By: Suzanne Gamboa
The latest step toward a renewed U.S.-Cuba relationship, the most significant since policy changes began more than six months ago, left some Cuban Americans wary but hopeful that reforms will take hold.
On Wednesday, President Barack Obama announced the U.S. and Cuba have reached a deal to open embassies in Havana and Washington with a target date on or after July 20. The news comes a little more than six months since Obama first announced plans to end the half century-old isolation policies towards Cuba.
Adam San Miguel, 30, who was born and raised in Hudson County, New Jersey to parents who fled Cuba, called the move “bittersweet.”
“While we recognize this is a positive change for the people of Cuba, there’s an aspect of dancing with the devil,” said San Miguel, executive director of the non-profit Hijos del Exilio, a network of Cuban-Americans in the New York City metro area whose mission includes promoting “positive change in Cuba via humanitarian endeavors.”
San Miguel said there is a long history of families being separated, of political prisoners being tortured and of exiles leaving the island.
“That regime for the most part is still intact. But now we have to engage the people for the betterment of Cuba and the people,” he said.
“This is what change looks like,” President Barack Obama said in a White House Rose Garden news conference.
The president also repeated comments he said were made by Cubans, whom he didn’t name. One said “you can’t hold the future of Cuba hostage to what happened in the past,” the president said.
“That’s what this is about, a choice between the future and the past. Americans and Cubans alike are ready to move forward. I believe it’s time for Congress to do the same,” Obama said.
Lazaro Cardenas, a steering committee member of the New Jersey civil rights group Latino Action Network, said the latest move may finally lead to political and economic changes in Cuba.
“Change won’t happen overnight, but the Castros aren’t going to be in power forever,” said Cardenas of Freehold, New Jersey, referring to former Cuban president Fidel and his brother and Cuba’s current president Raul. Cardenas came to the U.S. from Cuba during the Mariel boatlift of 1980.
Groups that have been pushing for abandonment of the Cold War Cuba policies were ready for more progress, though noted continued challenges in doing so.
Ric Herrero, executive director of #CubaNow, urged Obama to quickly nominate an ambassador to Cuba, “whom the Senate should confirm posthaste.” The three U.S. senators of Cuban descent, Sens. Bob Menendez, D-N.J.; Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, oppose the policy changes and Cruz and Rubio are both running for president.
“Congressional opponents of normalization should recognize that the freedom of movement and protection of our diplomatic corps is best ensured by having an ambassador and a well-funded embassy, not by finger wagging from Washington,” Herrero said in a statement.
James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, said the opening of embassies in Washington and Havana means “Americans can make their own decisions where they travel” and that “our businesses can compete with the rest of the world.”
Carlos Gutierrez, former Commerce Secretary under George W. Bush whose family fled Cuba in 1960, has also supported Obama’s policy changes. Obama cited an opinion article that Gutierrez, a Republican, recently penned in support of the changed policies.
“I wonder if the Cubans who have to stand in line for the most basic necessities for hours in the hot Havana sun feel that this approach is helpful to them,” Gutierrez wrote, a line quoted by Obama.
“Today’s announcement is historic, but it is only one step in a long process. My hope is that increasing the engagement between our nations will improve the lives of all Cubans,” Gutierrez, chair at Albright Stonebridge Group, said Wednesday in a statement emailed to NBC News.
While isolation of Cuba has been easing for years, there remains some wariness and outright rejection of the full engagement of the island country.
In Miami, the heart of the Cuban exile community, local news broke into programming to broadcast Obama’s announcement. Cuban-Americans protested outside the restaurant Cafe Versailles a political hotspot where Cubans traditionally gather.
Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Florida Republican of Cuban descent, called the move “deplorable” in a statement issued late Tuesday as word leaked of the coming announcement.
“It will not further our national interests and recklessly confers legitimacy on an absolutely illegitimate military dictatorship,” he said.
Although Obama’s policy changes are the most drastic from any administration since the U.S. severed diplomatic ties with Cuba in 1961, other presidents have made some smaller changes. For example, in 2000, then-President Bill Clinton signed a law easing some agricultural trade restrictions and allowing sales of medicine to Cuba.
Those smaller efforts have helped foster some relationship and interdependence between businesses and families separated by the policies. But not enough to allay the skepticism in some people.
Dominga Garrota, a retired university professor, migrated with her husband to Miami two years ago. The couple had retired in Cuba, but in Miami they’ve started working again in hope that their daughters and granddaughter could join them.
Garrota hopes the opening of embassies will accelerate family visits.
“People have a lot of hope, but I don’t think conditions in Cuba will improve. I don’t think there will be many changes for the average Cuban,” Garrota said, but she added it’s important to remain positive.
Andres Mesa, a Miami artist whose paintings reflect his culture, emigrated from Cuba during the Mariel exodus.
He said he’s in favor of improving conditions for the Cuban people, “but if this is something that will only benefit the two governments, then I don’t agree; then it’s better to leave things the way they are.”