St. Petersburg has joined the growing chorus of municipalities declaring support for peaceful protests of the oppressive Cuban government, both throughout the island nation and its neighbor 90 miles to the north – Florida.
Protests erupted in early July as Cubans took to the streets to demand access to basic necessities such as food, Covid-19 vaccines and internet service. Resources have been scarce during the country’s 62-year-old dictatorship, and U.S. embargos to punish the regime contribute to the problem. Home to over a million Cuban-Americans – by far the largest population in the U.S. – it did not take long for protests to break out across Florida, especially in cities with large Cuban communities such as Miami and Tampa.
While no large-scale protests have occurred in St. Pete, city council at Thursday’s meeting professed its solidarity with people demanding change. Council Chair Ed Montanari proposed the resolution, which subsequently passed unanimously. Montanari has personal ties to Cuba that make the plight of its people further resonate with him.
“I want to send a message from the City of St. Petersburg that the protestors in Cuba are being heard, and we’ve heard their cries for freedom and democracy,” said Montanari. “They are having an impact here in the fifth-largest city in Florida.”
Montanari added that he wants city officials to stand with the people of Cuba as they protest for basic freedoms that Americans take for granted. He said that the Cuban people deserve liberty, democracy, health, security and prosperity, and “we need to send a message that we stand with them in their march for freedom.”
“The time is now; we can’t wait any longer.”
Following the vote, local resident and city council candidate Lisset Hanewicz shared a painful story on how the atrocities in Cuba have personally affected her. She said that her family immigrated to Florida in the 1960s, but not before her grandfather was killed by the Castro regime. Her grandfather was ripped from his home by authorities simply because he was accused of opposing the communist government. They took him to prison without due process, and two days later Hanewicz’s grandmother was notified that he was dead, allegedly from suicide.
Due to the condition of his body, his family could only identify him from his hands.
Hanewicz, who was born in Tampa, said it is unimaginable what her family went through, leaving their birthplace that they love with “nothing but their lives, knowledge, and hope.” What did they gain, she asked rhetorically?
“Freedom,” she answered. “Freedom of fact, freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, freedom of the press. Freedom.”
Hanewicz added that until recently, being gay in Cuba was a criminal offense punishable by imprisonment in labor camps. To this day, speaking out against the government will lead to being detained and jailed. Cuban artists are still punished harshly for exercising their freedom of expression.
“It is happening right now,” she said. “There are only 90 miles that separate Cuba and the U.S., but we are worlds apart when it comes to liberty and freedom.”
Montanari explained that his grandparents lived in Cuba before the revolution and that his grandfather was buried there. His mother was born in Cuba and moved here to attend the University of Florida.
“Cuba has a special place in my heart and my family’s heart,” said Montanari. “I’m glad that we can support the Cuban people’s right to the same freedoms that we enjoy here in this country.”
Councilmember Robert Blackmon thanked Montanari for bringing forward the resolution and said the situation in Cuba has “been a bad one for far too long.” Blackmon said that in a city as open and diverse as St. Petersburg, the contrast between the everyday liberties that we take for granted and the Cuban people’s fight to obtain them is striking.
“They are literal fights, and life or death matters to our neighbors just to the south,” said Blackmon. “The Cuban people deserve openness, they deserve information, they deserve dignity, they deserve a quality of life, and they just deserve freedom.”