MIAMI — Dressed totally in white, holding a gladiola in my right hand, I marched amongst the masses. And as I marched, I cried seeing all type of people coming together to make a statement, for those who can’t in Cuba. The undying passion people have for freedom of speech brought together in unity for this five-city block walk. Young, old, Cubans, non-Cubans, I even saw a hundred or so year old man being pushed in his chair by his seventy plus year old son- both dressed in pure white from head to toe.
On February 23 in Havana, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, 43, a black mason and bricklayer, died on day 83 of a hunger strike to protest the beatings and abuses he received at the hands of prison guards. The death of Tamayo, a man recognized by Amnesty International as being a “prisoner of conscience,” galvanized the Cuban exile community as no other act has in decades.
I would have never thought it possible that, less than forty-eight hours after being summoned, over a hundred thousand people would assemble at a certain place at a certain time, wearing white clothes and carrying gladiolas. But, if anyone could accomplish that, if would be Gloria Estefan, the beloved and highly respected Cuban-American singer.
The first e-mail arrived early in that Tuesday afternoon, that one was followed thirty minutes later by two more- one in English and one in Spanish. Less than two hours after the first e-mail arrived, I had ten more. And, so it went for the rest of the day. By the time I logged off that night, I had received more than twenty e-mails on the subject- on my business account, personal account, and Facebook. The next day, I received close to double that number.
The announcement was made on Tuesday: Gloria Estefan was calling for the community in Miami to gather on Calle 8, the main thoroughfare of little Havana, two days from then, on Thursday afternoon at 5, to participate in a silent march to denounce the violations of human rights in Cuba. Gloria declared: "This is not a Cuban issue, it’s a human rights issue."
The march was to bring attention to the death of the dissident, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who had died during a hunger strike protesting the treatment of the inhuman conditions of Cuban political prisoners who had been arbitrarily thrown in jail by the Castro regime. The purpose of the march also was to bring attention to the world the beatings and assaults the against the Ladies in White- the wives, sisters, mothers, daughters and cousins of the seventy-five dissidents who had been languishing in prison for years, men who had been sentenced to an average of thirty years for such violations as owning a book written by Martin Luther King, Jr. For the past seven years, on Sundays after Mass, the Ladies would march peacefully through the streets of Havana, wearing white and carrying gladiolas in their arms, to bring attention to the plights of their men folk.
Two weeks before, during their regularly scheduled, peaceful march, the Ladies had been brutally attacked by a mob of Castro supporters and secret police, attacks that resulted in several of them having to seek medical treatment. The attacks were captured on film, images of repression and brutality that captured the attention of Cubans such as Gloria and Emilio Estefan. Gloria, who had never been political, had had enough, and issued a call for all those who valued human rights and individual liberty to congregate on Calle 8, at the intersection of 27th Avenue and Beacom Boulevard. We were to wear white and carry white gladiolas as a sign of respect for those brave women in Cuba who did the same every Monday.
I live on Miami Beach- under normal conditions the drive from here to Calle 8, would take twenty minutes- but not knowing how congested the traffic would be, and anticipating having difficulty parking, I left myself plenty of time to get to the march. About a mile away from the meeting place, I began to see people dressed in white carrying flowers. As I got closer, I began to encounter heavier traffic, and soon, I was crawling along at five miles an hour. All around, I could see more and more people heading towards Calle 8, until I was surrounded by a sea of white. The police had blocked off Calle 8. Parking close to the designated meeting area, of course, was impossible, so I decided that the best strategy would be to get as far away from the area as possible, and pay a homeowner to allow me to leave my car in his or her front yard. I was fortunate in that my plan worked, and I found a place about a mile away.
It was getting late, so I hurried to the meeting place, joining the throngs of people heading that way. The press was covering the event, for in addition to the news trucks parked on the streets, there must have been close to a dozen helicopters hovering overhead. The closer I got to Calle 8, the more congested the streets became, and soon it was close to impossible to walk without bumping into someone. However, in spite of the multitude of people, the gathering was very orderly. (The City of Miami Police later reported that there was not one single incident during the event, unheard of in a march of such magnitude.)
As I took tiny steps, I looked around at my fellow marchers: there was an astonishing variety of individuals of all ages and colors: babies being carried by their parents; the very old in walkers or being pushed by a family member; teenagers; pregnant women; cocky young men; entire family groups; groups that looked as if they worked together, etc. The marchers were of all colors: black and white and mulatto. There were flags: American, Cuban, Salvadorean, Brazilian, Colombian, and several other nationalities. Many of the marchers carried signs with photos of Tamayo, others condemned the Castro brothers’ dictatorship, still others declared their support for human rights. Realizing the solemnity and importance of the occasion, the marchers were, for the most part, silent.
The day was beautiful: the sun was shining and a slight wind was blowing. For once, there was no humidity. It was as if Orlando Zapata Tamayo were looking down, and smiling.
I’m not quite sure how it happened, but I found myself near the makeshift podium where Gloria- accompanied by her husband Emilio and other Latino luminaries- stood to speak. She, too, was dressed in white. As soon as she took the microphone, the crowd became silent. With tears in her eyes, she spoke eloquently about human rights, about the bravery and courage of the Ladies in White; of the death of Tamayo and others like him. As she spoke, she received a call from Havana on her cell phone: it was one of the Ladies, telling her that they, too, were marching in Havana, but that the police were harassing them, attacking them at that exact moment. The contrast between the different conditions under which the marches were taking place could not have been starker.
Standing there, in the middle of Calle 8, normally one of the busiest streets of Miami, surrounded by thousands of people, most all wearing white and carrying flowers, honoring a man that few, if any had met, it was impossible not to feel moved. For once, the differing factions of Miami had put aside their politics, and had come together for a greater purpose.
It is, of course, impossible to know of anything will come of such an event, but, as for me, it’s been exactly a week now that I participated in the march, and I still cannot get the images out of my mind. Hopefully, others feel the same, and change will occur.
Days after the Miami march, others were held in Los Angeles, New York and Madrid.