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December 17th, 2014
06:20 PM ET

Cuban-Americans voice disgust over deal

MIAMI (CNN) – Church bells rang out Wednesday afternoon in Havana, marking a major moment in history - Cuba and the United States are easing diplomatic relations after decades of ice-cold tension.

The news that President Barack Obama would outline such a massive change has been met with passionate opinions in the United States though it wasn't clear how average Cubans felt about it.

Because information is so tightly controlled by Cuban officials, one sign of whether change for the better is really possible on the island is whether the voices of everyday citizens will be heard.

"I would love to find out how a small business owner is taking the news today," said 28-year-old Natalia Martinez, of Roots of Hope, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization based in Miami that helps students and young professionals in Cuba to their peers in the U.S. to share information through the Internet and other technologies. She's also a psychologist.

Martinez was born in Cuba and lived there until she was 6. She then moved to Mexico and came to the United States when she was 11.

"Being a relatively recent Miami re-transplant, I think I have an optimistic view," she said. "There is a generational divide between young Cuban arrivals.

There's value to how older Cuban-Americans feel, she said.

But the conversation, she said, has shifted. "It's more focused on what we (Cuba and the U.S.) can agree on as opposed to the things we disagree on."

Dissident Cuban blogger Yusaby Perez tweeted that his neighbor asked him if a change in U.S.-Cuban trade relations would mean that he could finally afford to buy meat.

"Let's see if the embargo can be lifted also for better relations, so our quality of life can improve, so we can get more food, more things from other countries," Alexandro Perez told a Reuters journalist in Havana.

Some older Cubans, many of them exiles in Miami, were decidedly angry about the news. A crowd quickly grew Wednesday morning in the city's Little Havana neighborhood at the Versailles Cafe. Hours before President Obama addressed the nation, to explain the release of detained U.S. contractor Alan Gross and the change in policy, many were fuming.

While happy about Gross' freedom, they deemed that the price for it was too steep: the release of three Cuban intelligence agents convicted of espionage in 2001, and a sweeping change in America's diplomatic approach toward its communist neighbor.

Some patrons shouted: "Obama a coward! Coward, coward, coward!" Some held signs that read: "Obama administration conspiracy with Castro terrorist."

"I think people are going to be upset," said John Losada, who's been an exile since the 1960s. "There is a long history here of people who have a lot of anger, people who have been hurt."

A historic change

In his speech Wednesday, Obama said the decades-old policy toward Cuba was "outdated" and "failed to advance" U.S. interests.

That is why the U.S. will move toward re-opening its embassy in communist Cuba and allow some travel and trade that had been banned under an embargo instated during the Kennedy administration, he said.

"Through these changes, we intend to create more opportunities for the American and Cuban people," he said, "and begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas."

Fidel Castro was in power when the U.S. and Cuba ended diplomatic relations in 1961, the year of the failed Bay of Pigs mission. He led the nation for decades. In 2008, Fidel's brother Raul Castro took over.

But a change in leaders did not temper the anger many exiles had for a Castro Cuba.

Easing relations with Cuba feels like a "betrayal," Felix Gonzalez told CNN Wednesday. The 76-year-old Cuban-American immigrated to the U.S. in 1961 and had come to Versailles for his morning coffee. "I don't trust the Castro government," he said. "I will never."

Raul Castro appeared on Cuban television around the same time as Obama's address, telling the Cuban people that relations between the nations would be normalized.

CNN's Havana-based Patrick Oppmann was shocked Castro said the American President deserved respect.

"I've never heard a Cuban leader ever talk about a U.S. leader like that - certainly a sitting U.S. president, that they deserve respect," said the correspondent.

What next?

Legal experts and political pundits debated how much change could really be brought about through executive order.

Bobby Ghosh, a journalist and previous world editor at Time magazine, said he thought there would be limits to how much the President could actually accomplish in altering U.S. policy toward Cuba. It would have to be approved by lawmakers, he said.

But, as he wrote in reaction to Wednesday's developments in Quartz online, most of the world does business with Cuba already. And many Americans have already visited Cuba despite a travel ban.

"For a microcosm of the Castros' failure as managers of the Cuban economy, look no further than the tourism industry. The island - blessed as it is with gorgeous beaches, warm weather, fantastic music, and terrific rum - gets nearly 3 million foreign tourists a year. Nearly a million come from Canada, with the UK, Italy, Spain, and Germany all accounting for large groups," he wrote.

Miami's Mayor Tomás Pedro Regalado, who came to the U.S. in the '60s, said he thinks Cuba will make more arrests and crack down even more on human rights after the U.S. changes its policy. The Castro government won't change its ways, he said.

Miguel Saavedra, another exile, said there's a practical issue to consider. "Seventy percent of exiles, they don't support business to Cuba."

CNN analyst Ana Navarro said she found it "disrespectful and unilateral" that the White House didn't consult with Congress first. Navarro spent a large part of her career condemning rights violations in Cuba.

"They've been a thorn in our side, anything other than an ally," she said. "I will not give one penny of my money to a regime that violates human rights."

A 2014 Human Rights Watch report on Cuba said that the government represses people and groups who criticize the government or call for basic human rights, sometimes punishing dissenters by beating them, publicly shaming them, ending their employment or threatening them with prison time.

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