Cubans in Atlanta view turmoil in their homeland with worry, fear, hope

Atlantans look for ways to help relatives back home in the beleaguered nation

On June 26, after eight years of fundraising, Atlanta’s Martí Historical Society unveiled a statue of Cuban national hero José Martí during a glittering reception at the Millennium Gate Museum in Midtown.

Celebrants dined on whole roasted pig and were entertained by pianist Enrique Chia. Film celebrity Andy Garcia recited Martí's poetry as the bust of Martí, created by artist Alejandro Aguilera, was revealed.

Three weeks later a crowd of Cuban American protesters, outraged at what Cuba has become, marched on the outdoor memorial. José Pérez, one of the organizers of the Martí dedication and treasurer of the Society, worried that they would knock the statue down.

But they didn’t even scuff up the grass. Martí was their hero, and they wanted his Cuba back.

Martí died in 1895, killed on the battlefield before seeing the successful result of Cuba’s revolt against Spain. Atlanta’s demonstrators, and the protesters in the streets of Havana seek the same goal as Martí, said Pérez: freedom from dictatorship.

On the other hand, Pérez, who emigrated from Cuba when he was in sixth grade, is worried that Havana’s protesters may suffer the same fate as Martí. “They are taking a huge risk,” he said, “because frankly the government is very oppressive. They are well known for coming out with the big guns.”

Pérez is among Atlanta’s Cuban exiles and expatriates watching with a mixture of alarm and hope as thousands of Cubans mount protests demanding a change in leadership, only to be met with a violent crackdown.

“Their internet is being cut, they’re being silenced, they’re being beaten, they’re suffering terrible atrocities,” said children’s book author Carmen Agra Deedy of Stone Mountain, who escaped as a refugee to the U.S. with her parents when she was 3 years old.

Artist Ana Guzman also left Cuba as a child, emigrating to Miami, then New York, then Pennsylvania. She came to Atlanta in 1980, to work with the Catholic Church resettling refugees during the Mariel boatlift, when thousands of Cubans fled the island during an economic downturn, some of them landing in Atlanta’s United States Penitentiary.

In this new crisis, an ailing economy, rolling blackouts and food shortages are worsened by outbreaks of COVID-19. “There are god-awful things going on down there, as there were when this whole thing started with (Fidel) Castro,” said Guzman.

Guzman, like thousands of expatriates in the U.S., joined American protests staged during the last two weeks, hoping to amplify the voices of Cuban demonstrators.

President Joe Biden took heed and issued new sanctions July 22 against Cuban leaders. (The Obama administration had normalized relations with Cuba, which many Cuban expatriates resented, before that ruling was reversed by President Donald Trump.)

Guzman said it’s time for the rest of the world to step up the pressure. “Germany does business with Cuba, China does business with Cuba, Argentina — everybody is doing business with Cuba and benefiting.”

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Maria Fernandez, whose son Luis’ restaurant, Mojitos, provided food for the Martí statue dedication, sat in Castro’s lap when she was a youngster. Her parents, like many, revered the revolutionary leader, until his revolution went sideways.

She and her parents escaped. Now, said Fernandez, when she sees Cuban children taken from their parents, and armed supporters of President Miguel Diaz-Canel beating protesters in the streets, she’s ready to go back and fight.

“This is the worst human rights violation that I have seen,” said the Peachtree Corners resident. “I feel like if I could — I’m 70 years old — I would get an AR-5 and be there myself.”

A hip-hop song called “Patria y Vida” has given the Cuban protesters a new slogan, “homeland and life,” that turns the 1959 Communist slogan, “patria o muerte” on its head.

Recorded by U.S. and Cuban musicians, a video of the song has been viewed 7 million times on YouTube. As they face down police and pro-Diaz-Canel vigilantes, protesters in Cuba chant a refrain from the song, “No tenemos miedo,” “we are not afraid.”

It’s the largest show of resistance in decades. Charles Perdomo, 51, a firefighter born in Miami of Cuban refugees, said the availability of cellphones helped make it happen. “It has opened ears and eyes of Cuban people to what’s going on in the world, and what they’ve been held back from.”

It has also helped them organize. During protests, the cellphone has allowed them to record and smuggle out video evidence of the regime’s repressive tactics.

Will things change? “I am hopeful,” said Perdomo, who lives in Henry County. “They’re probably closer now than they’ve ever been. It can happen. In high school I never imagined that the Soviet Union would collapse, that Germany would be reunited, and that wall would come down.”

Others are more doubtful. Pete Quiñones, owner of Metro Atlanta Ambulance Service, said he expects the sort of pushback that quelled protesters in Hong Kong. “You’re going to see an aggressive response ... The regime will try to put them down.” Some protesters are already facing speedy trials and convictions, according to human rights activists.

In the meantime, they need help, said Fernandez.

“Those people can’t do this on their own,” she said. “They don’t have any resources. They don’t have anything to eat, to begin with.”

Said frequent Cuba visitor Chris Carroll, an Atlanta photographer and videographer, “You get up at 5 a.m., to wait (in line) for the bread store to open up, and hope they don’t run out of bread before you get there.”

Credit: Courtesy: José Pérez

Credit: Courtesy: José Pérez

Pérez knows that the Cuban government takes money off the top when Americans send funds to their Cuban families, but he has continued to send support to his wife’s family back home. “If you’ve got relatives there and they need help, you need to go ahead and bite the bullet, try to get money to them.

“I hate to sound like a cynic,” said Perez. “I’ve got high hopes but that’s all it is.”


TO HELP

Americans are learning about the events in Cuba by way of social media, including the Instagram feed of media production company ADN Cuba (@adncuba). Also on Instagram are @cubanospalante, which works with organizers on the ground to deliver resources directly to the Cuban people; @wildhorsefdn, which sends packages of medicine to their health care partners in Cuba; and @caritascuba, the Catholic Charities of Cuba, which has delivered food and medical care to people on the island for 20 years. Global Health Partners is working to deliver syringes to Cuba for vaccination efforts, and you can find them at ghpartners.org/syringes4cuba. Gemeny Hernandez is gathering support to recharge the phones of Cubans with prepaid minutes and data. She can be contacted at rechargingCuba@gmail.com. She accepts contributions through Zelle (rechargingCuba@gmail.com) and Venmo (Gemeny-Hernandez).