President Barack Obama got both cheers and jeers for securing the release of U.S. citizen Alan Gross from a Cuban jail and launching the most dramatic shift in U.S.-Cuba policy in more than 50 years.
Cuban-Americans who have been pushing for an end to the embargo against Cuba praised Obama’s move toward a restoration of full diplomatic relations between the long-time enemies. They said the embargo has done little to nothing to bring democratic changes to the communist island, and that the time for a new approach has been long overdue.
“Reports that Alan Gross is being released on humanitarian grounds and will be reunited with his family in time for Hannukah is wonderful news,” said Ric Herrero, the executive director of CubaNow, a group that advocates for the normalizing of the two nations. “Additional reports that the president will announce a major shift in Cuba policy have significant and historic implications.”
Herrero said more has been achieved in the past five years than has been achieved in the previous five decades.
“We look forward to hearing details from the President on the next steps that will make it possible to further promote the fundamental human, political and economic rights of the Cuban people,” Herrero said.
Yoani Sanchez, a Cuba-based blogger who has gained world-wide renown for her denunciations of human rights violations in Cuba, said that the release of Gross had been played into Cuban President Raul Castro’s hands. Castro, she said, masterminded the unjust jailing of Gross, and let his health deteriorate, to gain leverage in getting the release of the convicted Cuban spies from U.S. jails.
“Gross was only useful alive and his health was deteriorating rapidly,” Sanchez said in her blog on Wednesday. “Raul Castro knew this well. This is why in recent months he turned up the decibels to the proposal to swap him for agent Antonio Guerrero and officers Ramón Labañino and Gerardo Hernández, who are serving long sentences in our northern neighbor.”
U.S. businesses that stand to gain from the thawing of relations applauded the change.
Bob Guild, vice president of Marazul Charters in North Bergen, N.J., the oldest and among the largest United States organizers of trips to Cuba, said that his telephone has been ringing off the hook Wednesday, since rumors began circulating about the easing of travel to Cuba.
“We’ve been working for these kinds of changes for years,” said Guild, who travels to Cuba often, and was there most recently two months ago. “The changes that are taking place have been so logically obvious for so long. The public opinion in our country is not divided on this.”
Guild said that he’s witnessed first-hand a greater openness on the part of Cuba during his travels there since Raul Castro became president. He said that businesses have been given more leeway under Raul Castro, and that there has been greater interaction between Cuban and U.S. business people.
“The changes are many, and they just go on and on and on,” he said. “This [policy shift] goes beyond each government’s opinion of each other,” Guild said, “it’s about the relations of both the Cuban and American people with each other.”
Cuban-American lawmakers Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Robert Menendez of New Jersey praised Gross’s release but strongly condemned the release of the Cuban spies and the easing of aspects of the embargo.
"This is a moment of profound relief for Alan Gross and his family,” said Menendez, a Democrat whose parents emigrated from Cuba. “He should have been released immediately and unconditionally five years ago. He committed no crime and was simply working to provide internet access to Cuba's small Jewish community. His imprisonment was cruel and arbitrary, but consistent with the behavior of the Cuban regime.”
But, added Menendez: “Let's be clear, this was not a ‘humanitarian’ act by the Castro regime. It was a swap of convicted spies for an innocent American.”
Menendez, who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, assailed Obama, however, for releasing – as a swap for Gross and another, unidentified person who has been in a Cuban jail for 20 years, the remaining members of the so-called “Cuban Five.”
“President Obama's actions have vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government,” Menendez said. “There is no equivalence between an international aid worker and convicted spies who were found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage against our nation.”
Rubio, a Republican, was equally critical of Obama’s move.
“Today’s announcement initiating a dramatic change in U.S. policy toward Cuba is just the latest in a long line of failed attempts by President Obama to appease rogue regimes at all cost,” Rubio said. “The President’s decision to reward the Castro regime and begin the path toward the normalization of relations with Cuba is inexplicable. Cuba’s record is clear. Just as when President Eisenhower severed diplomatic relations with Cuba, the Castro family still controls the country, the economy and all levers of power.”
Supporters of the change said this is the kind of bold leadership they long had been waiting for Obama to display.
"Today's move to begin normalizing diplomatic relations with an old adversary like Cuba is the kind of bold, forward-thinking action that so many of us elected President Barack Obama to take,” said Charles Chamberlain, Executive Director, Democracy for America.
"Like his moves on immigration a few weeks ago, President Obama's action today sets in a motion a chain of events that could bring tens of thousands families together, including my own, and finally begins heeling decades-old wounds in our hemisphere. Our President has taken the mold-breaking, progressive action that so many of us always hoped he would and for that he deserves our most heartfelt praise."