Norberto Santana, Jr.

A pioneering leader in the nation’s rising nonprofit news movement and an award-winning journalist. Santana has established Voice of OC as Orange County’s civic news leader, uncovered truths across Southern California governments for more than two decades and reported on Congress and Latin America. Subscribe now to receive his latest columns by email.

Thousands of Cuban Americans across Southern California hit the streets this past week to support the spontaneous protests erupting inside Cuba, calling on President Biden and local political leaders to stay tough on Cuba’s repressive regime and if anything, get creative in getting the island’s internet turned back on. 

Demonstrations are planned this entire week again across the region, culminating in a planned vigil at L.A. City Hall at 3 p.m. on Sunday.

“If Cubans hit the streets, so will we,” was the chant often heard at last weekend’s demonstrations in Westwood. 

Many of my friends keep asking: Why are so many Cuban Americans out demonstrating in front of public places like local Portos Bakery outlets?

Next to Miami, New York and Tampa, the Los Angeles area has one of the highest concentrations of Cuban Americans in the United States with about 50,000 identifying as such in LA, and as many as 100,000 spread out across California. 

I’m a first generation Cuban American, born and raised in Whittier, California.

In Miami, Cuban Americans often head to the Versailles restaurant when there’s big news coming out of Cuba.

Here, people go to places like Portos or a host of local Cuban cultural clubs scattered across California. 

These families want the Biden Administration to stay tough when it comes to U.S. policy toward Cuba, with many celebrating the fact that President Biden has correctly described the island’s ruling regime as a failed state and resisted calls to lift sanctions against the repressive regime. 

So far, one of the biggest stars for the Cuban community from the Biden Administration has been Huntington Beach native, Julie J. Chung, acting assistant secretary of state in the Bureaus of Western Hemisphere Affairs. 

Chung’s Twitter account has been a beacon of freedom and democratic values, not afraid to call out thuggery. 

In my eyes, her inspiring and sage messages of support for the Cuban people will never be forgotten.

She’s on my radar as a future Secretary of State.  

“How many Cubans, incommunicado & cut off from legal representation, are being sentenced in secret summary trials in Cuba?,” Chung tweeted Tuesday. 

Ringing the alarm bells on a jailed artist, Luis Manuel Alcántara, she notes that “@LMOAlcantara is just one of far too many voices in Cuba arbitrarily detained & sent to prison for exercising his human rights.”

Julie Chung gets it. 

Cuban American families want President Biden to take bold action, such as turning the internet back on inside the island — reversing the blackout that the island’s terrified leaders instituted the day after Cubans hit the streets in unprecedented numbers. 

They are also deeply concerned about an estimated 174 people on the island — mainly young people — who are still missing after the regime launched night raids on homes.

According to a Google document that activists inside Cuba launched, an estimated more than 500 people were jailed in the days after the protests. That same document has the names of the 174 missing people and also links to a Facebook page with their photos and stories. 

The hashtag, #SOS Cuba, with stirring video from Cuba, has become a rallying point for Cubans inside the island and their family members all over the world, spreading the word about the true reality of life inside Cuba and the fact that residents can’t go on enduring the repressive state they live in. 

On the videos, Cubans themselves wryly point out that there’s no fuel in Cuba for ambulances.

But there’s plenty to fuel buses chock full of plain clothed police and storm troopers who swept into Havana. 

Numerous videos show police throwing rocks at protesters, as well as beating them with baseball bats. 

These kinds of mass protests have happened before. 

No matter one’s partisan position, Cuban’s human rights record has always been abysmal since 1959. 

If the U.S. State Department annual report on human rights abuses is too political for you as a reader, consider checking out Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International. 

They all read the same.

There is no respect for human rights in Cuba and our family members live in the ultimate Orwellian police state. 

Friends reminded me recently that this very week is the anniversary of one of my first trips as an adult to Cuba in 1994, where I met with many dissident poets, writers and independent journalists. Just weeks after I came back from that trip, protests broke out in similar fashion with young people running throughout Havana’s seaside drive known as the Malecon.

Known as the Maleconazo, the incident triggered another boat exodus from the island as well as President Bill Clinton’s wet-foot, dry-foot policy that sent many Cubans to camps in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the site of a U.S. military base.

The big difference back then is that there was virtually no media coming out of Cuba.

The regime won. They silenced the masses. 

The system held firm with Fidel Castro front and center, managing the crisis. 

Today, there’s a big difference.

Fidel is long gone. 

The independent press movement that many activists, including myself, started working with back in 1994 has grown substantially over the past few decades into a real movement with outlets like CubaNet and 14 y Media employing more and more independent journalists to cover events across the island, from inside the island. 

These brave journalists — who are repeatedly beaten, jailed and often under house arrest — were a direct inspiration for my entry into journalism and serve as a daily reminder of why journalists in a democracy need to stand up and hold the powerful accountable. 

In addition to the independent journalists in Cuba, dissident artists have really pushed the envelope, openly pushing officials to loosen up their restrictions on freedom of expression. 

Recently, the San Isidro Movement forced a direct dialogue with senior regime cultural leaders that led to the jailing earlier this year of one of their leaders, the 33-year old Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara. 

Otero Alcántara, along with a host of journalists, youth leaders and dissidents have been jailed in recent days with little information about their whereabouts.

The arbitrary detentions are something that Cubans and Cuban Americans won’t live with anymore.

We won’t stay quiet because we know those on the island can’t speak up.

Indeed, it wasn’t the activists that lit the protests this time. It was the Cuban masses.

The sweeping protests have the regime so terrified it turned off the internet entirely on the island, according to sources close to the situation.

And that’s something that U.S. policy can change. 

That’s exactly what I heard Betty Porto, whose family started the famed Southern California bakery after emigrating from Cuba, so eloquently suggest to Channel 4 last Sunday, at the vigil organized by the Facebook group, Cubans in LA, near the federal building in Westwood, which drew scores of Cuban Americans.

“We need the world to know. People still think Cuba is an ideal place to live,” Porto said. 

“It’s just a jail.”

Porto mentioned how the youth leaders, who so bravely took the streets last week, are being rounded up. 

And she succinctly summarized the ask from Cuban Americans to President Joe Biden.

Turn the internet back on. 

“Let’s do that now,” Betty said. “Let’s give them internet.”

That’s all the Cuban people need.

A fair debate.

One the international community can witness.

That led me to ask a bunch of activists I know about internet service inside the island. 

Why not just turn the U.S. Interests Section in Havana into one giant WiFi hotspot?

Why not use balloons — as was done during Puerto Rico’s hurricane with what was called Project Loon— to offer remote internet connectivity to the Cuban people from international waters?

Many interviews later, I connected with Raudel Garcia Bringas, who developed an independent network of satellite dishes inside Cuba that ultimately led to him being jailed for three years before he left the island and is regularly interviewed as a knowledge source on internet in Cuba.

Garcia, who wrote a book about his experiences with satellite technology and prison, told me getting the internet turned back on inside Cuba isn’t easy.

But it’s not impossible.

Garcia, who now owns a satellite service network that provides service to Cuba, says existing networks to fuel satellite phone and internet service already exist on the island and were there before the pandemic.

But the current economic crisis on the island impacted Cubans’ ability to pay for those kinds of subscription services, he said. 

The Cuban government could potentially block services like remote-balloon internet access.

But it can’t block devices that use satellite technology.

We’ve been talking about satellite phones for dissidents and independent journalists since the 1990s. 

It’s time to get creative.

Maybe it’s time to subsidize satellite service in Cuba for the next three months. 

How difficult or expensive is that?

Congressman Lou Correa (D-Anaheim), who represents the working core of Orange County in Congress, called turning Cuba’s internet back on, “a great idea”

“As Americans, we need to continue to support movements aimed at giving people the ability for self determination, meaning democracy, liberty, right to assemble, freedom of speech…the stuff that America’s all about,” Correa said. 

“We’re talking basic freedoms. Nothing earth shattering,” he added.

“And some of those ideas about bringing basic internet, communication to the island — that’s where we should start.”

Now, ironically, there are some on the left that want to ignore the reality of Cuba’s repressive system that not only chokes free enterprise, but kills freedom of expression.

Recently, the Black Lives Matter movement issued a controversial statement backing the Cuban government and putting the blame of the protests on the U.S. embargo of Cuba.

I think it’s a sentiment many on the Left share about the embargo.

This past week, I debated my good friends Joese Gloria and Dylan Thompson on the Its Happenin show, who both asked a ton of great questions about whether it’s the sanctions imposed by the U.S. that has made life so hard for Cubans.

I wish it was that simple. 

Now, the timing of the debate on the embargo is particularly ironic given that the Cuban people just gave us all a pretty clear and spontaneous national message about what’s bugging them. 

When I saw the videos of young and old running through the streets of Havana, I didn’t hear one voice say anything about the U.S. embargo.

Instead, what I heard was things like “Abajo la dictadura” (down with the dictatorship), “No mas repression” (no more repression) and “Patrio y Vida” — Homeland and life as opposed to the age-old slogan of Cuba’s Communist Party,  “Patria o Muerte” (Homeland or Death).

“Libertad para Cuba” (Freedom for Cuba)

“No queremos irnos de Cuba,” (We don’t want to leave Cuba)

Consider this, Obama liberalized U.S. policy towards Cuba, vocally putting blame on the U.S. embargo.

The Cuban government proceeded to heighten repression of dissidents and barely loosened up on the host of economic restrictions it imposes on Cubans. 

President Trump tightened restrictions again on Cuba. 

The Cuban government continued repression of dissidents and again, did nothing creative on the economy. 

Cuba’s economy cannot be saved because its model doesn’t work. 

The youth of Cuba have spoken pretty clearly to that, screaming to the world that they are tired of a system that can’t produce much, other than a repressive apparatus. 

They know their economic reality has nothing to do with the U.S. embargo.

Keep in mind that the U.S. still delivers large amounts of free food and goods to Cuba under humanitarian aid exemptions to the embargo. 

“Cuba has been purchasing millions worth of food in U.S.,” said Frank Calzon, who directed Cuban human rights programs at Freedom House all the way back to the 1970s and eventually built the Center for a Free Cuba, based in Washington, D.C.

“Most of the chicken in Havana is imported from New Orleans,” Calzon told me. 

Cuba can buy all the food and medicine it needs. 

It just has to pay cash, something Cuba’s communist regime hates.

Note that other nations like Canada, Spain, Mexico, Brazil, Italy, France and Russia all do business with Cuba. 

And yet the Cuban economy is still in shambles, with government-run grocery stores unable to even provide basic foodstuffs in a country with plenty of fertile land. 

What they do have plenty of is debt owed to countries who issued them any kind of credit.

That’s what the Cuban government’s whole drop-the-embargo campaign is really about, getting the Cuban government trade credits — which they can then use to maintain their expensive repressive apparatus.

Add to that the billions in remittances that Cubans living in the U.S. and Cuban Americans send to their families who have no ability to freely visit or speak out.

That is another changing voice we are hearing from at the demonstrations, the recent emigres, who are asking themselves hard questions about sending money back home that helps their family.

That same money also ultimately helps float a communist regime, a complaint that eerily echoes back to their parents’ and grandparents’ generation. 

Cubans are tired of floating a regime elite that can’t deliver but clings onto power based on what they did during the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, 62 years ago.

Calzon points out another fascinating irony about Cuba, noting that “when you compare the racial makeup of the San Isidro movement and other opposition movements inside Cuba, they are reflections of Cuba society … Black, white, Mulato, as well as a variety of religious traditions.”

“That’s Cuba,” Calzon said. 

“Then, look at the pictures of the Cuban leadership … they are a bunch of old, white military people. Very fat. Extremely fat. There’s hardly any women or Blacks.”

Frank Calzon, who directed Cuban human rights programs at Freedom House all the way back to the 1970s and eventually built the Center for a Free Cuba, based in Washington, D.C.

If anything, Calzon adds that “Cuba’s leadership are truly white supremecists.”

Now, one of the most invigorating things about living in Southern California is that the entire world plays out here, given that virtually every part of the globe has a community here.

Our lives are intertwined.

With so many immigrants sending remittances back to home countries near U.S. borders, what happens abroad has local impacts.

We’ve seen it in Westminster’s Little Saigon with protests over Vietnam.

We’ve seen it in Anaheim’s Little Arabia with protests over the Palestinian and Israeli conflict in the Gaza Strip earlier this year. 

We saw it with huge protests in Stanton over the recent military takeover in Myanmar, also called Burma.

And while many on the left argue that younger Cuban Americans just don’t have the same sentiments against the Cuban regime that their parents and grandparents did, just come out to one of these ongoing demonstrations and talk to any young person there. 

Credit: NORBERTO SANTANA JR., Voice of OC

Last Sunday, I ran into two sisters, Janelly, 34, and Tiffany Marquez, 25, on their way to the federal building to demonstrate with their mom, Ani.  

“Because of my grandparents, we are free. The least we can do is fight for those that don’t,” said Janelly. 

The sisters recently organized one of the many social media groups that have been active on the Cuba issue in LA, organizing more than a thousand young Cuban Americans together on the instagram page, @CubanosinLA.

The two sisters also helped organize hundreds to demonstrate at the Portos in West Covina. 

“I know a lot of Cuban Americans feel helpless, but we’re not if we use our voices,” Janelly said. 

Tiffany said she saw a desperate situation while visiting Cuba three years ago. 

“Yes, Cubans are creative, energetic people. But between it all, you see the sadness,” she said.

“They can’t leave.”

These experiences help to put into perspective for us here in Southern California why it’s so important to push for the most open and transparent government — one that can admit mistakes and adjust. 

For example, while I don’t agree with the BLM statement on Cuba and believe it really takes up the Cuban government talking points, I do agree with the group’s concern that policing in America has become unaccountable to the public and hits communities of color much harder than any other.

That has to change.

Government doesn’t just go bad in places like Cuba.

After getting home from a vigil last Sunday following peaceful protesting with signs on street corners, and witnessing LAPD officers who instilled pride by their respectful engagement with demonstrators, I later saw a social media posting about another nearby protest where an LAPD officer was firing a rubber bullet directly at a protester. 

It’s on all of us to stay vigilant, involved and vocal — as difficult as that can be.

And it’s on all of us to put in the collective work to hold our government accountable when it falls short.

The drama playing out on the streets of Havana is headed to a neighborhood near you if we fail.

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