American-born college students keep flames of Cuban protest burning
By Madeline Baró Diaz
Posted June 28 2006
Candice Balmori has never been to Cuba, but when the Davie resident is
not attending classes or taking exams, she's working to bring change to
At Harvard University, where Balmori is a senior, she and fellow
activists once erected a life-size jail cell and hung a Cuban flag
inside to let the campus know about the arrests of dozens of dissidents
in Cuba. They have also held candlelight vigils, screened movies and
discussed Cuba with visiting dignitaries, all in an effort to bring
attention to the island's totalitarian system.
Balmori is part of the new generation of Cuban-American activists who
are finding their own way to support Cuba's internal opposition. By
doing so, they are steering away from the traditional issues of the
older generation, such as the U.S. embargo of the island.
"I think every college kid has to have a cause," said Balmori, 21,
president of Harvard's Cuban American Undergraduate Student Association,
or CAUSA. "Everyone has to take up a banner of some sort."
That banner was handed to them by older exiles. The young
Cuban-Americans, many born in the United States, grew up hearing stories
from relatives who longed for their homeland. The youngsters learned to
love Cuba, even if they had never visited it.
"I think most people who had to leave ... I think they all left being
very proud of their country and loving everything about it," said Joanna
González, who grew up in Miami and was one of the founders of Raíces de
Esperanza, a national network of young Cuban-American activists.
"I heard about it constantly. I heard about absolutely everything, the
culture and what happened to the country. You grow up not being able to
be a part of that and that's how you become passionate about it,"
But González, 24, a University of Florida graduate, and others learned
that not everyone shared that passion. When Balmori, a graduate of
Western High School, arrived at Harvard she realized that not as many
people kept up on the latest developments in Cuba.
"I came up to Boston and it never dawned on me that the newspaper
wouldn't have something about Cuba in it every morning," Balmori said.
"At home it's in the paper or on television every day."
Encountering fellow students who discussed Cuba as a vacation paradise
or wore T-shirts of Che Guevara, who fought alongside Fidel Castro and
whom many exiles regard as a killer, also awoke their activist spirits.
"I would say my parents are Cuban and they would say, `Oh, I want to go
to Cuba for spring break.'" recalled Diane Cabrera, 23, a graduate of
Georgetown University. "I would say, `My cousin that lives in Cuba can't
go to the same beach that you can go to.'"
Those encounters strengthened the resolve of the nascent activists.
At campuses around the country, they are handing out pamphlets, holding
demonstrations and selling anti-Che Guevara T-shirts.
Their work is encouraged by older exiles. When Jóvenes por una Cuba
Libre, or Youth for a Free Cuba, a group of University of Miami
students, traveled to Washington, D.C., for a lobbying trip, U.S. Rep.
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen's office helped them meet other congressional staffers.
"I think they kind of were taken by the fact that we were younger,"
Jóvenes President Daniel Pedreira said of the meetings. "When you hear
about Cuba, it's usually from the same people, it's older
Ros-Lehtinen, who was born in Cuba, welcomes the infusion of new blood.
"I think it's great to have young people involved because so often the
media portrays this as a dinosaur cause," said Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami.
Cuban American National Foundation Executive Director Alfredo Mesa, 30,
said their involvement lets young activists in Cuba know that the task
of securing a peaceful transition to democracy in a post-Castro Cuba "is
up to our generation."
Madeline Baró Diaz can be reached at email@example.com or 305-810-5007.