MIAMI -- Before the inaugural ceremony for the U.S. embassy in Cuba began Friday morning, small groups of Cuban-Americans had already began to gather and express their feelings outside the emblematic restaurant, Café Versailles, in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami.
While a decade ago, the area outside the restaurant would have been jam-packed with anti-Castro exiles, these days it seems there’s more press and police than protesters.
Under the sweltering summer heat, demonstrators held up signs that read “Obama Coward. Shame on you” while the song “Guantanamera,” perhaps the most noted and patriotic Cuban song, blared in the background.
Those protesting were not hopeful there would be positive changes on the island with the U.S.–Cuba rapprochement. “The dictators have to leave Cuba,” said protestor Alexis Herrera, noting he hasn’t spoken to his father in years because he is communist.
“The Cuban people are not being represented at the Cuban embassy and Cuban exiles are not being represented in the U.S. emabassy either." _ Cuban exile Rafael Leyva-Leyva.
Former Cuban activist Rafael Leyva-Leyva, who exiled in Miami two years ago, was protesting with the group “Partido Republicano de Cuba,” which operates on the island and has members in Miami as well.
He said he was imprisoned for three years for his political views, and lost vision in his right eye from what he said was torture. “The Cuban people are not being represented at the Cuban embassy and Cuban exiles are not being represented in the U.S. emabassy either,” he told NBC News.
Another protestor, who formed the organization “Fundacion Balseros Cubanos,” in Miami pointed out he has not been able to return to Cuba since he left the island on a raft in 1994. His requests for a visa have been denied by the Cuban government. “We want the political system in Cuba to change. We want free elections,” Ivan Picon said.
At least two scuffles broke out between those in favor of closer ties between the U.S. and Cuba and those against it. The Miami-Dade police department made at least one arrest.
Some Cubans in Versailles welcomed closer ties between the U.S. and Cuba. Leonardo Sanchez-Adega who left Cuba when he was 5 years-old and now owns a consultancy group called CubaFutura believes change in Cuba will come from the Millennial generation through economic change.
During his travels to Cuba, he found people prefer not to be engaged politically since they are still afraid, said. He said Cuban people are accustomed to having everything given to them by the government and the political system won’t change until people have material possessions they call their own and refuse to have it taken away from them.
“Until that mentality is engrained in them, nothing is going to happen,” Sanchez-Adega said.
A couple who exiled from Cuba two days ago, after a long trek from Ecuador, didn’t waste time in using the First Amendment. They said they were detained numerous times in Cuba for supporting the opposition group “Ladies in White.”
Despite warmer relations between the U.S. and Cuba they didn’t think it was worth staying on the island because they simply didn’t see a future for themselves. “There is no life for the Cubans. There is no food. There’s nothing,” Nelson Huerdo said.