Miami area demonstrators block part of South Florida expressway to support Cuban protests

MIAMI (AP) — Demonstrators expressing solidarity with the thousands of Cubans who waged a rare weekend of protests around their island nation shut down a stretch of a major South Florida expressway Tuesday.

The large group gathered at a busy Miami intersection chanting support for the Cubans, who had taken to the streets in the communist nation Sunday to air grievances about poor economic conditions and other complaints.

A few miles (kilometers) away, hundreds of supporters gathered for hours Tuesday evening at a park. The peaceful crowd waved flags and cheered on the efforts of island protesters.

Flavia Pérez, 16, was brought to the U.S. at age 1. She joined the rally at Tamiami Park, saying, “I’m here to support young Cubans on the island so they have the same opportunities as I have in the U.S.”

South Florida is home to the largest U.S. population of Cuban Americans.

News helicopter footage from broadcaster WTVJ showed demonstrators earlier Tuesday marching to Miami’s Palmetto Expressway, where many blocked traffic in the afternoon.

Elsewhere, Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis held a round table with elected officials, including members of Congress. The gathering at Miami’s American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora was closed to reporters, but the governor later asserted that protests in Cuba were more than just about shortages of vaccines, food and other basic items.

“They are revolting against a corrupt communist dictatorship that has ruled that island with an iron fist for over 60 years, that is responsible for death and destruction, not just on the island of Cuba but really throughout the Western Hemisphere,” DeSantis said at a news conference.

He said the demonstrators desire “a free society.”

Nationwide protests last year under the Black Lives Matter movement drew attention to racial injustice in the U.S. after the killings of Black people by police. Earlier this year, DeSantis signed into Florida law a measure that enhances penalties against protestors who turn violent and allows criminal penalties against those who organize protests that turn violent. DeSantis dismissed similarities between Black Lives Matter and Tuesday’s demonstrators.

“These are people that are rebelling against a communist dictatorship,” the governor said. He said the demonstrations in Miami were “fundamentally different than what we saw last summer.”

DeSantis, who is said to be considering a run for the White House in 2024, declined a direct response when asked how Democratic President Joe Biden’s administration should handle Cuba policy. But he said federal officials shouldn’t be satisfied with small Cuban government accommodations designed to quell demonstrations.

Republican U.S. Rep. María Elvira Salazar, the daughter of Cuban exiles, said the community needs to speak with one voice urging the Biden administration to stand tough against the Cuban government.

“We cannot negotiate with the regime at this hour,” Salazar said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Coast Guard in Miami has been monitoring for any “unsafe and illegal” crossings between Florida and Cuba in response to rare street protests on the island.

Rear Adm. Eric C. Jones issued a warning statement Monday night as groups of Cuban immigrants said they planned to travel in boats filled with supplies to Cuba to show support for the Cuban protesters.

In Miami, Cuban social media personalities posted Monday that they would make the 10-hour boat ride to Cuba to show support after rare street protests broke out over the weekend, the Miami Herald reported. The influencers said they would bring aid — and guns — and urged people in Miami to offer up their boats.

One group gathered Monday night at a marina and people brought cases of bottled water, flashlights and boxes of canned pasta, the newspaper reported. “Water, food, medicine, whatever we can take to Cuba. Whatever we can take to help is good,” organizer Dennis Suayero told WSVN.

The group didn’t get very far Monday night. A message posted on organizer Santiago Rivera’s Instagram account early Tuesday said the Coast Guard stopped his group from traveling.

Over the weekend, thousands of Cuban Americans gathered in Miami’s Little Havana in support of Cuban street marches against high prices and food shortages on the island. Such unsanctioned protests are extremely rare, and Cuban police were out in force Monday to control them.

The last such demonstrations in Havana took place in 1994. President Miguel Díaz-Canel accused Cuban Americans of using social media to egg them on.

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, a Cuban American, tweeted that he has never “felt such raw emotion from the people of Miami desperate for intervention by the government and by themselves on behalf of Cuba.”

Miami wasn’t the only Florida city where demonstrators gathered. For a second day, Cuban-Americans in Tampa gathered Tuesday at an intersection, blocking traffic and waving Cuban flags. Like the group in South Florida, Tampa demonstrators attempted to gain access to Interstate 275, but police held them back. Television images showed dozens of protesters in a city that traces its Cuban heritage back generations. Orlando also had hundreds of protestors blocking a busy street for about an hour Tuesday evening.