October 22, 2021

U.S.-Cuba policy overhaul sends shockwaves through Miami exile community

 

Protesters at Versailles Restaurant on Calle Ocho in Miami decry the exchange of convicted Cuban spies for Alan Gross, who has been held by the Cuban government.
Protesters at Versailles Restaurant on Calle Ocho in Miami decry the exchange of convicted Cuban spies for Alan Gross, who has been held by the Cuban government. Roberto Koltun El Nuevo Herald

The political ground shook in South Florida on Wednesday when President Barack Obama announced plans to restore full diplomatic relations with Communist Cuba.

Miami, the heart of the Cuban exile community, reacted with a collective shock. Hardline opponents of the Castro regime lambasted the president for what they called a betrayal.

The political ground shook in South Florida on Wednesday when President Barack Obama announced plans to restore full diplomatic relations with Communist Cuba.


Miami, the heart of the Cuban exile community, reacted with a collective shock. Hardline opponents of the Castro regime lambasted the president for what they called a betrayal.

Miami-Dade County Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo, a Republican whose father was a pilot in the 1996 Brothers to the Rescue mission, called the Democratic president a sellout.

“The Cuban exile community that has made a foundation out of standing firm against the Castro government has been, in essence, sold out,” he told the Miami Herald. “Those that have lost themselves to the straits of Florida, that have drowned, I feel that their memory has been sold out. The Brothers to the Rescue pilots — those American citizens — that were blown up, their memory and their families’ misery has been sold out.”

Maggie Khuly, the sister of Armando Alejandre Jr, one of the four Brothers to the Rescue members shot down, said the families of the failed mission’s victims were outraged.

“I was expecting this, but I can’t believe it,” Khuly told the Herald. “No one [in the federal government] had the decency of telling us anything.”

People across the city tuned in to watch Obama address the nation at noon. In Cuba, Raúl Castro spoke at the same time.

Several people gathered around a television set showing CNN at a waiting room at Doctor’s Hospital in Coral Gables to watch reporting from Versailles Restaurant in Little Havana, where a small group of hardliners were protesting. Early on, though, there were more reporters than demonstrators.

Then, Obama spoke.

“Wow. Wow. Wow,” an unidentified woman said when the president finished.

“Maduro is screwed,” said another, referring to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, a Castro ally. The crowd remained as U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, appeared on the screen and criticized Obama from Capitol Hill.

The day began with the news that Cuba had freed American political prisoner Alan Gross on humanitarian grounds — and that the U.S. would swap three imprisoned Cuban spies in exchange for a U.S. intelligence officer detained on the island.

“We’re giving them a lot of stuff in payment for the exchange of a hostage,” Khuly told the Miami Herald. “What about human rights? It’s just incredible. I’m extremely disappointed in the president.”

Commissioner Bovo also called the move bad precedent.

“I don’t know what that does for other Americans traveling in Venezuela, in Nicarague — name your country — where now, literally, if want to extract something from the U.S., take a prisoner, trump some charges, and send them to jail,” he said.

County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said in a Wednesday morning interview with the Herald that he was on his way to a phone briefing by the White House on the upcoming announcement. He said he didn’t know enough to critique the White House plan, but was critical of normalizing relations.

“The Cuban government hasn’t done anything to deserve this,” said Gimenez, who was born in Cuba. “If it’s going to happen, I hope there will be positive results.”

Miami police said it was monitoring local reaction in case Obama’s announcement drew crowds or protests. Police Chief Manuel Orosa said resources would be deployed as needed “to keep everything under control and let people demonstrate peacefully.”

The department placed all personnel on alert but did not activate any special plans. Orosa said police would pay particular attention to Spanish-language talk radio in case calls go out for rallies, either for or against the policy changes.

Despite criticism of the policy overhaul, there was widespread relief over Gross’s release after five years.

The Greater Miami Jewish Federation and Jewish Community Relations Council issued a statement welcoming Gross, a Washington resident, back to the country. Gross was arrested in December 2009 while working as a subcontractor with the United States Agency for International Development to help a small Jewish community in Cuba.

The statement thanked advocates who signed petitions and wrote letters to elected officials to keep them from forgetting about Gross’s imprisonment.

“We wish Alan Gross a full recovery from the ill health that resulted from his unjust and inhumane incarceration and we send our warmest wishes to his family who has suffered such great distress during this terrible ordeal,” the statement said.

“Last night, Jews around the world kindled the first light of Chanukah, celebrating a historical victory. Tonight, as we kindle the second Chanukah candle, we know it will burn that much brighter for us in gratitude for the release of Alan Gross and for all those who championed his cause for so long.”

Local public figures also applauded Gross’s release.

“On the first day of Hanukkah, #AlanGross is released from a Cuban prison. What a great gift for his family,” Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle, a Cuban-American Democrat, posted to her Twitter account, @KathyFndzRundle.

Annette Taddeo, the former chairwoman of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party, linked to an ABC News story about the release. “Happy #Hannukkah indeed!” wrote Taddeo, who is Jewish, on her account, @Annette_Taddeo.

Miami Herald staff writers Douglas Hanks and Charles Rabin contributed to this report.

Miami-Dade County Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo, a Republican whose father was a pilot in the 1996 Brothers to the Rescue mission, called the Democratic president a sellout.

“The Cuban exile community that has made a foundation out of standing firm against the Castro government has been, in essence, sold out,” he told the Miami Herald. “Those that have lost themselves to the straits of Florida, that have drowned, I feel that their memory has been sold out. The Brothers to the Rescue pilots — those American citizens — that were blown up, their memory and their families’ misery has been sold out.”

Maggie Khuly, the sister of Armando Alejandre Jr, one of the four Brothers to the Rescue members shot down, said the families of the failed mission’s victims were outraged.

“I was expecting this, but I can’t believe it,” Khuly told the Herald. “No one [in the federal government] had the decency of telling us anything.”

People across the city tuned in to watch Obama address the nation at noon. In Cuba, Raúl Castro spoke at the same time.

Several people gathered around a television set showing CNN at a waiting room at Doctor’s Hospital in Coral Gables to watch reporting from Versailles Restaurant in Little Havana, where a small group of hardliners were protesting. Early on, though, there were more reporters than demonstrators.

Then, Obama spoke.

“Wow. Wow. Wow,” an unidentified woman said when the president finished.

“Maduro is screwed,” said another, referring to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, a Castro ally. The crowd remained as U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, appeared on the screen and criticized Obama from Capitol Hill.

The day began with the news that Cuba had freed American political prisoner Alan Gross on humanitarian grounds — and that the U.S. would swap three imprisoned Cuban spies in exchange for a U.S. intelligence officer detained on the island.

“We’re giving them a lot of stuff in payment for the exchange of a hostage,” Khuly told the Miami Herald. “What about human rights? It’s just incredible. I’m extremely disappointed in the president.”

Commissioner Bovo also called the move bad precedent.

“I don’t know what that does for other Americans traveling in Venezuela, in Nicarague — name your country — where now, literally, if want to extract something from the U.S., take a prisoner, trump some charges, and send them to jail,” he said.

County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said in a Wednesday morning interview with the Herald that he was on his way to a phone briefing by the White House on the upcoming announcement. He said he didn’t know enough to critique the White House plan, but was critical of normalizing relations.

“The Cuban government hasn’t done anything to deserve this,” said Gimenez, who was born in Cuba. “If it’s going to happen, I hope there will be positive results.”

Miami police said it was monitoring local reaction in case Obama’s announcement drew crowds or protests. Police Chief Manuel Orosa said resources would be deployed as needed “to keep everything under control and let people demonstrate peacefully.”

The department placed all personnel on alert but did not activate any special plans. Orosa said police would pay particular attention to Spanish-language talk radio in case calls go out for rallies, either for or against the policy changes.

Despite criticism of the policy overhaul, there was widespread relief over Gross’s release after five years.

The Greater Miami Jewish Federation and Jewish Community Relations Council issued a statement welcoming Gross, a Washington resident, back to the country. Gross was arrested in December 2009 while working as a subcontractor with the United States Agency for International Development to help a small Jewish community in Cuba.

The statement thanked advocates who signed petitions and wrote letters to elected officials to keep them from forgetting about Gross’s imprisonment.

“We wish Alan Gross a full recovery from the ill health that resulted from his unjust and inhumane incarceration and we send our warmest wishes to his family who has suffered such great distress during this terrible ordeal,” the statement said.

“Last night, Jews around the world kindled the first light of Chanukah, celebrating a historical victory. Tonight, as we kindle the second Chanukah candle, we know it will burn that much brighter for us in gratitude for the release of Alan Gross and for all those who championed his cause for so long.”

Local public figures also applauded Gross’s release.

“On the first day of Hanukkah, #AlanGross is released from a Cuban prison. What a great gift for his family,” Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle, a Cuban-American Democrat, posted to her Twitter account, @KathyFndzRundle.

Annette Taddeo, the former chairwoman of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party, linked to an ABC News story about the release. “Happy #Hannukkah indeed!” wrote Taddeo, who is Jewish, on her account, @Annette_Taddeo.

Miami Herald staff writers Douglas Hanks and Charles Rabin contributed to this report.

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