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U.S. lawmakers, Cubans react strongly to revised U.S.-Cuba policy

By JC Finley and Danielle Haynes
U.S. lawmakers, Cubans react strongly to revised U.S.-Cuba policy
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a Cuban-American and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the policy change "absurd." File Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo

WASHINGTON, Dec. 17 (UPI) -- Some U.S. legislators and Cubans reacted strongly to President Barack Obama's announcement Wednesday that the United States would pursue a normalization of relations with Cuba.

Obama announced an overhaul to a decades-long isolation policy, saying, "It's time for a new approach."

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That new approach will involve steps toward normalizing diplomatic relations between the two countries and an easing of U.S.-imposed sanctions.

Obama said in Wednesday's speech that he will engage with Congress to seek a lifting of the decades-long embargo against Cuba, which he said is currently codified by U.S. law.

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While some, like Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Jr., D-Md., -- who flew to Havana in the early hours of Wednesday to collect American USAID contractor Alan Gross, a constituent -- applauded the White House for its "vision of a new day in the relationship between the Untied States and Cuba," other lawmakers were less supportive.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a Cuban-American and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the policy change "absurd" during an interview with Fox News. Rubio vowed to "make every effort to block this dangerous and desperate attempt."

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Obama said the timing of the policy overhaul was made possible only after the release of Gross, who had been imprisoned in Cuba since 2009. His release was secured in exchange for the freedom of three Cuban intelligence agents.

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"Trading Mr. Gross for three convicted criminals sets an extremely dangerous precedent," said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., outgoing Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman. "There is no equivalence between an international aid worker and convicted spies who were found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage against our nation," he said in a statement.

"This is an incredibly bad idea," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., tweeted following the announcement.

Reaction was likewise mixed among Cuban-Americans living in Miami.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez told The Miami Herald prior to Obama's announcement he felt "the Cuban government hasn't done anything to deserve this."

"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, who is Cuban-American, added in a statement released after Obama's remarks.

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Roman Gastesi, the county administrator for Monroe County, where the Florida Keys are located, said he was in support of the United States' embargo on Cuba until about 10 years ago, when he "realized it's just not working."

"We look forward to sailing across the straits to Cuba when it's legal," he said.

Elena Vigil-Farinas, a Cuban-born attorney in Key West, echoed Gastesi's support of the new policy.

"My goddaughter has never seen an apple in her life. That's sad to me. And for what? You're going to block Cuba for what? For principle?" she asked. "All those people who are complaining and saying Obama is supporting a Communist or whatever nonsense, they don't have people in Cuba."

"I think Obama has done what other presidents should have done years and years ago," she added.

On the ground in Cuba, many showed support for the new policy, particularly as it applies to the release of the three Cuban intelligence officers who were part of the so-called Cuban Five. Many of the tweets used the has tag #EEUU, the Spanish acronym for #USA.

"Alive to tell the story!!! @BarackObama will announce set of measures in historical day for #Cuba and#USA," the translated tweet reads.

"There is a contained emotion, #Cuba right now in front of TV and radios... TODAY MUST BE A GREAT DAY!!!!" the translated tweet reads.

"I want to run, shout, go out to the street and hug everyone. Long live #loscinco long live #Cuba," the translation says.

"I called the deanery to say I'm not going because they #cameback. Going downstairs to buy pizzas and take them up to the roof to keep celebrating," the translation says.

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