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Cuba and the long unknown road ahead, can protests lead to freedom?

Cuba in-depth: How the last 5-years turned from hope to despair
The Malecón, Havana Cuba
Posted at 3:42 PM, Jul 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-16 17:45:25-04

TAMPA — You could argue that the Cuban people have never really known what it means to be free. But, from the dramatic and unprecedented protests in the streets across the island nation, it is clear the people want another revolution.

People are asking in Cuba and the United States if they can pull off the impossible? And what would a free Cuba look like?

"Cuba is very complicated," Victor Rudy DiMaio, President of the Hillsborough County Democratic Hispanic Caucus, said. "If they do, there's a lot of questions out there. Who's going to be the new government? What type of government are they going to have? Who is going to be the leaders there?"

DiMaio's family left Cuba more than a hundred years ago. In that time, he's witnessed first-hand the disconnect between Cuban-Americans and those who remained on the island.

"There's a lot of animosity towards the people who left Cuba and the people who have stayed," DiMaio said. "Do we really want to go in and invade Cuba? I've heard a lot of people talking about that. I don't know. If Cuba was a simple answer, we would've solved it by now."

Cuba's history is riddled with a painful past, violence, bloodshed, pain, suffering, and changing alliances.

Cuba won independence from Spain in 1898 only to trade one superpower for another. The United States and Cuba cooperated under the rule of brutal dictator Fulgencio Batista through the 1950s. Batista was a puppet of the Americans.

Following the revolution of 1959 and the rise of Fidel Castro to power, relations steadily deteriorated. As a result of Castro's reforms and the Cuban government's increased cooperation with the Soviet Union, the United States severed diplomatic ties with Cuba in January 1961. What followed was the Cuban- Missile Crisis, the Bay of Pigs, and an embargo that continues today.

"The government is pervasive in everyone's lives in Cuba," DiMaio said. "It's not going to be a simple snap of the finger, and one day we are kicking these guys out, and we are going to be a democracy. It's not that simple, and that's what people have to understand."

In 2015, ABC Action News was in Cuba for the beginning of what's now dubbed the "Cuban-Thaw." Finally, it appeared the decades-long freeze on relations was coming to an end. Even Pope Francis visited the island that same year. In 2016, former President Barack Obama attended a baseball game sitting next to Raul Castro. Then, in May, the first cruise ship in more than 40 years sailed from Miami into Havana. A historical moment where Americans were greeted with music, smiles, cheers, and new hope.

But, it all ended when former President Donald Trump reversed most of the Obama-era policies. Then the pandemic hit, and Cuba became even more isolated. The people are facing some of the darkest days the island has ever seen.

"Everything is impossible to happen while we have this gigantic grip on the island that is the embargo," documentary filmmaker Mirella Martinelli said.

In 2017 and 2019, Martinelli traveled to Cuba. Her new movie, "Frenemies," playing in the Tampa Theatre on Oct. 16, takes a look at mistakes made by the Cuban and American governments. The overall message is to lift the economic embargo on Cuba.

"What I think is that we should in the United States should be talking about lifting the embargo that is what is in our jurisdiction. The Cuban people living on the island will grapple with their government," Martinelli said. "What we need to do is take care of the harm that this country does to 11-million people living on that island."

The United Nations has voted 29 times in favor of the U.S. lifting the embargo.

According to Reuters, "The U.N. vote can carry political weight, but only the U.S. Congress can lift the more than 50-year-old embargo. The United States consistently voted against the U.N. resolutions for 24 years but abstained for the first time in 2016 under former President Barack Obama, as Washington and Havana forged a closer relationship."

"So it's very hypocritical that the United States embraces relations with a country like Saudi Arabia and embargoes Cuba," Martinelli said. "What it seems to me sometimes is that the U.S. wants to have an illustration on how socialism doesn't work but then open this economy open this economy and let's see if it really works but being embargoed like that you can't even tell."

Political leaders in Cuba blame the embargo and U.S. policy for all of their problems. Known on the island as the "blockade," Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel continues to push the narrative in state-run media.

"If they remove the blockade, if they leave us alone and allow us to act with our own talent, we can achieve prosperity and expand the Revolution's immense work for social justice," Communist newspaper Granma quoted Diaz-Canel as saying. The government considers the paper the "Official Voice of the Communist Party of Cuba Central Committee."

Sources in Cuba that ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska could contact in Havana via encrypted messaging paint a different picture. They called the rhetoric more government disinformation blaming the United States to hide their coronavirus failures. Our contact went on to say they want radical economic and political change on the island, but not a military intervention by the United States.

"I think that change can be made by us, the people, but right now, we lack leadership and organization," the source said.

The Florida United States Senator Marco Rubio is echoing the same sentiments about the embargo. On the Senate Floor, Mr. Rubio called out the Cuban government's brutal dictatorship and control of the people.

And then, of course, they always blame the United States. The problem in Cuba for the regime is the people aren't falling for those lies anymore. They're not. The embargo, the first thing they blame, it's the embargo. 'The embargo is causing all this.' Why aren't fishermen and farmers in Cuba allowed to fish or grow things and sell to people? It's not the embargo that keeps them from doing that. It's the regime. Why can't Cubans own a small business? Why can't a Cuban do in Cuba what they can do in Miami, what they can do in Washington, what they do in countries all over the world? They can't do it in Cuba. They can't open a small business. That's not the embargo that keeps them from doing it. In fact, U.S. law allows us to trade and do commerce with small businesses that are independently owned by Cubans. You know why Cubans can't own small businesses? It's not the embargo. It's not the U.S. It's the regime that doesn't allow it. People see these lies. How can they afford to build luxury, four-star, world-class hotels for tourists, but they cannot afford to deal with the crumbling homes that Cubans are living in, with roofs literally falling in over their heads? With water leaking into the operating rooms in hospitals?

On Monday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki responded directly to the Cuban narrative surrounding the embargo.

"I'd first say that the U.S. embargo allows humanitarian goods to reach Cuba," Psaki said. "We expedite any request to export humanitarian or medical supplies to Cuba. That continues to be the case. And the United States regularly authorizes the export of agricultural products, medicine, medical equipment, and humanitarian goods to Cuba — and, since 1992, has authorized the export of billions of dollars of those goods to Cuba. So that's simply inaccurate in terms of the facts that are stated."

While civilians take to the streets, the looming question remains. Will their fight for a new Cuba lead to change?

"It's not impossible," DiMaio said.

But, there are superpowers and interests at play that put the people in the middle of a political tornado the island can't seem to escape.

"That's why we have to be very, very cautious of what we do in Cuba," DiMaio said. "Because now, we are playing a multi-national chess game it's not just us versus Russia it's us versus Russia and China, and that's a big difference and all these other countries that do trade with Cuba."