Two words sum up the feeling of Connecticut’s Cuban community to the news Wednesday that the half-century-old cold war between the United States and Cuba was coming to an end: excitement and hope.
“This is an exciting time for the Cuban people,” said state Sen. Art Linares who was heading home to the Connecticut shore after a busy day in Hartford to celebrate with his family the news that President Obama had opened the door to normalized diplomatic and eventually economic relationships with the island nation.
What is most important said Linares, a Republican whose paternal grandparents fled the Fidel Castro regime in 1961, is that there is now hope that ultimately there will be improvement in the lives of the Cuban people.
Bessy Reyna, a Cuban-born writer, poet and teacher, said she was “so excited” by the news of the diplomatic breakthrough. “I think this will make a great difference on many levels,” said the Connecticut Latina who left the island before Fidel Castro came to power.
Reyna, who visited Cuba a few years ago for an international poetry festival, said it was sad to see the poverty of the people. She said they were immensely grateful even for the gift of a pen.
Linares said his thinking is focused on what is best for his relatives, some who live in poverty on the island, and the Cuban people in general.
Linares said around Christmas each year his family sends some money to their relatives in Cuba. “A little money means so much to them,” he said.
Unlike Linares, who was born in New Jersey, Rene Rodriguez was born in Cuba and came to the U.S. as a youngster about 40 years ago. He said he thought it was “great” that the two presidents, encouraged by Pope Francis, had launched a new era. “This engagement is the only way to achieve a positive outcome for the people in Cuba and the people here.”
“Clearly the previous policy was not working,” said Rodriguez who operates a growing driver-for-hire transportation company AmRide, based in Rocky Hill.
Another of the state’s 10,000 Cuban-Americans, Orlando Rodriguez said it was his personal opinion that it was a good thing for the United States to formalize relationships with his homeland.
Rodriquez, who also came to this country as a youngster and now works in Hartford, said there has been a generational shift and that younger Cuban Americans were more receptive of the Obama policy shift.
This view was underscored in a recent Pew Hispanic Center report about a political transformation that is happening among U.S. Cubans, including the 1.5 million that live in Florida.
In 2000, nearly two-thirds of the Cuban Americans were registered to vote as Republicans because of that party’s history of strongly criticizing Castro. Now, the registration is almost equally split between Republicans and Democrats, Pew found.
One explanation for this change, according to the Hispanic research center, is that about half of the Cuban-born population left the island since 1990 and are less anti-Castro.
Moreover, there is a generation gap, with Cuban Americans over 50 tending to be mostly Republicans, but less so than in 2000, while those aged 18-49 were mostly Democrats with that group growing.
In the 2012 election, Obama won the majority of the Cuban vote in Miami as well as overall in the country, Pew reported.
Criticism of the policy change quickly erupted from sources that Reyna said were predictable. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican and a Cuban- American, said Obama’s move amounts to an economic lift for the Castro regime and would do nothing to change the government’s political system or human rights record.
At least two other senators, Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat and a Cuban American, and Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, also blasted the president’s action. Graham said he would fight funding for any embassy to be built in Havana.
In Connecticut, Sen. Christopher Murphy, a Democrat, praised the move to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba. Increased people-to-people ties and expanded commerce, he said, “should help to empower the people of Cuba to improve their lives.”
There are details to be worked out and Congress has to vote to lift the trade embargo that was imposed after Castro took over and instituted a pro-Soviet Union communist regime that has lasted more than 50 years.
However, school bells reportedly rang in Havana when current Cuban President Raul Castro announced to his people the historic news from Washington, D.C. on Wednesday.