bring aid — and guns — and urged people in Miami to offer up their boats.
One group gathered Monday night at Pelican Harbor Marina near Miami’s North Bay Village, and people brought cases of bottled water, flashlights and boxes of canned pasta, the newspaper reported.
“Water, food, medicine, whatever we can take to Cuba. Whatever we can take to help is good,” organizer Dennis Suayero told WSVN-Ch. 7.
The group didn’t get very far on a rainy Monday night.
A message posted on organizer Santiago Rivera’s Instagram account early Tuesday said the Coast Guard stopped his group from crossing the Florida Straits because of “problems with firearms.” He promised they would try again to leave Wednesday morning “with the permission of the authorities of this country.”
The Coast Guard statement suggested that such permission would not be forthcoming. It noted that the voyage is “dangerous and unforgiving,” with nearly 20 Cubans dying while trying to cross in recent weeks. It said the Coast Guard is working with state, local and federal partners to monitor “unpermitted vessel departures from Florida to Cuba.”
Rivera’s post thanked people supporting the mission and said Cubans are determining their destiny and losing their fear. “This isn’t politics, this is brotherhood, this is humanity and common sense, proud to be Cuban for my land I give my life,” his post said.
Cuban police are out in force on the country’s streets as the president is accusing Cuban Americans of using social media to spur a rare outpouring of weekend protests over high prices and food shortages.
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The demonstrations in several cities and towns were some of the biggest displays of antigovernment sentiment seen in years in tightly controlled Cuba, which is facing a surge of coronavirus cases as it struggles with its worst economic crisis in decades because of U.S. sanctions imposed by former President Donald Trump’s administration.
Cuban authorities appeared determined to put a stop to the demonstrations. More than a dozen protesters were detained, including a leading Cuban dissident who was arrested trying to attend a march in the city of Santiago, 559 miles east. The demonstrators disrupted traffic in the capital for several hours until some threw rocks and police moved in and broke them up.
The demonstrations were extremely unusual on an island where little dissent against the government is tolerated. The last major public demonstration of discontent, over economic hardship, took place nearly 30 years in 1994. Last year, there were small demonstrations by artists and other groups, but nothing as big or widespread as what erupted this past weekend.
Information from the Associated Press and the Orlando Sentinel was included in this report.