Miami-Dade County

Obama visit to Cuba draws mixed reactions from Cuban Americans

Video: Opinions of President Obama's planned Cuba visit

Locals and visitors in Miami's Little Havana share their opinions Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016, on President Obama's planned visit to Cuba. The president and first lady will visit the island March 21-22.
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Locals and visitors in Miami's Little Havana share their opinions Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016, on President Obama's planned visit to Cuba. The president and first lady will visit the island March 21-22.

After months of hints that President Barack Obama was seriously considering a historic visit to Cuba, the news that he’s actually doing it, and soon, was no big surprise to anyone in Miami’s Cuban community. But reactions ranged from harsh condemnation to open embrace, driven by pain and disappointment on one side and on the other hope that the visit would bring a measure of hope to Cubans on the island.

Few in Miami appeared to believe that Obama’s visit would by itself bring significant change to Cuba, where the 57-year-old communist regime has undertaken at best only modest reforms in response to the historic diplomatic opening agreed to by both governments 14 months ago.

But the official announcement Thursday that Obama will make a two-day official state visit to Havana in March seemed to drive home for good the once-unthinkable notion that relations between the longtime foes, while not exactly friendly, are on a dramatically different footing today.

For those who had staunchly opposed the Castro brothers and any rapprochement with Cuba while the regime is in place, Obama’s decision amounted to a “shameful” betrayal of Miami’s exile community that will change little on the island.

“The president’s visit will have no impact whatsoever,” said Carlos Naya, 61, who came to the United States from Cuba at the age of 12. “As long as there is no freedom of expression, how can anything change? If the people have to function under the same rules in which they have functioned for the last sixty years, what is a visit going to do?”

We still have differences with the Cuban government that I will raise directly. America will always stand for human rights around the world.

President Barack Obama

Other longtime exiles were ambivalent, but applauded Obama for his willingness to try a fresh approach.

Miami resident Isabel Gomez-Bassols, who arrived in Miami in 1960, said U.S. sanctions on Cuba have failed to help people on the island, and that she has “hope” that the new relations will finally usher in longed-for change.

“I do understand that there are a lot of us, Cubans, that have suffered a lot with families that either have been killed or imprisoned, and I embrace also that pain,” she said. “I believe they are in a period of transition. Hopefully the Castro brothers will be part of [the] past.”

Some were plainly enthusiastic, saying the impact of a visit from a sitting American president — the first in nearly 90 years — would encourage Cubans to demand greater freedoms and directly improve their lives by opening the door to American tourism and business.

“It … will give courage to those already there,” said Gabriel Puello, a Cuban American from Miami who said he visited Cuba for the first time last summer. “Inhabitants there are super anxious for us to come in droves and invest, spend dollars.”

The White House announcement said Obama will not shy away from outlining differences with Cuba on human rights and other matters and will meet not just with Raúl Castro and government officials in Havana but also ordinary Cubans, including members of “civil society, entrepreneurs and Cubans from different walks of life.”

If he, in fact, holds a meaningful meeting with dissidents and broadcasts support for rights denied to Cubans for decades, said Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, a longtime opponent of the Cuban regime, then the visit could be a positive.

“I just hope he doesn’t miss the opportunity of meeting with the opposition leaders because there’s a legitimate opposition movement in Cuba,” he said. “By him meeting them at least he will send a clear message that the U.S. wants to hear their side.”

I just hope he doesn't miss the opportunity of meeting with the opposition leaders because there's a legitimate opposition movement in Cuba.

Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado

Regalado, who was born in Havana in 1947 and flew to Florida as a child as part of Operation Pedro Pan, recalled as a reporter covering President George H.W. Bush’s visit to Poland in 1989. The Republican president made the best of the visit by meeting with Communist Polish leaders, but then also traveled to a shipyard to meet with leaders of the opposition Solidarity movement.

Bush “called for a free press and free election,” Regalado said. “If this happens [in Cuba] it will be a positive trip. But if it’s just a very mild or just a … meet-and-greet with the opposition, I think that the trip will be a failure for democracy.”

But to his counterpart at the county, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, the Cuban regime has done little to deserve the recognition a presidential visit carries.

Gimenez “does not believe the Cuban government has made any significant changes to respect human rights, free enterprise, free expression or a free press and therefore the government does not deserve the honor of a visit from the leader of the free world,” a spokesman for the mayor said in a statement.

Reaction to the impending presidential visit also appeared to split along generational lines, with older exiles expressing deep skepticism or outright opposition, often in harsh terms.

Raúl Castro “is laughing at the Obama administration for giving everything in exchange for absolutely nothing,” said Felix Rodríguez Mendigutía, a former CIA officer involved in the Bay of Pigs invasion and current president of the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association, the 2506 Brigade. “The only thing [Obama] is doing is prolonging the agony of the Cuban people.”

Former Miami mayor and current county commissioner Xavier Suarez said he saw no indication that the Cuban government has undertaken serious reform in response to the thaw in relations with the United States. But, like Regalado, Suarez believes there’s a potential for Obama to have a positive effect during his visit.

“It’s a rogue regime and the American executive is treating it as a government with which you can do business and have normal diplomatic relations. That’s kind of naïve,” Suarez said. “But the visit might have positive effects. Who knows? Hopefully he’ll see some of the dissenters.”

But some younger Cuban Americans, born or raised on U.S. soil, are more concerned with their lives here. Suarez’s son, Miami Commissioner Francis Suarez, said he isn’t focused at all on what Obama’s visit might mean for Cuba.

Where once the Miami Commission might have endorsed a resolution objecting to warmer U.S. relations with Cuba, Suarez said that’s not his affair.

“I have never visited Cuba, and I have no plans to visit Cuban until it’s a free country,” Suarez said. “I was born here in the U.S. and my complete and utter focus is making Miami the best possible. I spend my energy on domestic policy, not foreign policy.”

Miami Herald staff writer Chabeli Herrera contributed to this report.

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