In 'Little Havana,' Cuban-Americans debate Obama's new policy

Some welcome the loosening of restrictions. Others say it only helps Fidel Castro.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Sometimes Fidel Castro seems as ubiquitous here as the thick tropical humidity. Tuesday was such a day.

In barber shops and cafes and on sidewalks throughout the heart of the Cuban-American community, people debated President Obama's new policy allowing unrestricted travel and remittances to relatives in Cuba.

At times, the debate turned ferocious. On one side were hard-liners insistent that the only way to deal with a dictator is with an iron fist. Others welcomed the change in US policy, expressing hope that it might be the beginning of progress for the Cuban people.

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"It is stupid to have no relationship with Cuba," said a middle-aged man who identified himself only as Alex. "It didn't work for 50 years."

Alex said his 93-year-old mother still lives in Cuba. "The system [there] is not good; we all know that. But the way the system will change is by having a relationship." He praised Obama for taking the first step.

Tony Alfonso said the new policy will help prop up the Cuban government and will not produce concessions or better conditions for political prisoners. "We are not going to get anything," Mr. Alfonso said, "The Old Man is going to oppose anything we do."

Several others said the Cuban government imposes a surcharge on remittances. "Each dollar that the Cuban people [in Miami] send to Cuba, the government takes 20 percent," said Frank Cortina.

Under the new policy announced at the White House Monday, Cuban-Americans may travel as often as they like to the communist-run island to visit relatives. The old policy allowed such travel once every three years. It had changed more recently to once a year.

In addition, relatives may send an unlimited amount of money to family members. The new policy also allows shipments of clothes, personal hygiene items, fishing equipment, seeds, and soap-making equipment.

In the Luis Barber Shop on Southwest 8th Street, the mood was of disappointment and anger. "For me, I don't like it," said Luis Cruz, the barber, as he wielded an electric razor with a client in the chair. "It gives money to Castro."

Another customer in the shop, Eduardo Rodriguez, added: "In Cuba there are 20,000 people in jail, starving. They are starving, and [Cuban-Americans] are going to send money to Cuba?"

Luis, the barber, replied: "I have been here [in Miami] for 49 years and I will not go to Cuba until Castro is out."

Another customer poked his head into the shop and immediately was drawn into the discussion. "Oh, it is good, very good, to help the Castro government," Mario Jimenez said sarcastically of the new policy.

Mr. Jimenez questioned why the Obama administration changed US policy without obtaining concessions from the Cuban government.

Mike Coppola said he believes the stage is being set to lift the longtime US trade embargo of Cuba. "It is the beginning," he said.

Norma Gonzalez, receptionist at the Peluquria Hair Salon, wasn't thinking about international politics, US policy, or even Castro. Most of her family – particularly her son – are still in Cuba. "I like Obama," she said, voicing agreement with the new policy.

Ivet Enriquez also had no complaints about the new policy. She has been in the US for two years and eight months, after her husband won an immigration lottery and was awarded US visas. But Mrs. Enriquez's mother still lives in Cuba.

"I send her $100 every month," she said.

Enriquez said she doesn't care whether the new policy somehow benefits the Cuban government. "Castro will do whatever he wants, but I only care that my family is alright."

In addition to the visitation and remittance policy, the Obama administration is encouraging telecommunications companies to approach the Cuban government to establish cellphone, satellite television, and other services.

Some residents of Little Havana laugh at the idea that the Castro government would permit creation of a modern international communications network on the island. Others think it might be part of a larger strategy by Obama.

"It puts the Cuban government in a corner," says Eduardo Acosta. He says he's optimistic that the new approach to Cuba may be the beginning of something positive.

Others aren't so sure. "They will have money coming in. They will accept it, but it is not going to improve the relationship between the US and Cuba and Cuban-Americans," says Alfonso. "I do not expect anything."

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