TAMPA — A former anti-Castro militant turned Hollywood actor with family ties to Ybor City has launched a social media campaign that’s drawing international attention with its call for a moment of civil disobedience in Cuba to protest socialism.
Orestes Matacena has over 30 credits to his name, most notably as Jim Carey’s foil in 1994’s “The Mask.”
The 72-year-old entertainment veteran lives in Los Angeles so he wouldn’t expect people in Tampa to recognize him. He’s less forgiving of those who have never heard of his uncle, Orestes Ferrara.
“He is a historic figure,” Matacena said. “And he was an exceptional man. Everyone should know him.”
Ferrara has a historic marker in his honor on the corner of Seventh Avenue and 17th Street in Ybor City, where he gave a speech in 1896 that rallied many local Cubans to return to their native country and take up arms in its War of Independence against Spain.
Ferrara, an Italian native with no ancestral link to the island nation, later fought in the war.
Matacena, a Cuban native, first followed in his uncle’s footsteps as part of an underground militia in the 1960s that sought to overthrow Fidel Castro.
Today, he hopes to push Ferrara’s legacy forward by inspiring others to fight socialism in Cuba.
Matacena launched his social media campaign in February. He is asking any Cuban citizen dissatisfied with the government to take to the streets April 1 at noon and make their feelings known via peaceful means.
“It is time for the people of Cuba to demand change,” he said, “They deserve better.”
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Through Facebook and Twitter, he circulated online flyers now shared by thousands and noticed by journalists around the globe.
During a mid-February interview on CNN Latino he discussed the April 1 call to action.
The television show Arrebatados on the America TeVe network in Miami has produced two segments.
And television networks in England recently picked up the story.
Each news outlet has asked its viewers to share the call for civil disobedience via social media.
Matacena said the choice of the date, April 1, may seem odd in the U.S., where it’s a day of practical jokes. Cuba has no such tradition.
“This is not a joke,” he said. “I take this issue very seriously.”
His idea was partly inspired by the courage of Venezuela’s opposition party, which has taken to the streets demanding the resignation of President Nicolas Maduro or a change in his government policy. Protesters blame the Maduro administration for the nation’s violent crime, high inflation and crumbling economy.
Matacena said he is puzzled that Cuba’s people don’t speak out in the same way.
Explanations among Cuba experts have varied.
Some believe Cubans are afraid. Peter Hakim, president emeritus of Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank on Western Hemisphere affairs, blames a lack of leadership.
“In Cuba, there has never been an opposition to lead demonstrations and protests,” Hakim said via email. “Fidel did away with anyone who could mount an opposition, including many who had supported and fought for the revolution.”
Others say Cubans are simply content with their socialist government.
Matacena refuses to accept that.
“My uncle, with no ties to Cuba, fought for them because he believed every nation should enjoy democracy,” said Matacena. “He knew Cuba deserves it. He was right then and he would be right today.”
Matacena said any Cuban named Orestes in his 60s or 70s, himself included, was probably named in his uncle’s honor.
“He is that respected and loved in Cuba,” Matacena said.
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Ferrara was a law student in his native Italy when he learned of Cuba’s fight for independence from colonialist Spain.
Ferrara’s grandfather and father both fought for Italy’s independence.
Inspired to make a difference in the world, too, Ferrara left his comfortable life and traveled to Cuba.
“Imagine that bravery,” Matacena said. “The world was not as small as today. There were no planes or internet. All he knew about Cuba was what he read and it must have taken weeks to get there. Yet he braved it out of his love of freedom for all.”
On his way to Cuba, Ferrara stopped in Ybor City and delivered his inspiring speech.
Following the war, he became known as the Italian “Mambi” — the term for the guerrilla Cuban independence soldiers — and was named president of the Cuba Senate. He later became Cuba’s secretary of state and then U.S. ambassador to Cuba.
In the late 1940s, he returned to Italy, where he lived until he died in 1972.
Born and raised in Cuba by Italian parents, Matacena met his uncle in the 1950s and kept in touch with him through letters.
Matacena credits this relationship with his desire to play an active role in battling socialism.
Following the Cuban Revolution that brought socialism to the nation, Matacena spent five years as an armed fighter on the island nation taking part in clandestine missions against the government. In the mid-1960s, he had to flee his homeland when law enforcement learned of his participation.
“I left everything behind,” he said. “I never saw my family again.”
He has never stopped speaking out against Fidel Castro and now Raul.
In late-February, Matacena wrote a letter to Cuban dissident Jorge Luis García Pérez, known as Antúnez, who was in the midst of a hunger strike in protest against the siege of his home by Cuban authorities.
“I told him that instead of dying as an idiot, he should start to promote civil disobedience in the island,” said Matacena.
Perez ended his hunger strike soon after Matacena sent the letter. Whether he received it or it was coincidence, Matacena does not know, but he was inspired to lead an effort for civil disobedience on his own.
“I am not as famous as my uncle or as great,” said Matacena. “But I love Cuba equally.”