Tampa residents once had direct role in Cuban revolutions

Wrought Iron railings on a balcony at the Hotel Haya overlooking Ybor Square in Tampa. (Chris O'Meara, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

TAMPA, Fla. – Locals have taken to the streets in solidarity with those in Cuba protesting the island nation’s Communist leadership.

The Tampa City Council approved a resolution voicing their support of the Cuban protestors.

And Tampa Mayor Jane Castor declared on Twitter, “The fight for freedom and against repression is all of our fight.”

Tampa, home to the third-largest Cuban-American population in the country, has made it clear that Cuban dissidents have their backing — indirectly.

But Tampa was once known for getting more directly involved in Cuban revolutions. Residents fought in battles, smuggled guns, fundraised for causes and participated in attacks against the Cuban government.

According to news archives, Tampa’s connection to Cuban revolutions began with Cuba’s beloved freedom fighter, Jose Marti.

Cuba became a Spanish colony in the 15th century and remained in the European nation’s possession for the next 400 years.

By the late 1800s, Cubans clamored for independence. Marti was among the most vocal. A poet, he wrote and disseminated well-read essays about the nation’s need for independence.

In the 1890s, he took his movement to the United States, including some 20 trips to Ybor City, where Cuban immigrants had settled and formed a cigar industry.

Marti’s 1893 speech to Ybor cigar workers is credited as the first U.S. fundraising effort to supply Cubans with the arms to defeat Spain.

Two years later, Marti’s order for the war to begin was smuggled to Cuba inside a cigar rolled at West Tampa’s O’Halloran Cigar Co.

Marti died in battle in 1895, just a few weeks into what Cuba calls the War of Independence.

But throughout the war, Tampa remained a hub of pro-Cuba activity.

Tampa’s Cuban-American residents returned to their native country to fight; thousands of U.S. soldiers — including Teddy Roosevelt’s famed Rough Riders — departed from Tampa to join the Cuban forces in what the United States deemed the Spanish-American War; and Clara Barton set up a Red Cross base in Tampa that raised money, collected medical supplies and sent volunteers to Cuba to care for the sick and wounded.

Cuba declared victory in 1898.

Eduardo Chibas was Tampa’s next direct link to a Cuban revolution.

In 1929, Chibas was arrested for plotting to assassinate Cuban President Gerardo Machado, a leader known for suppressing freedom of speech through violence.

Exiled from Cuba as punishment, Chibas moved to New York but traveled to Tampa to garner support.

He returned to Cuba after Machado was forced out of power but continued as a vocal leader against political corruption.

Chibas’ movement led him back to Tampa in 1950 where he held fundraisers. Tampa Mayor Curtis Hixon welcomed Chibas to the city and provided use of a municipal park for a rally that drew around 3,000. There, Chibas was presented a ring that Marti left in Tampa.

A year later, on live radio in Cuba, Chibas warned that Cuban military officer Fulgencio Batista was planning a coup. Chibas then shot himself in the stomach. He died days later.

Some believe Chibas shot himself to bring attention to his cause, but the definitive motive remains unknown.

In 1952, Batista led a successful military coup and maintained a dictatorship through torture and assassinations.

Fidel Castro vowed to overthrow Batista. Like Marti and Chibas, Castro sought support for his Cuban Revolution in Tampa.

Castro named his revolutionary organization the 26th of July Movement after the date in 1953 that he led his first attack against the Batista government. During a 1955 fundraising trip to Tampa, Castro formed a branch of the movement here.

More than 300 attended Castro’s speech and fundraiser at an Ybor union hall. For the next four years, Tampa’s 26th of July Movement continued to raise money for Castro and smuggled medical supplies and guns to his armed forces.

Tampa residents celebrated with an impromptu parade from Ybor to West Tampa when Castro, hailed as a modern day Marti, declared victory on January 1, 1959.

When Castro later embraced the USSR and communism, some former members of Tampa’s 26th of July Movement formed the Anti-Communist Group to Help in the Liberation of Cuba.

They later became a Tampa branch of the Miami-based Insurrectional Movement of Revolutionary.

That group then assimilated into the Miami-based Cuba Power organization that threatened actions against any country doing business with Cuba.

In 1968, Cuba Power took credit for an explosion on a Japanese freighter ported in Tampa. An explosives expert from MacDill Air Force Base determined it was set off by a “chemical long-delay detonator.” No one was injured.

Tampa continued to support the Cuban people, but in the peaceful and indirect ways on display today.

For decades, hardliners have held rallies protesting the Cuban government while those who believe engagement is the best way to bring positive change to Cuba have advocated for the end of the embargo.

Both sides often assemble at an Ybor park with connections to two Cuban revolutionaries . The park at 1303 Eighth Ave. is named for Marti. And the Marti statue that remains the park’s centerpiece was funded by Castro’s 26th of July Movement.