RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- About 100 people gathered outside Casa Cubana Restaurant & Rum Bar in Raleigh Saturday afternoon to voice their support for pro-democracy demonstrations in Cuba.
The anti-government protests are some of the largest in decades, and come as the island grapples with food, vaccine, and medicine shortages.
Andres Gonzalez, a Wake Forest resident and Cuban native, spoke at Saturday's rally.
"It is different. They are not asking for lifting the embargo, or for vaccines, or for any sort of aid. They are asking to be free," said Gonzalez.
Gonzalez was born and raised in Cuba, before going to work as a scientific researcher in France when he was 27 years old. He chose not to return, and says he was forced to be separated from his wife who was still in the country, for three years as punishment.
"They harassed my wife, she lost her job because I was a deserter of the regime. They raided our apartment," Gonzalez recalled.
He was able to gain political asylum in the United States, where he was reunited with his wife.
Prior to leaving, Gonzalez engaged in his own activism.
"I was arrested twice in Cuba because I did a little bit of activism against the government because I helped distribute universal human rights declarations amongst the students," said Gonzalez.
He still has friends and family in the country, and has been in contact with them as the demonstrations against the government have taken place.
"Thousands of people went out in the streets, in forty cities, and they were chanting 'liberty', 'freedom', 'we want democracy', there were people with American flags, there were people with Cuban flags, and it is different," said Gonzalez, who has been encouraged by the expressions.
The Cuban government has shifted blame to the United States, blaming economic difficulties on the trade embargo and accusing Cuban-Americans for inflaming tensions on social media. Internet access has been restricted in the country, with Raul Castro and President Miguel Diaz-Canel attending a massive pro-government rally on Saturday.
Authorities in Cuba have faced condemnation from the White House over its handling of the demonstrations, which have included arrests of protestors.
This week, Senator Thom Tillis and Democratic colleague Chris Coons, who serve as co-chairs of the Senate Human Rights Caucus, released a joint statement on the situation, writing, "As co-chairs of the bipartisan Senate Human Rights Caucus, we express solidarity with the peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators in Cuba. Decades of authoritarianism, corruption, and economic mismanagement have resulted in dire living standards for millions of Cubans. We call on President Miguel Diaz-Canel and the Communist Party of Cuba to respect the fundamental rights of the Cuban people and respond to the needs of citizens calling for freedom and reform."