Cuban-Americans Optimistic, Wary of New Cuba Rules

Delsa Bernardo was ready to pop rolls in the oven at Yiya's Gourmet Cuban Bakery when she heard the news: After years of separation, she could finally visit her 80-year-old aunt in Cuba, any time she wanted.

Like many Cuban-Americans, Bernardo celebrated President Barack Obama's decision Monday to break from a half-century of U.S. policy toward the communist country and lift restrictions on visiting relatives there and sending money to them.

In a further sign of openness, the White House also announced it would allow U.S. firms to seek telecommunications business there.

"This is fantastic for me. I can actually go see my father's sister. She's my last living relative there," said Bernardo, 47, who came to the U.S. when she was 5 and has never been back.

Although the change is measured—travel is still limited for the rest of Americans and a wide-reaching trade embargo remains in place—the White House portrayed the move as a path to promoting personal freedom in one of the few remaining communist nations.

The changes, first proposed during Obama's presidential campaign, marked another major step away from the foreign policy priorities of the Bush administration.

But the moves fell far short of more drastic policy adjustments that some—including Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana—have argued are required to promote U.S. interests in Latin America and change Cuba. Original Slideshows:

For most Americans, Cuba remains the only country in the world their government prohibits them from visiting—a barrier to potential travelers as well as to the Cuban tourist industry that would like to host them.

Across Florida and New Jersey, home to the nation's largest Cuban exile communities, news of the changes traveled fast.

"So many people have been calling," said Ofelia Gutierrez, a Cuban immigrant and the manager of Costamar Travel in Union City, N.J. "They are really excited about it, asking 'Is it true we can go?"'

Gutierrez does worry the Cuban government will skim off any increased money sent home to family members.

"But overall, it's going to bring families together," said U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., who fled Cuba as a teenager in the early 1960s and was separated from his parents for years until they were allowed leave the island.

Martinez was particularly pleased about allowing telecommunications firms to do business on the island. That could include contracts to lay fiberoptic cable lines and vastly improve Cuba's Internet and telephone capabilities to open communication with the rest of the world.

Miami attorney Joe Garcia, long an advocate of easing travel restrictions, said the ability to send more money to the island would let Cuban-Americans directly support civil society there, rather than being forced to channel their money through a few U.S.-government sanctioned aid groups.

Fidel Castro
Ismael Francisco
Fidel Castro

Obama is unlikely to allow American tourists to visit the island without limits any time soon. And lifting or substantially easing the economic embargo would require legislative action by Congress, something Cuban-Americans feel mixed about. Many believe it should remain in place as a moral symbol even though many acknowledge it has been ineffective.

"We hope that the administration will reserve that for future steps when conditions on the part of the Cuban government have changed and political prisoners have been freed," said Francisco Hernandez, director of the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami.

Cuban-American U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., took an even stronger stance.

"President Obama has committed a serious mistake by unilaterally increasing Cuban-American travel and remittance dollars for the Cuban dictatorship," he said in a statement.

American policy toward Cuba has remained nearly static since 1962, when the Kennedy administration broadened a partial trade embargo imposed by the Eisenhower administration the previous year. The aim was to bring down Fidel Castro's Marxist government at a time when U.S.-backed exiles mounted the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and Soviet missiles in Cuba pushed the world close to nuclear war.

Congressional efforts to end the embargo since then have failed, largely because of the political influence of powerful Cuban exiles, mostly in Florida, who were determined to isolate Cuba, strangle its economy and force Castro out.

But a new generation of Cuban-Americans and newer immigrants are frustrated with the policy's lack of results and more interested in strengthening ties with those on the island—even as Castro's younger brother Raul shows no sign of making any fundamental changes.

The White House announced the Cuba changes in advance of Obama's planned trip this weekend to a Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago. Cuba is excluded from that gathering, but a number of participants were expected to use the session as an opportunity to press the U.S. to improve relations with Havana.

At Yiya's bakery, which features Cuban tourism posters from before the embargo, Bernardo said she hoped the changes would put the international focus back on the Cuban government and its abuses.

"It's a way to say, 'Let's see who Castro blames now for the problems there?"' she said.