WASHINGTON -- As thousands of anti-regime protesters gathered outside the White House just before midnight Monday to mark the 26th of July with a candlelight vigil, Alex Perez and Chris Cruz stood off to the side and smiled at the scene.
"I'm 27 and I never thought I would live to see something like this," said Perez, who came to the United States from Cuba seven years ago. "We need to make sure there's pressure for people who didn't have to go through what I went through to know what's going on in Cuba."
Perez and Cruz, both from Hialeah, Fla., made plans weeks ago to come to Washington for a demonstration timed for July 26, the date that Fidel Castro led his first attack against the Batista government and a national holiday in Cuba. They ended up getting 10 of their friends to join them in a rental van after pro-democracy protests broke out across Cuba on July 11.
"We saw a lot of people on I-95 with Cuban flags and messages on their cars," Cruz said. "Tomorrow [Monday] is going to be intense, but I know people will keep their cool."
Perez and Cruz were part of the first wave of demonstrators who arrived in Washington on Sunday from all over the country. Though the largest contingent of protesters was from Miami, others hailed from New Jersey and Texas.
Their message -- and location just steps away from President Joe Biden's residence-- was a sign that they want the U.S. to do more. Not everyone was in agreement on what "more" means.
Some protesters walked around with signs calling for U.S. military intervention. Others said the U.S. should use every means possible to get internet to Cubans who are attempting to resist the regime. And Perez and Cruz said they favored a "humanitarian intervention" in which the U.S. and other countries enter Cuba with supplies and equipment that can be delivered directly to the people instead of the government.
"I think Cuba needs a human intervention, not bombs," Perez said. "Biden should not only say what is the right thing to do, he should do it."
"Have you ever seen anything like this?" asked Maria Fundora, who leads a Texas-based group called Cuba Libre that provides legal assistance to Cubans making asylum claims. She said the past two weeks stirred up so much emotion for her that she "can't concentrate."
Fundora, 59, said she favors military intervention in Cuba and noted the U.S. military presence in Guantanamo Bay. She isn't happy with Biden's response to the protests in Cuba so far and said "what he's not doing guarantees a Trump 2024 ticket."
"All they need to do is open the gate," Fundora said, referring to the U.S. military. "We went into Kuwait, Somalia, and didn't ask for anyone's permission. We went in and killed Osama Bin Laden and didn't ask anyone. Are you telling me someone from Cuba needs to do something as horrible as 9/11 [the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks] to get the U.S. to do something?"
The mood outside the White House early Monday was largely festive, with constant chants of "Libertad" and ""Patria y Vida," or "Homeland and Life." Almost everyone was holding a Cuban flag or wearing one on their shirt, and American flags were also a constant presence. And a smattering of Pride flags were waved as one speaker noted how the Castro regime harasses and prosecutes LGBTQ activists.
Miami Republican Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar joined the vigil Sunday night.
"At the White House with our Cuban-American community demanding freedom!" she tweeted.