If you got stuck last weekend in Miami’s Calle Ocho behind hundreds of cars honking horns and waving flags, you might be forgiven if you thought Fidel Castro had died again.
But no, Castro is, by all accounts, still dead.
The blame, or credit, for the hubbub Saturday was another Cuban, this one in Miami, who has become a mini YouTube star.
Alexander Otaola built a fan base on his YouTube program on celebrity gossip, focused on Cuban musicians and other celebrities popular especially among Cubans who have arrived in the U.S. in recent years.
But Otaola, who came to Miami from the island in 2003 has now branched out into politics, and his 15,000 daily followers now get a daily dose of commentary about the Cuban government and U.S. policies toward Cuba. And last weekend, he urged his followers to make noise in Miami, to show their appreciation of President Donald Trump’s hard line toward the island, and their disdain for Cuba’s government.
They listened. And they showed up.
“The message of the caravan was clear: we don’t want communism or socialism in the United States, much less after the statements of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders,” said Otaola. “We support the restrictions of the current administration on the dictatorship.”
After working in theater and local TV stations as a comic and show host, he started webcasting his show, “Hola Ota-Ola!,” in April 2017 and his controversial sexed-up videos and biting commentary were instant hits.
Local Cuban celebrities and musicians were not used to such scrutiny. Cuban reggaeton star Yomil Hidalgo, who recognized Otaola at a clothing store, slapped him in the face in May 2018.
Otaola also sued Cuban singer-songwriter Descemer Bueno, author of Enrique Iglesias and Gente de Zona’s hit “Bailando.” Otaola accuses Bueno of “defamation” and working to damage his show, after they both exchanged accusations on social media.
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Then came the politics.
Otaola has demanded that musicians such as Bueno and many reggaeton performers, who travel back and forth between Cuba and the U.S., speak up against the Cuban government. He regularly showcases the scarcities on the island and has invited members of the Cuban opposition to the show. A regular segment mocks Cuban leader Miguel Díaz-Canel.
“I came up with the idea of the show after analyzing the local TV programming in Spanish,” Otaola told el Nuevo Herald. “I felt that nothing was what I wanted to watch, and I decided to do a show that combined comedy, entertainment and politics.”
On Saturday, Otaola showed his muscle by successfully calling for the Calle Ocho horn-honking caravan, in which as many as 2,000 cars participated.
“We don´t want communism”
“There is an awakening among Cubans who have just arrived from Cuba,” Otaola said. “Our program has shown real images, evidence of all the abuses the government is committing with the opposition, the independent press, and the ordinary people.”
That his fan base — fairly recent arrivals who maintain close relations with relatives on the island, and travel there with some frequency — avidly opposes Cuba’s government and supports Trump goes against the conventional wisdom that this wave of exiles is not as hardline as older generations.
Several of the measures the Trump administration has enacted against Cuba, such as restrictions on flights and remittances, mainly affect Cubans who still have families and maintain close ties with friends and family on the island.
Political analysts have generally thought that this group is politically moderate towards Cuba, “but it is more complex,” said Ric Herrero, executive director of the Cuba Study Group, who advised the Barack Obama administration on Cuba policy.
“Paying exorbitant fees to [the Cuban government] to renew their Cuban passports rankles them, as does sending remittances to maintain working-age relatives who can’t make ends meet in Cuba’s closed economy,” Herrero said. “Those who put money into private sector businesses can’t even count on Cuban law to protect their investments.”
And many of them feel “the Cuban government squandered the opportunity to reciprocate Obama’s opening” toward warmer relations with the island in late 2014, a move “they overwhelmingly supported,” he added.
Otaola has been able to seize on that frustration, and it showed in Miami and other cities last Saturday.
To Félix Llerena, a 23-year-old Cuban linked to opposition groups on the island who emigrated to the U.S. in 2017, the Saturday horn-honking event represented “a recognition that the Cuban exile is still alive.”
“There were caravans in Uruguay, in Madrid, in Barcelona, in Canada and in Houston, where I participated,” he said on a phone call from Texas.
“The Cuban government says that there is a small segment of the exile community that supports the sanctions against the regime and that they are Cubans who have been in the United States for many years,” Llerena said. “With this caravan, we show that all the exiles, the old and the new, are united for the freedom of Cuba and in support of the pressure this administration is imposing on the dictatorship.”
That message is now resonating even among many of the Cuban music performers Otaola has blasted on his show for refusing to confront the Cuban government.
Popular reggaeton performer Chocolate MC posted on Instagram a photo of him in the Saturday car caravan. His caption reminded exiles that they have “mambí blood ”— a reference to soldiers for Cuba’s war of independence in the late 1800s. And he added the hashtags “#Enough” and “#FreeFerrer,” a reference to the imprisonment of Cuban dissident José Daniel Ferrer.
Local Republican politicians have capitalized on the new political climate and acted on some of the campaigns Otaola has organized.
The city of Miami passed a resolution last June to deny funds and support from the local government to so-called “cultural exchange” with artists from Cuba, following a campaign by several exile organizations and months of chatter in Otaola´s show.
In November, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez joined Otaola in campaigning for the cancellation of a concert by Cuban singer Haila María Mompié, harshly criticized for having performed in an homage to Fidel Castro a decade ago.
Her show got canceled.
Otaola´s appeal is growing within other groups in the Cuban-American community who agree with his anti-Castro message, although not necessarily in his support for Trump.
Cuban-American singer Lucy Grau, born in Miami Beach, said she participated in the car caravan mainly because of the experience of her parents, who had to leave the island after Castro came to power.
“The idea behind what Otaola did is very good. I know the importance of democracy,” Grau said. “I know what my parents and grandparents suffered when they had to flee from Cuba in search of freedom. ”
Follow Nora Gámez Torres and Mario J Pentón on Twitter: @ngameztorres and @MarioJPenton