Cuban exile community divided over Obama changes

Friday, Dec 19, 2014 08:20

By LAURA WIDES-MUNOZ, Associated Press 
Dec. 17, 2014 2:47 PM ET

MIAMI (AP) — Some Cuban exiles in Miami are outraged, but others are elated that President Barack Obama secretly arranged prisoner exchanges with Cuban leader Raul Castro as part of an effort to normalize relations.
Obama's moves are "a betrayal not only of the Cuban people but of the American people," said businesswoman Remedios Diaz-Oliver, a board member of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC that lobbies for a hard line against the Cuban government.
"This is Bay of Pigs Two," she said, comparing it to the ill-fated U.S.-backed invasion of the island in 1961, when President John F. Kennedy failed to provide promised backup to Cuban exile fighters.
But some younger Cubans were thrilled.
"This is like a new age. It has reinvigorated the talks surrounding U.S.-Cuba relations, and for me that's the more important thing," said Daniel Lafuente, the 27-year-old founder of tech hub LAB Miami.
Lafuente grew up hearing tales of suffering from his exiled mother and grandfather, and watched the Arab Spring uprisings with dismay because U.S.-Cuba policies seemed so frozen in the past.
"Now there's going to be a greater enthusiasm for trying out new means of interacting economically, socially, culturally. It's a really big step. Cuba is back on the map," he said.
Miami's Little Havana neighborhood has been the heart of the Cuban exile community for half a century, the go-to place for protests against Cuban leaders Fidel and Raul Castro and demonstrations in favor of the U.S. embargo on trade and travel with the island.
But there was little immediate reaction in the streets to Obama's surprise announcement that he's pursuing an end to more than 50 years of U.S. attempts to isolate the island — just a small group of vocal activists outside Versailles, the popular Cuban-American restaurant on Eighth Street.
Crowds watched closely on TV as Obama and then Raul Castro announced the changes. At the El Pub restaurant, waitresses paused and one server wiped a tear from her eye as she clasped her hands, overcome with emotion at changes no one believed would come.
Down the street at a barber shop, patrons briefly applauded after Obama finished speaking, but then spoke in more measured tones about how these are just first steps toward real change.
After so many years of heartbreak and strained expectations, Cuban Americans are less likely than they have been in the past to insist on trying to isolate Cuba's communist government.
Younger generations and the more recently arrived tend to be more open to exchange and dialogue. Older exiles whose relatives were killed or imprisoned following the 1959 revolution seemed stunned by the prisoner release, and then shocked even more by Obama's other executive actions.
But there are exceptions at all ages: Cuban-born Raul Hernandez, 60, has lived in Miami for 35 years and has two brothers still in Cuba. Travel restrictions kept him from seeing his parents before they died. "I think the embargo has not been good for the Cuban people because the government never changed," he said.
Obama said he would work with Congress to end the U.S. embargo, but meanwhile will act on his own to encourage a freer flow of travel, commerce and information. He announced talks on reopening both embassies, improving telecommunications, and even opening U.S. bank branches in Havana and enabling U.S. visitors to use credit and debit cards on the island.
Ramon Saul Sanchez, who runs a group dedicated to helping new arrivals from Cuba, said he had suspected Obama was ready to take a "radical step," but had no idea of its magnitude. "This isn't a setback — it's actually a challenge" for an exile community accustomed to business as usual, he said.
Jose Basulto runs Brothers to the Rescue, a group of pilots who dropped leaflets promoting democracy over the islands until one of their planes was shot down by a Cuban fighter jet. He said he's glad to see former USAID subcontractor Alan Gross come home from a Cuban prison, but dismayed that three Cuban spies were released in the swap, including one serving a life sentence in connection with the shoot-down.
"I am happy for Gross, but on the other hand, it is incredible that the Obama government has played so lightly with the U.S. justice system," he said.
Still, many of Obama's moves have been recommended by a growing number of Cuban Americans in recent years, including business leaders.
"We have long advocated for steps that improve human rights and opportunity for the Cuban people and which break the isolation between our two countries. The steps taken today by the governments of the U.S. and Cuba are historic," said Carlos Saladrigas, chairman of the business-backed Miami-based Cuba Study Group.

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