MIAMI – Cuban opposition leaders from the island joined Cuban American politicians and activists on Saturday, pledging to oppose President Barack Obama's plan to normalize relations with the communist nation and disputing the notion that their community is split by a generational divide.
"The opposition will continue fighting, with or without Barack Obama," Cuban activist Jorge Luis Garcia Perez, known by his nickname "Antunez," said to cheers.
The gathering at a Little Havana park drew more than 200 people, largely older Cuban exiles who chanted "Obama, traitor!" and waved U.S. and Cuban flags. Some expressed disappointment that the protest was not larger; the demonstrators filled about half the park.
"The mentality is, 'Hey, we're going to be able to buy Cuban cigars and rum.' Well, it's not a happy thing for us," said Armando Merino, 68, who came to the U.S. at age 14. "I'm here because for the Cuban people, my family in Cuba, they are not able to protest."
The protest featured two high-profile Cuban dissidents: Garcia Perez, who spent 17 years in jail for his activities and has gone on hunger strikes to protest the treatment of political prisoners, and Berta Soler, spokeswoman for the island-based Ladies in White, a group of Cuban mothers and wives of dissidents arrested in the 2003 government crackdown there.
Soler said a normalized relationship between Cuba and the U.S. would "perfect the repressive mechanism of the Cuban government."
"Cuba needs freedom, and that freedom depends on the Cubans," she said.
The Cuban-American speakers included former Florida Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart and state Sen. Anitere Florida. Both argued that Obama's gestures would do nothing to improve the prospects of a democratic Cuba.
"The worst infamy is the pretext he used: He says it's to help the Cuban people," Diaz Balart said to chuckles from the audience.
Flores, 38, one of the youngest Cuban American politicians in a state or federal office, rejected what some recent polls have shown: that while many older Cubans stand firm in their opposition to ending the embargo, younger generations are increasingly in favor of loosening sanctions.
"Our generation feels as strongly and in some cases even more strongly than our parents," she said.
After Obama's announcement this week, a poll conducted for the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times showed that Cuban-Americans were almost evenly split on whether to support his plan, with 48 percent saying they disagreed with the president and 44 percent agreeing.
The poll showed large divides between younger and older Cuban-Americans and whether they were born on the island or in the United States. Those born in the U.S. strongly supported Obama's plan while those born in Cuba strongly opposed it. Cuban-Americans under 65 also supported the plan while those over 65 were strongly against it.
Rey Anthony Lastre, 18, said he believed more young people weren't at the protest because they "don't have the same way of expressing their feelings."
Freddy Suastegui, 31, of Miami, listened to the speeches with his family. He said the latest decisions disregard the work being done to promote change in Cuba.
"What diplomacy is going to happen if the Castros aren't promising anything and we're going to go ahead and infuse them with more cash?" he said. "That just makes the regime stronger and the people weaker."
Miami is no stranger to protests from the Cuban community. Of the estimated 2 million Cubans living in the United States, the majority resides in South Florida and many remain closely attuned to developments on the island.
Thousands took to the streets after federal agents seized Elian Gonzalez in a prolonged international custody dispute and returned him to Cuba in 2000. Hundreds paraded Little Havana when Fidel Castro ceded power to his brother Raul in 2006.
But protests and parades have become smaller and more sporadic.
"I think there are a lot of people sitting on the sidelines, tired," said Andy Gomez, a Cuba expert and retired University of Miami professor.