MIAMI — It was the day after the Cuban people erupted into the largest protests for freedom in more than a quarter century, and Osdany Veloz had an incendiary proposal.
Veloz, a 24-year-old Cuban American in Miami, wanted to assemble a private flotilla and sail to Cuban waters to confront the communist regime. “We are ready to go. We are planning to go to Cuba,” Veloz said during a two-minute Instagram video with an adult deer head mounted on the background wall. “Of course, everyone will be armed. The whole point is to create chaos. We are not ready to kill anyone, but if we have to, you know, it is what it is.”
The video drew more than 150,000 views.
The protests in Cuba, which saw unprecedented numbers of people take to the streets in the wake of a crumbling economy, a debilitating pandemic, and increased repression on activists and artists immediately struck a nerve in the epicenter of the Cuban-exile community. Outside of Versailles Restaurant in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, thousands gathered in solidarity. They chanted, “Patria y vida” (“Homeland and life”), the anthemic cry from a rap song by Cuban hip-hop artists released earlier this year, which helped fuel the protests on the island. The song’s title is a counter slap against the Cuban revolutionary slogan, “Patria o muerte” (“Homeland or death”).
“We can’t go [to Cuba] four boats deep, we can’t go 10 boats deep, it has to be more than 100 boats,” said Veloz, in a subsequent video on Instagram, his number of followers having doubled.
Over the years, the strongest voices within the Cuban American community have been able to influence U.S. relations with Cuba. U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba has remained generally steady since an economic embargo was first imposed by President Kennedy in 1962, and increasing with sanctions against Cuban state-owned entities and government bureaucrats, intended to cripple the Castro regime. President Obama attempted to normalize relations with Cuba in 2014 and became the first sitting U.S. president to travel to Havana in modern history, an effort that was widely denounced by hard-liners within the Cuban American community. In 2017, President Trump, during a speech at the Manuel Artime Theater in Little Havana, suggested that a free Cuba would be achieved during his administration, using the opportunity to sign into policy an increase in sanctions and restrictions on site, pronouncing it “a great day for Cuba.” In the background, community leaders and activists applauded, some wiped away tears. But the reality is that neither Democrat nor Republican presidents have made any discernible impact on Cuba’s communist dictatorship.
Veloz’s initial vision began with lots of bravado, a large fleet of vessels ready to take the fight to the communist regime in support of their brothers and sisters on the island, but in the end, the reality was far less impactful, a dynamic that has repeatedly resulted in frustration to those that live in exile, and perpetuated the suffering of those that remain in Cuba.
At first, Veloz’s planned armada toward Cuba’s shores echoed the memory of the April 1961 aborted Bay of Pigs invasion, in which former members of the 2506 Brigade, an exile military unit that was backed by the United States, entered Cuba in an attempt to free the island from Fidel Castro. But President Kennedy pulled support for the brigade’s mission at the last minute, resulting in more than 1,000 exiles being imprisoned or killed.
Veloz began to walk back his aggressive tone on his next Instagram videos. “We have to follow the law, we have to follow the rules.” Then, he said, “Our President, we ask you if you can help us in collab[oration]. If you can help us with the Coast Guard, if you can help us with whatever armed forces to escort the group over there. We don’t want any violence. We want a peaceful protest,” he pleaded.
The call for a peaceful demonstration drew instant rebuke from some commenters on his Instagram feed, prompting Veloz to respond in another video, telling his viewers and followers that the planned flotilla had no intent of entering Cuban territorial waters or killing anyone in Cuba. “Unfortunately,” said Veloz, “we don’t have the power to do that.”
“It was a kind of a misunderstanding,” says Veloz, in a recent interview with Rolling Stone. “We spoke to the Coast Guard and they said, ‘We can’t stop you from taking weapons, because by law, you can take weapons on your boat.’ So that’s kind of what I meant, you know.” He also says that he wanted that initial message to get to the Cuban military. “They were gonna know that we were armed just in case they tried anything against us.” He says the intention was never to go and invade Cuba.
The U.S.-Cuba conflict has shaped Veloz’s life. Born in Cuba, he left with his family on a raft when he was three years old but was intercepted at sea and sent back. Veloz says they were later picked up by a U.S. private vessel in Cuba and brought to Florida.
Migrant interdiction is one of the U.S. Coast Guard’s primary duties. From 2017 to 2020, the number of undocumented migrants attempting to enter the U.S. via maritime routes has increased each year, according to the U.S. Coast Guard’s Annual Performance Report from 2020. Figures for the district that patrols the waters between Havana and the United States were not available; however, the smuggling of Cuban migrants to Florida by U.S. persons has been an existing consequence of the merely 90-mile distance that separates the two countries. In March 2021, the Associated Press reported on the arrest of four men in Florida who were charged in a scheme to smuggle Cubans to the Florida Keys.
To garner additional support for the flotilla, Veloz arranged a meetup at the Miami Outboard Club, a private boating marina facility. He says there were more than 200 people there. Inside, the predominant response from the audience was “Act now and use whatever means necessary,” as videos from Cuba flooded text-messaging inboxes showing Cuban security officers clubbing young protesters. When a woman appealed for the flotilla to be carried out “the right way,” she was immediately dismissed by another. While Veloz tried to maintain control of escalating tension within the room, one man stood up from his seat and pointed at him: “You have to take ownership of this. We are all here because we answered your call.” The crowd roared and began to chant, “Dany, Dany, Dany.”
Meanwhile, the Cuban government took steps to disrupt internet service on the island to restrict communications with the international community. Miami Mayor Francis Suarez floated the idea of U.S. military intervention during an interview on Fox News. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio gave an impassioned speech on the U.S. Senate floor to defend the trade embargo, which was coming under attack by some. Street protests carried on throughout the city of Miami, some disrupting traffic on a major expressway during rush hour initially leading many to call out Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. (Following last year’s protests in solidarity with George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, DeSantis pushed an “anti-riot” bill through a Republican-majority state Legislature that cited penalties for protesters for impeding traffic. After a few days, DeSantis publicly stated the Cuban American protesters could not block traffic.)
On July 16th, the Department of Homeland Security issued a boating-advisory warning that anyone intending to enter Cuban territorial waters without a permit would be subject to arrest, and civil and criminal penalties.
Veloz and other organizers met with U.S. Coast Guard representatives in Miami and sought permission for their flotilla and an escort through international waters. That evening, Veloz and three other friends live-streamed an update. They sat at a poker table and looked into the camera. “The Coast Guard told us we cannot take arms and that they are going to check all the boats. We must do everything legal and within permissible rules,” they said. “We are currently working with the Coast Guard to plan a safe voyage for everyone.” The setting resembled a casino table of high-stakes poker players folding their hands.
“When you organize something to this effect, and then you’re on camera and on record being the organizer, you have lives on your hands,” said petty officer Nicole Groll of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Public Affairs division for the district that includes Miami and the Florida Keys. “So you have to be very careful”.
Given the target size of 100 vessels for the planned flotilla, Groll was asked if the group had applied for any marine permits. “I have not had any requests for that. That’s a tall order,” she said. “We are monitoring all situations. The Coast Guard always has a presence in the air and on the water, in the Florida Straits. If we see anyone in distress, we respond.”
Groll also warned against any temptations by boaters to enter Cuban territorial waters. “If you cross the line, I mean, I don’t know what’s going to happen on the Cuban side of things. But we have done everything that we possibly could to educate anyone who tries to go over to Cuba not to do so without permission, and if you do go over there, don’t cross the border.”
The United States recognizes that international waters extend up to 12 nautical miles from Cuba’s coastline.
Other flotilla-related plans appeared to be unraveling. Efforts to collect donations to fund the cost of fuel for the boats stumbled on different apps. A GoFundMe account was suspended due to violation of the company’s terms of service relating to Cuba and restrictions by the Office of Foreign Assets Control, the U.S. Treasury Department’s sanctions office. “WTF is going on,” Veloz posted, along with a screenshot of the notification from the online fundraising platform.
“There were times when we all wanted to give up,” Veloz later admits.
Meanwhile, Fox News set up cameras and lights inside the Versailles Restaurant in Little Havana to cover Miami’s ongoing reaction to the Cuban protests, including The Sean Hannity Show with the Fox host interviewing Gov. DeSantis, Sen. Rubio, and Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar of Miami, each of them using the opportunity to take jabs at the Biden administration for not responding with more urgency.
Behind the scenes, the White House was moving forward with official actions including public condemnations of the Cuban government for the imprisonments of protesters, imposing sanctions on members of the Cuban regime that were responsible for the crackdown on dissidents, and supporting efforts to provide continuing internet access to the island.
In Miami, Veloz’s Instagram page went silent.
“There were a lot of people down-talking us,” says Veloz. He began to take the negative comments personally. “We got to the point that we said, ‘If it’s not 100 boats, we are still going to go.’ That was our mindset.”
The critics had come from multiple corners. The “Rambos,” as Veloz called them, were demanding an ultra-aggressive approach that defied U.S. authorities and took on the Cuban regime. Others claimed Veloz’s initial videos were “theatrics” that took attention away from more serious advocates for justice.
After five days, Veloz finally shared an update. The “Cuban Support Flotilla” was set to depart on Friday, July 23rd at 6:30 a.m., stop at Key West to refuel and undergo safety checks by the Coast Guard, before taking off to Havana. At 5:30 p.m., they would arrive at their destination, 15 nautical miles from Havana’s coast. According to the plan, flares, Chinese lanterns, and fireworks were to be ignited after sundown.
On Friday, July 23rd, just after dawn at the Bayside marina in downtown Miami a few blocks from the Freedom Tower, Miami’s equivalent to Ellis Island, where thousands of Cuban refugees were processed at the location’s Cuban Assistance Center from 1962 to 1974, five boats arrived, including Veloz’s 36-foot Yellowfin triple-outboard vessel, the hashtag #SOSCuba emblazoned across both sides of the boat.
A small crowd of local news reporters received them.
Joel Franco, an independent videographer, was there: “I started getting word of this group of boats headed to international waters. I started thinking to myself, what if I can get on a boat?” Franco persuaded one of them for a ride. Around 8:00 a.m., the boats left Miami. Two hours into the trip, one of the boats had engine trouble and turned back. The remaining four boats sped at approximately 35 miles per hour along the Straits of Florida, Cuban flags hoisted along with American flags whipping behind the vessels, the reds, whites, and blues of the flags providing a vibrant display of Cuban American pride as they passed Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon, and the Seven Mile Bridge.
Upon arriving in Key West, two additional boats joined the flotilla. A total of six boats departed for Havana before 3:00 p.m.
Veloz says he was disappointed by the turnout. “I had about 70 boats registered in a list. I wish they could have come.” He thinks that those that didn’t participate were all-talk-no-action-type people. Besides, “It was planned safely,” he says. “It was done in a safe manner, so there was no danger.”
During the trip, the videographer Franco received news about a Cuban government official who posted an ominous statement on Twitter: “We are aware of a flotilla of boats from the U.S. headed towards the border of Cuban territorial waters. I warn the U.S. Government to act seriously to prevent incidents, which are not in the best interest of either side.” He started to get anxious. “At the moment, seeing a Tweet about the very same thing I’m a part of right now, that was kind of worrying,” says Franco.
His fears were rational. In 1996, two civilian aircraft flown by Cuban American pilots near the island were shot down by the Cuban Air Force. Four men were killed. President Clinton called it “a flagrant violation of international law” based on U.S. radar evidence that showed the aircraft were in international airspace.” Clinton later signed the Helms-Burton Act that tightened sanctions on Cuba.
Outside of Key West, the Coast Guard stopped the flotilla and advised them to push back their distance from Cuba, suggesting 20 nautical miles from Cuba was safer. They were also advised to take down their Cuban flags.
“If you are flying the [Cuban] flag, you are basically claiming or assimilating to that nationality, and you would be subject to their laws and jurisdictions,” said a U.S. Coast Guard official that pulled up next to Veloz’s vessel.
The Cuban flags came down. “Leave the American flags up,” yelled Veloz to the other boats.
Around four o’clock, the boaters lost their internet signal. On Twitter that evening, a Cuban journalist reported that Cuban military officials were monitoring the Malecón, Havana’s popular seawall, to prevent crowds from gathering there.
Franco later described the scene on the flotilla. “I saw the [Coast Guard cutter] off to a distance. It wasn’t really close to us. But they did have the Coast Guard airplane doing circles above us.” Until sunset, he says. “When it got dark, they weren’t there anymore.”
“There was tension — I’m not going to lie — because we didn’t know what to expect” says Veloz. He was concerned that they may encounter Cuban authorities. Veloz says he was thankful for the U.S. Coast Guard. “They showed support 100 percent of the time,” he says.
Around 9:00 p.m., the flotilla set off flares and fireworks, red-lighting the sky above the six vessels. They screamed obscenities towards Cuba’s communist regime.
“It was a success,” says Veloz. “We made it happen.”
The next morning, Veloz went fishing in the Dry Tortugas, just north of Havana.
“When I got back [to Miami] and I saw the videos of Cuba and the people talking about it that they actually saw us even though the Cuban government closed the Malecón, it was definitely a success,” says Veloz. “They knew we were there, we were showing support for them, and we’re there to back them up, to show them that here, on the other side, we’re trying as hard as they are.”
The night before, videos uploaded to YouTube by Havana residents from that evening captured flickers of light in the grainy, distant sky. “Look, they are there, they didn’t fail. This is so emotional,” said a woman on one of the videos, over the sounds of waves breaking on the shore.
“Viva Cuba,” yelled a child near her.
“No, papi, you have to say ‘Patria y vida.’“
“Patria y vida, Patria y vida, Patria y vida.”
The child chanted toward the vast darkness of the Atlantic Sea that separates the island from the United States, seemingly unaware of what he was saying or whether tomorrow would be any different.