Everything around us is “mandated solidarity,” as it should be in the military.
As service members, we give up pieces of ourselves to become part of the whole. But sometimes, we own the actions and movements we feel passionately about as individuals. Sometimes, the same people whom we stand with for our mission in the U.S. Armed Forces are the same people who stand with us in personal missions.
That’s what I saw on July 21: Red, white, and blue flags waved. But it wasn’t the U.S. flag, as you would expect on a U.S. military base. This was for Cuba: the people, not the government. It was a vivid moment. Soldiers and airmen stationed at U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys in South Korea came together to stand with the people protesting in Cuba.
Service members enjoyed traditional Cuban dishes—congri (rice and beans), lechon (pork), flan—with salsa music playing in the background and PowerPoint presentations, along with speeches by two Cubans who hosted the event. They wore shirts that read, “Patria y vida”—country and life—and took a group photo holding their hands in the air in the shape “L” for liberty.
Much had built up to this moment. On July 11, just two weeks prior, Cubans made history. Starting in the small city of San Antonio de los Baños, just south of Havana and the childhood home of Fidel Castro’s silky-voiced revolutionary Silvio Rodriguez, Cubans protested against their government in crowds numbering in the hundreds.
This quickly spread to the capital, Havana, with thousands going to the streets, and eventually throughout the entire island. Those in large and small cities alike gathered and stood with much courage. I say “with much courage” because, in Cuba, this is unheard of. It is a crime to speak against the government in Cuba. (In fact, the protestors now face years in jail.) We had never seen so much of the island move in unison as we did on July 11. They all had similar messages: “Abajo de la dictadura,” which means, “Down with the dictatorship,” and “patria y vida.” “Patria y vida” comes from a hip-hop protest song that plays on the words “patria o muerte,” by switching out “country and life” for “country or death”—the chant of Castro’s revolution.
I could tell you about my own history, my heritage, and my own feelings as a Cuban American when I saw these protests. Coming from an exiled family, the best word I can use to describe my emotions is “useless.” I felt useless. These are my brothers and sisters on the island, and they don’t have enough to eat, must share one room for eight people, and are forced to use the black market to survive. One of my cousins who lives in Havana sent me pictures of her son’s wedding. They wore their best ripped hand-me-downs and draped a tablecloth on the door to act as the altar. My shockingly thin cousins have many dreams but no ability to make them come to pass. For change, they must risk their lives.
My family in Cuba used to be at the top: We are direct descendants of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, “el Padre de la Patria,” the Father of the Country. He led the revolution against Spanish control of Cuba in 1868. Our family owned farms, had generational wealth, and led the country. That all changed when Fidel Castro uprooted every person who owned anything. My family’s land now belongs to the state. Imagine, everything you have built for your family taken!
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So, my grandfather moved to California. He brought his wife and his father, Bartolome Céspedes, and they started from the bottom. Bartolome, a once dignified, well-known, and respected man, became a milker. They then began their own business in landscaping. My father now owns the business and has made it a success.
What could we do as our brothers and sisters risked their lives back home? Nothing. Nothing except yell from across the ocean and tell them we stand with them.
But my personal story does not feel significant enough. As the protests took off, I worked in South Korea at the local Armed Forces Network radio station. A fire blazed in my heart as I read about the protests and as my cousins sent messages about what was happening. My family used a group chat to keep each other updated about news from Cuba. A friend sent a video that showed that police were going through people’s homes, that protestors were barricaded inside, that the Cuban government planned to shut down the internet across the island.
Sometimes, we heard nothing due to the blackouts. Now, President Miguel Diaz-Canel has made it a crime to publish material online that might damage “the country’s prestige.” Decree 35 labels those who “subvert the constitutional order” as “cyberterrorists.”
The irony was not lost on me that I worked in a country, South Korea, protected from a similar fate only by the presence of the U.S. military. But I could do nothing to help the place my family still considers home.
I desired only to be there, as I know was the case for hundreds, if not thousands, of exiled Cubans or Cubans who don’t live on the island. We have all anticipated change for so long. Our padres (parents) or abuelitos (grandparents) spoke about the “old Cuba”—the thriving island—or maybe we had known it ourselves.
In Europe, thousands yelled on the streets, “Patria y vida!” In Miami, Cubans stopped freeways with their protests and attempted to take their personal boats with supplies and weapons to their cousins on the island. In South Korea, I knew something had to be done.
This was the buildup to July 21, 2021.
At first, I did not believe that I could get any service members to support a country that was not their own. I figured it would be too difficult to have people from all different walks of life take time out of their Sundays and to spend it listening to stories about Cuba. We had to jump through some hoops when it came to hosting a somewhat political movement on base, and I was afraid it would be determined to be illegal. Of course, U.S. policy on Cuba’s communist government has always been clear.
Still, the two countries have had close relations, with many Cuban Americans living in the United States and serving in the U.S. military, but official ties between the two countries were broken in 1961 after the revolution. In 2017, President Barack Obama loosened some travel restrictions, but President Donald Trump returned them to pre-Obama standards, and President Joe Biden has continued with those tightened standards.
But instead of a no from the higher-ups, I got a lot of help from random people in my life. My supervisor encouraged me to talk to people who could help, coworkers said they would definitely show up, and acquaintances even wanted to donate money for the event. Some of my friends knew T-shirt and poster makers. I realized all I had to do was ask: People were more than willing to give a hand. My friends bought food, helped me cook, drove me around to pick up equipment, and helped me decorate.
This wasn’t their own country or heritage—they knew nothing about Cuba. But they acted because they believed in the principle: Support humans and their liberty. Support choice and the ability to change systems that are not pleasing to the majority.
And, in a sense, that is what solidifies U.S. military members, no? That principle. So, we stood in solidarity for democracy even if we came from all walks of life. There were only two Cubans at that event, a man named Jorge and me. Jorge is a U.S. soldier. He grew up on the island for the majority of his life, and, like me, felt helpless and angry when he could do nothing for his people back home. He was stuck on tour in Korea, an ocean away from his protesting people. During the event, I could feel his passion and anger. He wanted to make sure we understood the meaning of the event, that we did not make light of it.
“This is not a party,” he said in a speech to the crowd. He offered them an opportunity to learn what life was like in Cuba.
“Everyone works the black market,” he said, explaining the ration situation. “You have to. What the state gives you for the month is food you can live off for less than a week. You know what I thought about all day? I thought, ‘What will I get for lunch?’ And then, ‘What will I get for dinner?’ That is everyday life in Cuba.”
He talked about unaddressed realities in Cuba, as well. The constitution guarantees free health care, for example, but nowhere does it regulate what it costs to book the doctor or the mandatory “gifts” they tell you they need before treatment. Why is Cuba known for its health care? Because the Communist Party of Cuba sends its best doctors overseas to partner with countries and use their equipment. Meanwhile, Cubans on the island are not prioritized. They have unsanitary hospital beds and equipment that was modern in the 1950s and 1960s—not even up to standard 10 years ago. The party feeds off perception, not practicality.
Thus, I am motivated, as many Cubans are. It inspires me to see people in Cuba act. That rally in South Korea was my way to act. Cuban Americans are acting, Cuban Europeans are acting, Americans are acting all in solidarity with the Cubans on the island. It renewed my spirit when I saw that people who had no connection to Cuba would come and support Cubans. It’s not about a specific country; it’s about humanity. I was proud of the U.S. military at that moment. I was proud of the people within it. I felt so inspired that I started a foundation named after my ancestor, Carlos Manuel de Cespedes Foundation. And the U.S. military trained me in journalism. I will use those skills to promote and educate about freedom for Cubans. Protests continue on the island, in spite of the threats from their government. I’m proud of the courage they have.
“We were so hungry,” a Cuban journalist Tweeted, “we ate our fear.”
Everyone can understand hunger. Everyone can understand fear. And that’s why service members from the United States, across the ocean, stationed on an Army installation in South Korea, came together.
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I made sure to tell the service members who came together that day that this was a worldwide rally. They stood alongside thousands of people standing for the same reason that day, in different time zones. My family in California hosted a rally. My cousins in Miami walked the streets in protest. Hundreds of Cubans in Spain, France, Canada, and Argentina did the same. So, we had a moment of solidarity.
“We’re fighting for freedom in South Korea, but fighting in our hearts for Cuba today,” I told the crowd.