Cuban-Americans Split Over New Cuba Rules

In Miami, many Cuban-Americans are welcoming a significant shift in U.S. policy toward Cuba. On Monday, President Obama lifted all restrictions on travel and money transfers by Cuban-Americans to the island nation.

At ABC Charters in Little Havana, Beatriz Mulet was buying a ticket to go home to see her mother, who recently found out she has breast cancer.

Mulet was surprised — and delighted — to hear about the new policy changes, which lift all restrictions on travel and remittances by Cuban-Americans.

"I voted for Obama," Mulet said. "I thought that he was going to do it. I didn't know it would be this fast."

Under Bush administration rules, Cuban-Americans were only allowed to return to the island to visit close family members once every three years.

Maria Aral, who runs ABC Charters, says the rules kept many from going back to Cuba as much as they wished.

The new rules allow unlimited trips and expand whom they can visit — permitting trips not just to see close family members, but also to see great aunts and second cousins.

"For us Cubans, cousins are as close as sisters," Aral said. "And under President Bush, my cousin was no longer my family. I couldn't visit them."

The changes outlined also allow U.S. companies to improve telephone and Internet service to the island nation — if they can reach agreements with the Cuban government.

The new rules don't change the U. S. trade embargo, in place for nearly 50 years. They do, however, mark a significant shift in White House tone toward Cuba. White House officials refused to say what future changes might be in the offing regarding Cuba, only that U.S. policy to the island nation is "not frozen in time."

That's also the case with South Florida's Cuban-American population. Polls show a majority of Cuban-Americans support lifting the travel and remittance restrictions — restrictions that many once supported.

Travel agent Aral notes that second and third generation Cuban-Americans help account for the changing attitudes. But just as important are new arrivals from Cuba.

"There (are) 30,000 legal immigrants a year, according to the immigration agreement between the United Sates and Cuba," Aral said. "These people want to go visit their family."

Even so, a significant number of Cuban-Americans are still leery of any policies that weaken 50 years of hard-line opposition to the Castro regime. Republicans Mario and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Cuban-American brothers who represent Miami in Congress, called Obama's policy changes "a serious mistake."

Influential radio commentator Ninoska Perez Castellon said Obama is extending a hand to Cuba while the Castro regime still has "a clenched fist."

"We feel it's wrong to give this concession to the Cuba regime at a time when they have not shown any willingness to change," Perez said. "Cubans have no individual freedoms; prisons are full. So why grant this free ride to the Cuban regime at this point?"

A sign of the changes taking place in South Florida can be found at the Cuban-American National Foundation. A little more than a decade ago, it was the hardest of hard-line Cuban-American groups dedicated to upholding the trade embargo and overthrowing the Castro regime at any cost.

Over the past decade, though, the group has moderated its position and recently released a white paper outlining many of the policies now adopted by Obama.

The group's president, Pepe Hernandez, is a veteran of the Bay of Pigs and was once a strong supporter of the travel restrictions. But after 50 years, he says, it's time to try something new.

At a news conference Monday, he was asked whether unrestricted remittances and travel to Cuba wouldn't end up enriching the Castro regime.

"Well, it's going to help the regime," Hernandez said. "We agree with that; there's no doubt about that. But it's going to help the Cuban people even more."

The new rules only affect Cuban-Americans, but more changes in U.S. travel policy toward Cuba are possible. A bill currently being considered in Congress would lift the ban on travel to Cuba for all Americans.

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