It’s been more than a month since thousands of Cubans first took to the streets with a single and clear message: We want freedom. The events of July 11 took place at a time when the country was facing the biggest humanitarian crisis since Fidel Castro’s troops won the revolution in 1959.
The protests exploded as the island’s healthcare system collapsed, with hospitals facing medicine and essential goods shortages. Cubans were also dealing with the most considerable food scarcity since the 1990s.
Protestors joined their voices to demand “libertad” (freedom) from decades of oppression and suffering. For the first time, the internet was flooded with hundreds of videos showing Cubans participating in rallies all over the country. It was more than a newsworthy event. The challenging situation gave birth to a social media movement of accounts dedicated to informing the world and the Cuban people inside and outside of the island.
Cuban artists, politicians, social media influencers, professionals, and the exile have played an essential role in this movement. They have helped share the stories and raise awareness about those who are suffering the harmful conditions and constant threat of government intrusion on the island. Thanks to these people, prodigious videos and images of Cuba’s current situation have reached a considerable audience.
Mesa, a Cuban-American born in Hialeah, is one of these people. The army veteran is an advanced nurse practitioner and former professor at the University of Miami who has dedicated the last few years to taking photos of the tragic situation. Although Dr. Mesa’s occupation is related to health, he spends much time capturing images that portray life in Cuba.
Long ago, his family had to flee the island after Castro took control.
Mesa’s first visit to Cuba was against his family’s will. However, his need to explore his family’s culture and what living on the island was like overcame the fear. On his trips, Mesa collected hundreds of images that show more than the beaches and colorful streets that tourists see. He compiled significant images that tell powerful stories and have a voice of their own.
Once the protests started, Mesa began to share some of his photographs on Instagram. He thought of his profile as a way to communicate. These photographs reflect a very different Cuba from what the world knows.
His photographs show everything from kids playing on the streets to elderly adults sitting outside of their homes talking to their neighbors to colonial buildings to the famous ration food card most known as “la libreta.”
On the first day of the protests, Mesa wrote on his Instagram, “Don’t get annoyed with the protests, the traffic, the roadblocks, or the Instagram stories. Educate yourself. This is an outcry from people that have been suffering longer than you have been alive. These are people who are sick and tired of living off ration cards. This is rage from people who are tired of injustice, lack of opportunity, poverty, and restraint.”
He wanted his 4200 followers to understand why his family, just like two other million Cuban families, came to the United States seeking freedom.
While visiting Cuba, Mesa decided not to stay at fancy hotels but instead at Airbnb’s owned by Cuban citizens. To move around the city, he took the popular bici-taxis that are three-wheeled, pedal-powered taxis that hold up to two passengers and a driver. He talked to the people on the streets and even visited their houses. Mesa decided to do this to support “el pueblo.”
Mesa says he was deeply moved when he met Diega, an elderly lady who invited him into her house. The photographs and videos that Mesa took show a cramped place far from what Castro and the Revolution promised to the Cuban people. Yet she remains hopeful.
“She had real faith; she had hope. She had a belief in life I guess because she was grateful for her son, who was a hard worker. She was grateful for whatever provisions she had. For the little shack that she had, for the little bathroom that to me looked like it was unlivable. The home that she lived in appeared unliveable, and she learned to be content with that, and I think that’s the biggest takeaway that I brought from Cuba”, Mesa said.
Mesa’s portrait of “la libreta” (the ration card) made quite an impact. It shows a small notebook with a list of groceries such as rice, beans, salt, sugar, among others, that the government provides every month for the Cuban people.
Although the government claims the ration card is one of the revolution’s achievements, Cubans express their discontent with it every day. They not only have to pay for these small rations of food but also, have seen a considerable decrease of ingredients on the grocery list in the last few years.
“There are Cubans who have left the island and continue to suffer from trauma,” Mesa said. “There is trauma from the separation of families, from being broken away from their culture. There is the trauma of being imprisoned. Still, that’s different from the trauma that people who live on the island still suffer. There are so many levels of trauma that it is hard for me to process how ingrained they are in the culture. It’s a fear-driven psychological trauma that controls Cuban society as a whole.”