TAMPA, Fla. — Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve been covering the perspectives of Cuban Americans in the Bay area who have been protesting in support of the insurrections in Cuba and against that repressive regime, but ABC Action News In-depth Reporter Anthony Hill is digging deeper into the long and complicated history between the United States and Cuba and the conditions that have led thousands of Cubans to revolt.
On July 11, major anti-government protests broke out across Cuba. Many Cubans are frustrated by the government’s handling of the pandemic, a shortage of food and medicine, and a lack of basic civil liberties.
To understand how living conditions have deteriorated in Cuba and the decades-long tumultuous relationship between the United States and the communist, island nation, ABC Action News spoke with five Cuban American experts.
In 1959, Fidel Castro overthrew the U.S.-backed, oppressive government of Fulgencio Batista in the Cuba Revolution, established himself as the new dictator and installed a communist government, forming an alliance with the Soviet Union.
At this time, the United States controls much of the Cuban economy. Castro decides to nationalize all U.S. businesses, with hopes of keeping wealth in Cuba. In response, the United States placed an economic embargo against the island nation in 1962, essentially prohibiting U.S. companies from trading with Cuba, but it wasn’t until 1996 that congress made the embargo law.
The economic embargo continues to be a controversial topic. In fact, just last week, the UN General Assembly voted for the 29th time for the U.S. to end the embargo, but only Congress has the power to do that.
Opponents say the embargo negatively impacts Cuban citizens because it prevents them from accessing necessities that could ease life there, while people who support the embargo argue it sends a stern message of disapproval to Havana.
For many, life in Cuba is hard and for decades the United States has accepted Cuban dissidents with open arms. However, with the U.S. no longer allowing Cubans who make it onto U.S. soil to stay in the country, it’s forcing people who disagree with the oppressive government there to take to the streets.
“There’s no release valve,” said Elio Muller, Jr., who worked under the Clinton Administration as the liaison with the Cuban American community. “If these young people are conjuring a future, it’s no longer a future somewhere else. They have to invent a future in Cuba and they have realized that the only way they can invent a future in Cuba is without this regime.”
Social media connectivity has been essential and allowing protesters to communicate with each other.
“This whole independent uprising, people in cities across the country without a unified leader was all because they started posting about it via social media,” said Angelique Mathena, a first-generation Cuban American who has made several humanitarian trips to Cuba.
In 2014, President Barack Obama shocked the world when he announced plans on normalizing relations with Havana.
“Once it was there and Obama went to Cuba, I became anxious,” said Rafael Pizano, a Cuban American activist. “Could this work? I believe Obama tried. He made a real effort, a genuine effort to see if he could change things. I believe the regime showed its true colors once again.”
Sebastian Arcos, the associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, said he wasn’t surprised Cuba has been slow to change and give more civil rights to Cubans, “because the regime demonstrated that it had absolutely no intention on moving forward with reforms.”
President Donald Trump went in the opposite direction. He placed more than 200 sanctions against Cuba. Still, that didn’t change Havana’s persistence in operating as usual. Now, President Joe Biden is hoping that his targeted, individual sanctions on Cuban regime officials prove to be effective.
Now, the question of what role, if any, does the United States have in Cuban affairs? Some are calling for a military presence, while others say that would be a bad idea. Pizano says he supports a military observation.
“We’re talking about a country that’s 90 miles away from Florida. There has to be some kind of a reaction. Plus, we don’t want a massacre to begin and then there’s a mass exodus of thousands, tens of thousands of people coming on rafts dying in the Florida straits,” Muller disagrees with any military involvement, “to put a flotilla off the shores of Cuba is a threat that we’re not willing to do. Why do you bluff what you’re not able to do.”
Ralph Fernandez from Fernandez&Alvarez Law said Cuban Americans have to continue to stand in solidarity with Cubans back on the island, “if they’re on the streets there, we need to be on the streets here, if it takes 30 days or 30 years, and because of young people, I have hope.”