MIAMI -- Cuban Americans reacted with mixed emotions to President Obama's announcement today that the U.S. was normalizing relations with Cuba after severing ties more than 50 years ago.
In the Little Havana neighborhood -- the unofficial political heart of this city, where more than half the population, 54%, is of Cuban descent -- hardliners protested with signs decrying Obama's move and chanting, "Traitor, traitor."
Carlos Munoz, a retired veterinarian who left Cuba in 1970, was among a group outside the well-known Cuban restaurant Versailles that was heated in opposition and disappointed by the historic move. Munoz said he felt betrayed by Obama's actions.
"We've been in the fight for Cuban independence for over 50 years, and we just got back-stabbed," said Munoz, 78.
Some Cuban Americans took solace in knowing that Alan Gross, an American arrested in Cuba in 2009 on espionage charges and released Wednesday on humanitarian grounds as part of the negotiations between the two countries, would soon be reunited with his family. Part of the agreement calls for the U.S. to release three Cubans imprisoned for spying.
"I'm happy they released that poor man who was going to die in that prison," said Miguel Saavedra, a mechanic who fled Cuba in 1965. "But this wasn't the way to do it."
Osvaldo Hernandez, a 50-year-old orthopedic technician who left Cuba on a raft with 13 others in 1995, wondered why the president didn't use the military to recover Gross.
"Why didn't they send in the SEALS, like they've done in so many other countries?" he asked.
Saavedra and Hernandez are members of a group called Vigilia Mambisa, a collection of exiled Cubans who want to maintain the economic embargo against the Communist island and advocate stronger sanctions to remove the Castro regime.
On Wednesday, they said Obama basically handed Cuban President Raul Castro everything he ever wanted in exchange for no institutional changes in Cuba.
"Obama is on his knees in front of a terrorist regime," he said. "It's sad."
Cuban Americans who support the easing of sanctions against Cuba praised Obama's move.
"Today, the President has taken major strides to update our Cuba policy so that it better meets the challenges of the 21st century," Ric Herrero, executive director of #CubaNow, a group that supports normalizing relations with Cuba, said in a written statement. "The changes ... will make it easier to support the Cuban people as they take ownership of their destiny and craft a more democratic and independent future for themselves.
He singled out Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida for their opposition to opening relations with Cuba on the basis of not engaging with repressive regimes, pointing out that Rubio's staff and Menendez have traveled and met with officials in China, which also has been criticized for human rights abuses.
Herrero said the changes Obama announced, such as easing the travel ban to Cuba and allowing financial transactions between the two countries, will allow Americans to help support Cuban entrepreneurs and businesses.
The push for human rights in Cuba will happen as more Cubans are exposed to more people and ideas, he said.
"The Cuban people will be better equipped and supported in their desire to exercise their human rights, develop civil society institutions and hold their own government accountable," Herrero said.
In Naples, Fla., Cuban-born Adriana Infanzon, 65, hopes the move toward normalization "opens up the possibility for investments and a better life for the Cubans."
Infanzon, a Catholic Charities caseworker, sees Cuban immigrants daily. Looking back at their lives on the island, "Most don't complain about their (human) rights," Infanzon said. "They talk about having nothing to look forward to."
Palm Bay, Fla., Mayor William Capote, who came to the United States at age 8 with his parents aboard a "Freedom Flight" to Miami in 1970, is optimistic about the new relationship with Cuba.
"Hopefully, this will work out for the best," Capote said. ""When we talk about democracy, it's the availability that people from other countries come here for: to be able to go to school; to be able to do free enterprise; to start your own business; to have those opportunities that are afforded here in the U.S."
Capote said on his Facebook page Wednesday afternoon: "I support communication and dialogue that would help move my native homeland towards freedom and democracy. I hope we as a nation can embrace change and progress and focus on positive relations that empower the people of Cuba to be free and prosperous."
Attitudes among Cuban Americans have shifted over the past 15 years. Many younger people and those emigrating from the island recently support normalized relations between the U.S. and Cuba, said Fernand Amandi, managing partner for the polling firm Bendixen and Amandi International. In Miami, he says, Cubans tend to be more hardline against Cuba than other Cubans across the country.
For decades, he said, feelings in the Cuban American community were more monolithic as almost everyone supported the economic embargo and other sanctions.
"There's been a recalibration" in the Cuban American community, Amandi said, particularly among people under 45, whose lives were not upended as their parents' and grandparents' lives were when they fled Cuba after Fidel Castro took over in 1959.
For anyone under 45, today's announcement is the "most momentous" regarding relations between the two countries, he says.
Not all older Cubans opposed Obama's moves.
Antonio Garcia-Crews spent six years as a political prisoner in Cuba before fleeing for the United States in 1979. The immigration attorney in Altamonte Springs, Fla., far from the exile hotbed of Miami, said he came out of that prison realizing that the U.S. stance on Cuba was contributing to Castro's grip on the island.
"I realized that the Cuban government hid behind the embargo to maintain the repression against the Cuban people," said Garcia-Crews, 75. "The road we've been taking doesn't go anywhere. We have to find a new road, and this is the first step on that road, on the road to democracy. Because now, it removes the argument from the Cuban government that it's the victim."
Cuban-American politicians mostly fell in the hardliner camp, panning Obama for working with Raúl Castro, who they say heads an oppressive regime, while expressing relief that Gross was freed.
Menendez, the son of Cuban immigrants who left the island for New York City in 1953, said in a written statement, "President Obama's actions have vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government."
He said Gross's release is a profound relief for his family but that he should have been released unconditionally five years ago.
"Let's be clear, this was not a 'humanitarian' act by the Castro regime," he said. "It was a swap of convicted spies for an innocent American."
"Trading Mr. Gross for three convicted criminals sets an extremely dangerous precedent," he said, adding that he worries that Wednesday's actions will put thousands of Americans who work overseas at risk if they are arrested and used by "rogue regimes" as bargaining chips.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., said he, too, was "relieved" that Gross was freed, but he echoed the sentiments of many in Miami who said they were repulsed by how it came about.
Diaz-Balart said Obama gave Castro everything he wanted: full diplomatic relations, more access to U.S. money and broader ability to work with American companies. In exchange, Cuba has promised nothing, he said.
"This is the ultimate bailout," he said.
Cuba is reportedly freeing an additional 53 political prisoners as part of the deal, but Diaz-Balart said that was a trick Cuba has pulled several times before. He said thousands of people have been arrested for political purposes this year, so 53 release is a drop in the bucket.
He worried about the signal that he said Obama's move sends to the world.
"This will not only give a green light to Castro to continue to repress the Cuban people, but it is a very dangerous sign to other rogue regimes and terrorist organizations that President Obama will give you whatever you want," he said.
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14 Thou shalt not remove thy neighbour's landmark, which they of old time have set in thine inheritance, which thou shalt inherit in the land that the LORD thy God giveth thee to possess it.