In January 1959, Fidel Castro spoke in Havana and said: “We have a free country. We do not have censorship and the people can meet freely. We will never use force and the day the people do not want me, I will leave.”
Castro promised Cubans a better way of life. But the reality is his revolution, which essentially began on July 26, 1953, became a tropical juxtaposition of sorts: an island rich in tradition, rich in soil, rich in entrepreneurial spirit; yet, imprisoned by the grips of a dictatorship forcing the people into hunger, poverty and oppression.
That same year, my parents, Victor and Teresita Sanchez, would marry and start to build a life together. They were in their early 20s and optimistic, ambitious, and looking forward to growing their family. However, their dreams of a prosperous life in paradise became a nightmare seemingly overnight.
My father recalled how in the midst of the takeover, life was spiraling out of control— private property was confiscated, tens of thousands of people losing their homes, farms and businesses, and worse yet— Cubans were losing their lives at the hands of mercenaries and firing squads for speaking out.
For many, including my parents, the situation reached a boiling point when Castro’s regime launched a war on religion. They shut down churches, silenced religious leaders, often times infiltrating the very pews with communist sympathizers and spies— all with the express purpose of doing away with freedom of religion.
But the fears, lies and deceit came to a fever pitch this July 11.
With their rallying cry of “Patría y Vida” (Homeland and Life), the Cuban people took to the streets in significant and spontaneous acts of public rebellion across the island. Emboldened and indignant, our brothers and sisters on the island demanded change, begging for their God-given rights after so many decades of dying in silence. The images shook me to my core.
Cubans no longer hid. They no longer feared the beatings and imprisonments soon to come. They rallied proclaiming for all to hear that the use of fear, intimidation and coercion no longer had a chilling effect on their willingness to speak the truth. “If we are silent, they kill us. If we speak out, they kill us. Therefore, we have decided to speak out in order to not die in silence,” read a sign on the streets of Cuba.
How dire can their situation be that they are willing to risk life and limb for one opportunity, just one, to truly experience freedom?
That fight for freedom continues, but this time, it’s different.
This is not the Cuba of the 1960s. It is an island on the brink, filled with despair, living without even the most basic of necessities. It is a country that has witnessed thousands upon thousands of men, women and children detained, missing, imprisoned or murdered by the regime. It is now a Cuba sharing the raw, unedited truths of their struggle on social media for the world to see.
And what does the regime do in retaliation? They shut down the internet to hide the atrocities being committed.
But still, they marched and chanted in towns and cities throughout the island. The people were no longer willing to cower to the tyrannical, communist regime that suffocates its citizens, nor will they join in the dictator’s timeworn reaction of blaming the U.S. for Cuba’s distress. That excuse no longer resonates with the Cuban people.
That is why the Cubans suffering cannot and should not be used as a geopolitical pawn.
America was founded on the values of freedom and democracy— two ideologies we hold so dear. In fact, we have supported those same ideals throughout history and around the globe in an effort to ensure that all people regardless of color, race or religion have access to these principles. However, these ideals require timeliness, courage and leadership in Washington in order to succeed.
President Biden’s sanctions are a theoretical first step, albeit delayed, to applying pressure to the thugs responsible for the brutal crackdown on the liberty-seeking Cubans, but they desperately need more.
Penalizing an already sanctioned Cuban official shows how out of touch this Administration is with what is happening on the island and it is a slap in the face to all those falling victim to the ruthlessness perpetrated by the dictatorship. The large scale violence, repression and human rights violations being committed against the Cuban people require an overwhelming diplomatic response from entities such as the Organization of American States. In turn, this will send a strong message to the Díaz-Canel regime that the atrocities being committed on its citizens will not go unchecked.
A key component to this is securing free internet access for all Cubans in order to ensure that international pressure ramps up as the horrific truths taking place on the island each and every day are exposed.
Lastly, the U.S. and groups across this freedom-loving nation should be outraged and should not applaud or sympathize with a murderous despotic regime choking its people. We need to give rise and unify behind shared ideals. Silence is not an option and failing to speak out, is in essence, standing on the side of tyranny and oppression.
That is why we must act now, as our Cuban brothers and sisters continue revolting against a cruel, totalitarian regime. Today, we join their cry to shape a new history for the island of Cuba, one where together we proclaim “Libertad, Patría y Vida”!
Jeanette Nuñez is the first Hispanic woman Lieutenant Governor of the State of Florida, and a former Representative of the Florida House.