Cuba, open or closed?

Local residents, officials voice their views on renewed U.S. relations

President Barack Obama and his family recently returned from a three-day trip to Cuba, the first visit to the Communist nation by a sitting president in 88 years. The president met with Cuban President Raul Castro and attended events with members of Cuban society, including with artists and entrepreneurs. His aim is to renew diplomatic relations with the island country that has been cut off from U.S. trade for the better half of the century.
Despite the historic gravity of the moment, the president’s arrival at the U.S. embassy elicited an underwhelming response. Press conferences were tense, and the handshakes awkward. Every bump in the road has been examined and scrutinized by opponents of Obama’s Cuban foreign policy. Some politicians in Hudson County expressed opposition to the visit, while residents were less skeptical.
Because the country’s government has a history of oppressing its residents, many in local towns, including those with high Cuban populations, have been wary of renewed diplomacy, some more hopeful than others.
“I’ve come to Havana to extend the hand of friendship to the Cuban people. I’m here to bury the last vestige of the Cold War in the Americas and to forge a new era of understanding to help improve the daily lives of the Cuban people,” Obama tweeted on his first day in Cuba.

Politicians just say no

Union City, North Bergen, and West New York have the three largest Cuban-American populations in the state of New Jersey, and some of the largest concentrations of Cuban-Americans in the country, besides the Miami-Dade area in Florida. Thus, local residents and public officials had a lot of opinions on America’s new foreign policy.

“If it helps Cubans vote, then it’s good for me.”—Mia Hernandez
West New York Mayor Felix Roque, a Cuban-American who came to New Jersey as a child, believes the United States should not engage in diplomacy unless Cuba releases a number of wanted “fugitives” who are taking refuge on the island.
In an interview last week, he said that the U.S. “did not get anything in return. [Obama] basically had a great time, but he did not get results.”
The mayor demanded that Pres. Raul Castro address human rights violations.
“I want the liberation of political prisoners, to stop the harassment of the Ladies in White, and free elections in Cuba,” he said.
The Ladies in White is a criminal justice advocacy protest organization formed in 2003 that has recently come under violent threats and attacks for their protests.
Mayor Roque is far from alone in his opinions. Two other Cuban-Americans in New Jersey politics echo his sentiments, including Sen. Robert Menendez, a Union City native, and U.S. Rep. Albio Sires, former mayor of West New York.
As a senior member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Menendez has been particularly outspoken. On the floor of the Senate, he lamented the prospect of relations with Castro. “The simple truth is, deals with the devil require the devil to deal,” he said. “Opening channels of communication controlled by the regime means nothing unless we are going to communicate our values.”
The president’s reasoning for charting a new course in Cuban relations is his belief that old policies do not work “We cannot keep doing the same thing and expect a different result,” he said in published reports.
Continuing sanctions in order to force Cuba into submission may be a futile effort because the country has proven capable of carrying on quite well without U.S. trade. Obama admits U.S. past failures in the region. “Decades of U.S. isolation of Cuba have failed to accomplish our objective of empowering Cubans to build an open and democratic country,” he has said. “Is it time to try a new strategy?”

Some residents doubtful

Disagreements over recent policy in Cuba seem to boil down to fundamental differences in diplomatic strategy, rather than outcome. Where some see a Cuban visit as a concession to a totalitarian regime, President Obama sees an opportunity to replace old policies and deliver his message of hope and freedom to Cuban citizens.
Janet Caviello, owner of Bayonne’s Broadway Diner, 8th Street Bistro, does not support the opening of Cuba under current conditions.
“I’m a Cuban American born in New York City who has parents that escaped Cuba for a better life,” she said. “My father like many other escapees was a political prisoner under the dictatorship of Fidel Castro. President Obama only went to Havana, and he should have visited other areas of the country.”
It’s a different picture in rural regions. “In areas outside of Havana people are starving and have nothing because it is taken away from them,” Caviello said. “If it isn’t for their families from the United States who send money and necessities, they really would have nothing. In my opinion, while the Castro regime is still in office, there is no guaranteed freedom for the Cuban people.”
But not all Cuban-Americans are so staunchly opposed to the visit. One Union City resident spoke about the issue while waiting for her family outside the St. Anthony Parish in Union City on Easter Sunday. Mia Hernandez, 36, lives in Union City, and is a second-generation Cuban-American. She dreams of visiting Cuba.
“I want to go back to visit one day. But not today,” she said. “It’s good Obama is [in Cuba]. Maybe they’ll learn more about here.” She believes the opening of Cuban-American travel in 2010 is making it easier to visit. She says of Obama’s visit to her family’s homeland, “If it helps Cubans vote, then it’s good for me.”
Jersey City resident Ernesto Casas, a Cuban-American who came to this country two decades ago, supports the attempt to normalize relations with Cuba.
In the next few months Mayor Roque is planning to visit the Ladies in White in Cuba. The liberation of the Cuban public is an issue very close to the mayor.
“I witnessed the atrocities over there,” said Roque, who escaped the country with his family at age 11. He hopes his time with the Ladies in White will bring attention to human rights issues in the region.
With Raul Castro looking on from a theater balcony, the president delivered a closing speech live on Cuban state television. “I believe citizens should be free to speak their minds without fear, to organize, and to criticize their government, and to protest peacefully,” he said, “and that the rule of law should not include arbitrary detentions of people who exercise those rights.”

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