Cries of “Obama traidor!” (Obama is a traitor) rang out Saturday afternoon at José Martí Park in Little Havana, where about 250 people protested this week’s historic announcement by President Barack Obama and Cuba’s Raúl Castro that the two countries were normalizing relations following more than five decades of hostility.
About 40 Cuban exile groups put together the protest, where about a dozen speakers, including local politicians, dissidents and others rallied the crowd.
Former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, warned that renewed ties would not benefit the Cuban people. “Obama has created the expectation that dollars will begin to flow,” he said in an emotional speech. “Dollars are going to go into the pockets of the Castros.”
He also predicted political doom for any candidate associated with Obama, and blasted Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist, who supported lifting the embargo during his failed campaign against Gov. Rick Scott.
“If Charlie Crist couldn’t break 30 percent of the Cuban-American vote after flirting with the Castros, imagine Obama’s candidate in two years after his marriage with the Castros,” he said in an interview.
Diaz-Balart’s remark about Crist’s polling numbers among Cuban-Americans refers to a post-election poll from Scott’s campaign and is open to debate. An exit poll from Edison Research taken of voters found that Crist actually might have won the Cuban-American vote 50-46 percent. But a Latino Decisions poll of highly likely voters taken just before the election found that Scott won that vote 65-35 percent.
The U.S.-Cuba diplomatic agreement, a result of 18 months of secret high-level negotiations between the two countries, caught Cuban-Americans by surprise. Reaction in South Florida has been mixed. Some reject it, others celebrate it, and still others are not quite sure what to think.
But Ebelio Ordoñez, 69, who arrived at the park with his hands full — a large Cuban flag in one and three smaller U.S. flags in the other — was quite sure where he stood.
“I brought my flags to reject the politics of President Obama,” said Ordoñez, who was born in Matanzas, Cuba, but has lived in the United States for 46 years.
“It’s a betrayal of us Cubans. You can’t make deals with tyrants, one who has made no concessions to the Cuban people in more than 50 years,” he said. “This is not good for the Cuban people.”
Delfín González, uncle of Elián González, also attended the protest, telling el Nuevo Herald that the announcement has opened old wounds.
Elián, who was found adrift at sea after his mother perished while making the crossing from Cuba in 1999, was caught up in an international custody tug-of-war between his Miami relatives and his Cuban father. The Justice Department ordered the boy returned to his father. Federal agents seized him from his relatives’ Little Havana home and returned him to Cuba in June 2000.
“We have been hurt in a way that we’ll never forget, and now they’ve done the same again,” he said. “We feel betrayed again.”
Amid chants of “Libertad,” the protestors demanded democracy in Cuba. Several visiting dissidents from the island attended the rally and spoke against the new U.S.-Cuba relationship. “These relations will fortify the repressive machinery of the Castros against the people,” said Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White group in Cuba.
At his year-end White House news conference Friday, Obama acknowledged that Cuba is still “a regime that represses its people,” but said he expected the new relationship would bring change to the island.
“What I know deep in my bones is that if you’ve done the same thing for 50 years and nothing’s changed, you should try something different if you want a different outcome,” the president said.
The island, Obama said, will be “open to the world in ways that it has not been before. I think it’ll happen in fits and starts, but through engagement we have a better chance of bringing about change than we would have otherwise.”
The Little Havana crowd vehemently disagreed with Obama’s opinion.
Jorge Luis García Pérez, a Cuban dissident known as Antúnez, said Obama, whom he referred to as “Barack Hussein Obama,” has sent “a message to my companions in the resistance that this country has turned its back on us.”
He told the crowd: “The Cuban resistance will continue fighting with Barack Obama or without Barack Obama.”
Republican Congressman-elect Carlos Curbelo, who defeated Democratic Rep. Joe Garcia in November, told the crowd they shouldn’t forget that “in Congress we have many allies.”
Florida state Sen. Anitere Flores, speaking in English and Spanish, said those who oppose the new U.S. policy include several generations, young and old. “If the U.S. doesn’t demand justice, who will do it?” she asked.
A poll released Friday showed that Cuban-Americans nationwide are almost evenly divided over Obama's effort to normalize relations with Cuba, with a wide generational gap among younger and older Cuban Americans. It showed that 67 percent of those 65 and older opposed Obama's policy, while only 36 percent of those 18-29 opposed it. The poll of 400 Cuban Americans was conducted by Coral Gables-based Bendixen & Amandi International for the Miami Herald, el Nuevo Herald and the Tampa Bay Times.
Among the multi-generational families at the rally was that of Marianela Pino de Novas, who came with her adult sons and daughters.
“It’s been many years of nothing. Cuba is 90 miles away and nothing has been done,” she lamented. “It’s a lot of pain, and one more betrayal.”
The majority of the crowd was older, but some younger protestors were in attendance.
Ashleigh Samlut, 19, said the media have over-emphasized generational differences among Cuban-Americans who favor open relations with Cuba and those who don’t. “It’s not a generational difference as much as it’s a difference between exile waves,” she said.
Miami Herald reporters Mimi Whitefield, Marc Caputo and el Nuevo Staff Writer Brenda Medina contributed.