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Young leader rises in Tampa's Cuban dissident movement, but who will follow?

TAMPA -- Rafael Pizano has emerged as the young leader among Cuba dissidents in Tampa. Without him, there may not have been a future for the campaign.

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Paul Guzzo
, Tampa Bay Times Staff Writer, Tampa Bay Times

TAMPA -- Rafael Pizano has emerged as the young leader among Cuba dissidents in Tampa. Without him, there may not have been a future for the campaign.

For years, local Cuban hard-liners have been aging away.

It's a movement started by those who fled the island after Fidel Castro's rise and by those who initially stayed, fought, were imprisoned and later left.

But these originals are now senior citizens or gone, and the next generation is not as interested in the cause.

"Where are others of the newer generation as myself, born of parents and families who endured like mine?" asked Pizano, 37, son of a former Cuban political prisoner. "Although they are around, I wonder where they are."

So, over the past two years, Pizano has taken it upon himself to lead the charge and holds out hope he can enlist others from his generation who live in the Tampa area, home to the third-largest Cuban-American population in the United States.

He's been busy.

He regularly travels to Miami and Washington, D.C., to meet with dissident leaders, and four times in the past 18 months he has visited Europe to meet with top opposition leaders from Cuba such as Rosa Maria Paya, Mario Felix Lleonart Barroso and Jorge Luis García Pérez, better known as "Antúnez."

In November, when Tampa City Council members delivered a briefing on their trip to Cuba -- the council's first official delegation there -- Pizano and his father, Roberto Pizano, 79, stood alone in speaking against the visit. They say the delegation propped up a criminal Cuban government.

Also in November, Pizano, who works with Tampa Fire Rescue and is a U.S. Army veteran, broadcast comments on Miami's TV Martí and Radio Mambí that were circulated in Cuba through an underground Internet market.

His message was to the Cuban troops: Put your countrymen first and stop defending a one-party political system.

"He has stepped up," said Tampa lawyer Ralph Fernandez, 65, a longtime spokesman for Tampa dissidents. "Many are called. Few are chosen."

The travel and trade embargo imposed on Cuba after its shift to Marxism in the 1960s remains in place and President Donald Trump, unlike predecessor Barack Obama, has shown little interest in seeking improved relations with the island nation.

Still, polls of young Cuban Americans in recent years show the pendulum has swung in favor of engagement over isolation.

Through scientific, medical and cultural exchanges, Tampa has been at the forefront of the effort to normalize relations with the island.

Pizano insists he, too, favors having the United States work with Cuba on all fronts, but only if its government extends democratic freedoms to citizens.

Lawyer Fernandez said fatigue from the five-decade battle explains why other young Cuban-Americans in Tampa -- including relatives of former Cuban political prisoners, some of whom were put to death -- have not stepped up to fill the leadership void.

"It is difficult to accept that it has happened," Fernandez said. "But these are painful memories for our people and it is not easy to engage in this struggle."

Pizano's father never expected his son to enter the fight.

As a member of the Cuban military under Fulgencio Batista, the president deposed by Fidel Castro, Roberto Pizano joined what he thought would be a short battle to take back the government.

But he was shot in the head and captured in 1961 and spent 18 years in a Cuban prison where he says he was routinely tortured.

He was later among the 3,600 political prisoners freed through 1978 negotiations between Castro and President Jimmy Carter.

In Florida, Roberto Pizano joined the dissident movement so he could continue working to bring down Castro's government.

Nearly 60 years later, he still waits.

It is aggravating, he admitted, yet he is proud his son has picked up the mantle.

"In relation to family, you always want to leave behind some form of inheritance," Roberto Pizano said. "Values are above all other things I can give."

From an early age, the younger Pizano attended rallies in Tampa, Miami and Washington with his father. Still, it wasn't until he joined the military that he fully appreciated the efforts of his father and others like him.

Stationed with the Army in Vicenza, Italy, from 1999-2001, he was part of the South European Task Force that was to provide ground troops in Kosovo had a NATO-led multinational peacekeeping force failed to push out the Yugoslavian military through airstrikes.

"I took something home with me," Pizano said. "The knowledge that I am privileged. I now use the sufferings of those like my dad for inspiration."

Contact Paul Guzzo at Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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