As thousands of anti-regime protesters gathered outside the White House just before midnight Monday to mark the 26th of July with a candlelight vigil, Alex Perez and Chris Cruz stood off to the side and smiled at the scene.
“I’m 27 and I never thought I would live to see something like this,” said Perez, a Hialeah resident who came to the United States from Cuba seven years ago. “We need to make sure there’s pressure for people who didn’t have to go through what I went through to know what’s going on in Cuba.”
Perez and Cruz made plans weeks ago to come to Washington for a planned demonstration timed for July 26, the date that Fidel Castro led his first attack against the Batista government and a national holiday in Cuba. They ended up getting 10 of their friends to join them in a rental van after mass pro-democracy protests broke out across Cuba on July 11.
“We saw a lot of people on I-95 with Cuban flags and messages on their cars,” Cruz said. “Tomorrow is going to be intense but I know people will keep their cool.”
The pair of 27-year-olds from Hialeah were part of the first wave of demonstrators who arrived in Washington on Sunday from all over the country. Though the largest contingent of protesters were from Miami, others hailed from New Jersey and Texas.
Their message — and location just steps away from President Joe Biden’s residence— was a sign that they want the US to do more. Not everyone was in agreement on what “more” means.
Some protesters walked around with signs calling for US military intervention. Others said the US should use every means possible to get internet to Cubans on the island who are attempting to resist the regime. And Perez and Cruz said they favored a “humanitarian intervention” where the US and other countries enter Cuba with supplies and equipment that can be directly delivered to the people instead of the government.
“I think Cuba needs a human intervention, not bombs,” Perez said. “Biden should not only say what is the right thing to do, he should do it.”
Thousands of additional protesters are expected to arrive through Monday, according to Maria Fundora, who leads a Texas-based group called Cuba Libre that provides legal assistance to Cubans making asylum claims. Fundora said at least 18 buses left from Miami and only three had arrived in Washington by Sunday evening. Other caravans from Tampa and Texas are on the way, she said.
“Have you ever seen anything like this?” Fundora asked. She said the last two weeks stirred up so much emotion for her that she “can’t concentrate.”
Fundora, 59, said she favors military intervention in Cuba and noted the US military presence in Guantanamo Bay. She isn’t happy with Biden’s response to the protests in Cuba so far and said “what he’s not doing guarantees a Trump 2024 ticket.”
“All they need to do is open the gate,” Fundora said, referring to the US military. “We went into Kuwait, Somalia and didn’t ask for anyone’s permission. We went in and killed Osama Bin Laden and didn’t ask anyone. Are you telling me someone from Cuba needs to do something as horrible as 9/11 to get the US to do something?”
The mood outside the White House early Monday morning was largely festive, with constant chants of “Libertad” and ““Patria y Vida,” or “Homeland and Life.” Almost everyone was holding a Cuban flag or wearing one on their shirt, and American flags were also a constant presence. And a smattering of pride flags were waved as one speaker noted how the Castro regime harasses and prosecutes LGBTQ activists in Cuba.
At midnight, the White House’s red, white and blue flood lights in honor of the ongoing Tokyo Olympics went dark, but the protesters’ candles and cellphone lights partially illuminated the scene.
While more elected officials are expected to join protests on Monday, Miami Republican Representative Maria Elvira Salazar joined the vigil Sunday night.
“At the White House with our Cuban-American community demanding freedom!” Salazar tweeted.
As a video screen played scenes of Cuban protesters being beaten by police, Yumila Aguedo stopped to take a photo with a banner.
Aguedo decided to drive to Washington from Hialeah after watching an episode of Alexander Otaola’s YouTube program Hola Ota-Ola. Aguedo, a 40-year-old who came to the US 14 years ago, said she worries constantly about her mother, father and brother who are still in Cuba.
“They are scared,” Aguedo said. “I think the US has to think about how to help us, not with food and not with medicine. If [Biden] stands up for us, he can do it.”