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Florida Lawmakers Back Cuba Demonstrations, But Raise Questions About New Anti-Riot Law

people with signs and umbrellas with police in background.
Marta Lavandier/AP
Demonstrators confront police as they try to get onto the Palmetto Expressway, Tuesday, July 13, 2021, in Miami. Demonstrators are protesting in solidarity with the thousands of Cubans who waged a rare weekend of protests around their island nation against the communist regime. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

With demonstrations of support for protesters in Cuba happening in Florida, there is some worry about if — and how — HB 1 will affect those participating.

Thousands have taken to the streets of cities in Florida to show support for those protesting their living conditionsin Cuba.

Lawmakers held a press conference Wednesday voicing their support for those fighting for liberation on the island, as well as those backing them locally.

“We have been inspired by the protest of the people in Cuba and here in Tampa, for freedom on the island of Cuba,” said U.S. Representative Kathy Castor (D-Tampa). “We are united in our support for the Cuban people. Right now on the island of Cuba, the people do not have food, they do not have electricity, they do not have medicine, they do not have a working hospital, they do not have the internet.”

“There has been a total collapse under this communist regime of civil society,” she added. “It's a collapse under the weight of corruption and communism. The people feel entirely betrayed and rightfully so.”

State Sen. Janet Cruz (D-Tampa) also called on U.S. citizens to help put a stop to the “disgraces” the Cuban people are suffering.

“This movement right now is absolutely historical, and I say that because the people of Cuba know what they face when they take to the streets in protest,” she said. “They are saying that I am willing to die for protests, I am willing to disappear in the middle of the night to do what is right and to fight for my people.”

There are some questions, however, about how a new law passed by state lawmakers and signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis will affect the demonstrations.

Under House Bill 1, people involved in demonstrations that cause damages over $5,000 or block roads can face increased felony charges.

A number of groups, including the Dream Defenders and the NAACP, have already filed challenges to the law.

Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker ordered mediation in the case to start by Nov. 12 and wrap up by Nov. 26, an order attorneys for the state say won’t be productive.

A similar lawsuit was filed April 21 in federal court in Orlando.

Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a professor at Stetson University College of Law, believes these challenges will be successful and the controversial new law will eventually be struck down due to the First Amendment.

“This was clear when they were just legislation, and they are being challenged on First Amendment grounds. And I anticipate that judges will find the new Florida anti-rioting law unconstitutional,” she said.

“I'm concerned about this law's application to any protester,” Torres-Spelliscy continued.

“Whether they are protesting something like an international matter, events in Cuba, or if they're protesting something domestically, like the death of George Floyd, or policies from the government of Florida, I think all protesters have a First Amendment right, if they're in the continental United States, including in Florida.”

Three men already face charges, including unlawful assembly, for taking part in a demonstration Tuesday that blocked traffic at Dale Mabry Highway and I-275 in Tampa.

The Tampa Bay Times reportstwo of them are being held without bail until their first court appearance -- one of the provisions of the new law.

Cruz said DeSantis' backing of the protests and the anti-rioting law seems hypocritical.

"We have a governor that is cheering these folks on and telling him that he supports the protests and supports the freedom of their families in Cuba, yet signed HB 1, which adds additional penalties for demonstrating in the streets."

But in spite of the disagreement, Cruz said that the Cuban people need the help of the United States right now.

“We can't let this moment go by and we can't let this just be another headline for this week's news cycle,” she said. “They need us and raising our voices and supporting their valiant efforts on this island is a monumental step for them.”

Information from the News Service of Florida was used in this report.

Daniel Finton is a WUSF/USF Zimmerman School digital news intern for the summer of 2021.