Demonstrations come as Cuba is experiencing its toughest phase yet of the coronavirus crisis.
The United States Coast Guard in Miami says it is monitoring any activity aimed at increasing “unsafe and illegal” crossings between Florida and Cuba in response to rare street protests on the island.
Rear Admiral Eric C Jones issued a warning on Monday night as groups of Cubans in the US said they planned to travel in boats filled with supplies to Cuba to show support for the Cuban protesters. South Florida has the country’s largest population of Cuban Americans.
“Please don’t take to the sea,” Jones said in a statement. “The Coast Guard along with our local, state and federal partners are monitoring any activity” that could be unsafe in the Florida straits “including unpermitted vessel departures from Florida to Cuba”.
The Florida straits, bordered by the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean, lie between the United States and Cuba.
— USCGSoutheast (@USCGSoutheast) July 12, 2021
On Sunday thousands of Cubans spilled onto the streets in towns across the country to protest the government, with many shouting “Libertad” – freedom – and “We are not afraid”. The largest demonstrations in Cuba in decades came amid food shortages and a lack of medicines, with the COVID pandemic hitting the country hard.
Cuba is under US sanctions that currently cap the amount of remittances in crucial US dollars that US families can send to relatives in Cuba.
The US has a large Cuban diaspora, estimated at 2.3 million in 2017, according to Pew Research Center analysis of US Census Bureau data.
In Miami, Cuban social media personalities had posted Monday that they would make the 10-hour boat ride to Cuba to show support for the protesters, 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 Pelican Harbor Marina near Miami’s North Bay Village, and people brought cases of bottled water, flashlights and boxes of canned Chef Boyardee pasta, the newspaper reported.
“Water, food, medicine, whatever we can take to Cuba. Whatever we can take to help is good,” organiser Dennis Suayero told WSVN, a local Miami news station.
The group did not get very far on a rainy Monday night.
A message posted on organiser Santiago Rivera’s Instagram account early Tuesday said the Coast Guard stopped his group from crossing the straits because of “problems with firearms”.
Rivera’s post thanked people supporting the mission and said Cubans are determining their destiny and losing their fear. “This isn’t politics, this is brotherhood, this is humanity and common sense, proud to be Cuban for my land I give my life,” his post read.
He promised they would try again to leave Wednesday morning “with the permission of the authorities of this country”.
The Coast Guard statement suggested that such permission would not be forthcoming. It noted that the voyage is “dangerous and unforgiving” with nearly 20 Cubans dying while trying to cross in recent weeks. It said the Coast Guard is working with state, local and federal partners to monitor “unpermitted vessel departures from Florida to Cuba”.
On Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas warned would-be Cuban migrants against trying to reach the US by sea, saying the voyage was too dangerous and they would not be allowed to enter.
“Let me be clear: If you take to the sea, you will not come to the United States,” Mayorkas said at a news briefing. “This risk is not worth taking,” he said.
Thousands of Cuban Americans also gathered in Little Havana over the weekend, expressing support for the Cubans who joined the protests. Such unsanctioned demonstrations are extremely rare, and Cuban police were out in force on Monday to control them.
The Cuban government also limited internet access to major social media platforms on Monday, according to data from NetBlocks, an internet watchdog organisation. There were disruptions to WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram and some Telegram servers, the organisation said.
NetBlocks said the disruption was similar to restrictions during protests in November 2020, and that some Cubans were able to get around them using virtual private networks, or VPNs.
The last time there were such large demonstrations in Cuba was nearly 30 years ago, in August 1994, when thousands took to the streets of Havana protesting government policies. The demonstrations were suppressed by the government, and more than 35,000 Cubans left the island, many on rafts or boats to head to the US.
Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel blamed the US for Sunday’s demonstrations, accusing Cuban Americans of using social media to egg them on. He said US sanctions on the island, which he called the “blockade”, were to blame for the dissatisfaction of the Cuban people.
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”. He added that “this is the moment of freedom” for Cuba.