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Local Cuban community welcomes change

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The news came as a surprise Wednesday, then quickly spread throughout Bernalillo County’s Cuban community: President Barack Obama was on TV talking about normalizing relations with Cuba.

Obama’s message, and that of Cuban President Raul Castro, were generally well-received but not without reservations among the county’s 3,200-person Cuban community.

“I can hardly wait to talk with my brothers in Miami,” said Tony Lipiz. “Right now I’m just trying to digest everything.”

One of the motivations behind the day’s developments was the freeing of Alan Gross, an American contractor held in a Cuban prison for five years. Three Cubans who had been convicted of spying in this country will also be released in exchange for a U.S. spy held in Cuba for nearly 20 years. Cuba will also release 53 political prisoners.

“The biggest winners in this deal are Alan Gross and the 53 political prisoners,” said Ivan Avila, another Cuban emigre who came to this country 12 years ago and now operates a plumbing business in Albuquerque. “President Obama has the duty to protect American citizens, and he probably saved Alan Gross’ life.”

As for the Cuban spies, he said they deserve to be incarcerated, but noted that they have served 20 years behind bars.

Lipiz, who conducts surveys on mental health issues for an international company, said his main concern is the economic embargo the United States imposed on Cuba shortly after the 1959 revolution.

“My people are suffering because of it, not the Cuban government,” he said.

Initially, Lipiz – who left Cuba in 1961 when he was 14 – favored the embargo as a way to get the Cuban regime to become more democratic. But after a visit to the island in 2000, he realized that it was an abject failure.

The latest developments likely will put more money into the Cuban economy, because more U.S. tourists will visit the island and Cuban-Americans will be able to send more money to relatives in Cuba, said Nelson Valdés, a Cuban scholar and professor emeritus at the University of New Mexico.

The changes increase the amount of money Americans can send to Cubans from $500 to $2,000 every three months.

New Mexico’s congressional delegation took a varied view of Obama’s announcement, with Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., hailing the president’s announcement, Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., condemning it and other delegation members somewhere in between.

Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., also cheered Obama’s action, while Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., took a wait-and-see approach. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., voiced mixed feelings about it, and Pearce said it set “an extremely dangerous precedent.”

“This is a sea change as our nation is finally embarking on a 21st-century approach with Cuba, one that will open opportunities for New Mexicans and other American interests in Cuba,” said Udall, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “American citizens are the best diplomats of our values and I hope their future interactions shine through with the Cuban people.”

Pearce said he “welcomed” Gross’s release but not the president’s policy shift on Cuba.

“The new policy toward Cuba gives the Castro regime an influx of American dollars and eases travel restrictions but does nothing to ensure real democratic reforms or stymie human rights abuses by the Castro brothers,” Pearce said.

Heinrich called the news “a welcome change of course in our nation’s relationship with Cuba.”

“I support the administration’s decision to abandon an outdated Cold War policy of isolation that failed to advance America’s goal of an open and free society for the Cuban people,” Heinrich said.

Luján said he hopes Cuba lives up to the expectation the U.S. will have in the new relationship.

“It is important that we examine our relationship with Cuba and ensure that we are charting a path that encourages political freedom and respect for human rights,” Luján said. “The changes President Obama outlined today must be met with concrete steps from the Cuban government that achieve these goals. I look forward to reviewing the President’s plan in greater detail to assess the full impact it will have on the United States and Cuba.”

Lujan Grisham said the president’s announcement gave her reason for optimism, but also concern.

“I am optimistic about the shift toward restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba and moving away from a policy that has failed on so many levels,” Lujan Grisham said.

“However, I am concerned about the release of Cubans, who were convicted in American courts, as a condition or precursor to improving relations between the U.S. and Cuba,” she said. “I worry about the message that may send to other state actors around the world that are looking for leverage against the U.S.”

Journal Washinton Bureau reporter Michael Coleman contributed to this report.