MIAMI – Shortly before 12 p.m., three men holding handmade posters denouncing President Barack Obama gathered near the coffee counter of Versailles Cafe, the iconic restaurant that has long served as a backdrop for anti-Fidel Castro rallies in Miami, Florida. One protester, a gray-bearded man in a blue shirt, grips a sign with misspelled words that say: “Obama Administration Compiracy with Castro Terrorit.”
Outnumbered by local, national, and international journalists, the trio chanted: “Coward, coward, Obama, coward!”
"This president is a friend of our enemy.”
Yet, as word spread about President Barack Obama’s decision to normalize diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, Miami’s Cuban-American community has mixed feelings about the announcement. Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro also worked out a prisoner swap involving three Cuban spies incarcerated in the U.S. and two jailed Americans in Cuba. Alan Gross, one of the Americans, has already been released and reunited with his family. In addition, Obama wants to increase travel and cash remittances by U.S. citizens to the island and lift some of the economic restrictions on Cuba.
While older generations of Cuban exiles and prominent Cuban-American politicians are denouncing the president’s action, younger Cuban Americans, some of whom left their home country in the last 10 years, welcome the opportunity to reestablish ties with America’s last remaining Cold War-era foe.
Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado, who stopped by Versailles, told the assembled journalists the United States government broke its policy of not negotiating with terrorists. “I don’t know why the United States is giving everything and not demanding anything,” Regalado said.
His counterpart, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, released a statement echoing Regalado’s comments. "While I welcome the release of Alan Gross and another person, I am deeply disturbed that it appears that in this negotiation we did not secure freedoms for the Cuban people,” Gimenez said.
Republican Cuban-American congressional representatives said they intend to block Obama’s actions. In a statement, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio said he will use his role on the Senate’s Foreign Relations Commitee “to make every effort to block this dangerous and desperate attempt by the President to burnish his legacy at the Cuban people’s expense.”
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who sits on two budget committees that oversee the U.S. Treasury and State Department, called Obama the “Appeaser-in-chief” who gave “unprecedented concessions to a brutal dictatorship.”
Angel Cusemano, 85, was sitting with a small group of fellow elderly Cuban-Americans in the foodcourt of the Westland Mall in Hialeah, Florida, when he found out. He shook his head with disgust. “This country is not supposed to negotiate with terrorists,” Cusemano said. “It makes no sense to cut a deal with a bloody dictatorship that executed many of our friends and family members.”
The man’s friends around him nodded in agreement. “This president is a friend of our enemy,” said Pedro Acosta, 69, who fled Cuba in 1960. “Now terrorists in any other country will believe they can do the same thing.”
However, a growing number of Cuban-Americans born after the Cold War or who came to Miami in the last 14 years don’t share the same hardline beliefs, said Raul Martinez, a former mayor of Hialeah and Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2008.
“The younger generations are more open-minded and they will see this as a positive step,” Martinez said. “You will have some protests from hardliners, but an overall majority of Cuban- Americans will accept what the president wants to do.”
Jose Suarez, a 31-year-old plumber who left Cuba in 2005, sipped on a cafecito at the Versailles counter as he watched the protesters. He’s in favor of United States and Cuba reestablishing diplomatic ties. “Young and old Cubans should get behind this,” Suarez said. “It is going to help people in Cuba. “After more than 50 years of Cold War tactics, it’s time to try something new.”
Peter Hernandez, a 44-year-old man of Cuban and Colombian descent, said cutting off Cuba hasn’t worked for more than half a century. “The old guard may just need to accept it,” he said. “People my age and younger are open to the relaxing of sanctions.”