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Cuba policy shift sparks differing local responses
Collins, other GOP leaders in Congress oppose Obama's move
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After a half-century of Cold War acrimony, the United States and Cuba moved on Wednesday to restore diplomatic relations — a historic shift that could revitalize the flow of money and people across the narrow waters that separate the two nations.

“The embargo has hurt the little people of Cuba while the military and others have a degree of privilege,” said Frank Norton Jr., a second-generation Cuban-American and CEO/chairman of the Norton Agency, a Gainesville-based real estate firm.

Norton added that while he remains staunchly opposed to the Cuban communist regime, “if we can help the true people of Cuba without enriching the military regime, I’m all for (the changes in diplomatic policy).”

President Barack Obama’s dramatic announcement in Washington — seconded by Cuban President Raul Castro in Havana — was accompanied by a quiet exchange of imprisoned spies and the celebratory release of American Alan Gross, a government contract worker who had been held in Cuba for five years.

The shift in U.S.-Cuba policy was the culmination of 18 months of secret talks between the longtime foes that included a series of meetings in Canada and the personal involvement of Pope Francis at the Vatican. It also marked an extraordinary undertaking by Obama without Congress’ authorization as he charts the waning years of his presidency.

“These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked,” Obama said at the White House. “It’s time for a new approach.”

Castro said while the U.S. and Cuba remain at odds on many matters, “we should learn the art of living together in a civilized manner in spite of our differences.”

Norton, who has traveled from Hall County to Cuba twice in the last few years, once on a mission trip and the other for educational reasons, said he believes Wednesday’s announcement will be received more positively from younger Cubans and Cuban-Americans, while first-generation immigrants may be less receptive to the news.

“I think that the average second-generation Cuban-American wants some degree of openness with Cuba, but not with the continued repression,” he said.

Obama’s plans for remaking U.S. relations with Cuba are sweeping: He aims to expand economic ties, open an embassy in Havana, send high-ranking U.S. officials including Secretary of State John Kerry to visit and review Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. The U.S. also is easing restrictions on travel to Cuba, including for family visits, official government business and educational activities. But tourist travel remains banned.

Norton said opening Cuba to tourism could be a boon for the Caribbean nation’s economy, but it must come with a push for more political freedom there.

“We have to figure out how to lift up the economic well-being (of Cubans), but that can’t be the only thing,” he added. “That has to be coupled with giving the Cuban people much more freedom than they have today.”

Obama and Castro spoke by telephone Tuesday for nearly an hour, the first presidential-level call between their nations’ leaders since the 1959 Cuban revolution and the approval of a U.S. economic embargo on the communist island that sits just 90 miles off the coast of Florida.

Despite Obama’s declaration, the Cuba embargo was passed by Congress, and only lawmakers can revoke it. That appears unlikely to happen soon given the largely negative response to Obama’s actions from Republicans who will take full control of Capitol Hill in January.

“Relations with the Castro regime should not be revisited, let alone normalized, until the Cuban people enjoy freedom — and not one second sooner,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. “There is no ‘new course’ here, only another in a long line of mindless concessions to a dictatorship that brutalizes its people and schemes with our enemies.”

That sentiment was echoed by U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville.

“Our relationship with Cuba isn’t subject to presidential whim,” he said in a statement to The Times. “The embargo, the sanctions, the expressions of disapproval over the last many decades are codified into law by Congress — by the people who directly represent those who fled the cruelty of the Castro brothers. The years have not tempered the harshness of life in Cuba, and President Obama’s acceptance of it again makes it clear that he’ll continue to require the strictest oversight from Congress.”

The response from around the world was far more welcoming, particularly in Latin America, where the U.S. policy toward Cuba has been despised.

Meanwhile, the Vatican said Pope Francis “welcomed the historic decision taken by the governments of the United States of America and Cuba to establish diplomatic relations, with the aim of overcoming, in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties which have marked their recent history.”

In Cuba, a sense of euphoria spread through Havana as people gathered around televisions to watch the Obama and Castro announcements.

“For the Cuban people, I think this is like a shot of oxygen, a wish come true, because with this, we have overcome our differences,” said Carlos Gonzalez, a 32-year-old information technology specialist.

Diego Moreno, 58, said it was more than he’d expected.

“Finally, the reason and sensibility of both countries has triumphed,” he said.

Half a century ago, the U.S. recognized Fidel Castro’s new government soon after his rebels took power from dictator Fulgencio Batista. But before long, things began to sour as Cuba deepened its relationship with the Soviet Union. In 1961, the U.S. broke diplomatic relations, and then came the failed U.S.-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion meant to topple Castro. A year later, a U.S. blockade forced removal of Soviet nuclear missiles from Cuba in a standoff that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.

Since then, the number of Americans who see Cuba as a serious threat has declined. A 1983 CNN/Time poll found 29 percent considered Cuba a very serious threat. That dipped to 13 percent in 1994 and 12 percent in 1997.

Under the changes announced Wednesday, licensed American travelers to Cuba will be able to return to the U.S. with $400 in Cuban goods, including tobacco and alcohol products worth less than $100 combined. This means the long-standing ban on importing Cuban cigars is over, although there are still limits.

Early in his presidency, Obama allowed unlimited family visits by Cuban-Americans.

While Obama has long spoken of his desire to open ties with Cuba, the 2009 imprisonment of Gross, an American government subcontractor, became a major obstacle. Gross was detained while working to set up Internet access for the U.S. Agency for International Development, which does work promoting democracy in the communist country.

Cuba considers USAID’s programs illegal attempts by the U.S. to undermine its government, and Gross was tried and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Last spring, Obama secretly authorized two of his senior advisers to hold exploratory conversations with Cuba about securing Gross’ release. Over a series of nine clandestine meetings in Canada and the Vatican, the talks expanded to include broader discussions of normalizing relations.

Pope Francis raised the issue with Obama when the U.S. president visited the Vatican in March. And in early summer, the pontiff sent separate letters to Obama and Castro urging them to end their decadeslong freeze.

The details of the prisoner releases and policy changes were largely finalized during a meeting at the Vatican last fall.

Wednesday morning, Gross boarded a U.S. government plane and flew out of Cuba, accompanied by his wife and three U.S. lawmakers.

The two nations also released spies they were holding.

U.S. officials said Cuba was taking some steps as part of the agreement to address its human rights issues, including freeing 53 political prisoners and allowing greater Internet access on the island.

Obama said he continued to have serious concerns about Cuba’s human rights record but did not believe the current American policy had been advancing efforts to change the government’s behavior.

“I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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