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No middle ground in region's reaction to Cuba news

Tiffany Manuel, a hostess at Cuba Libre, an Old City restaurant, was working Wednesday when President Obama announced historic steps to normalize relations with Cuba after a half-century of acrimony and isolation.

Tiffany Manuel, a hostess at Cuba Libre, an Old City restaurant, was working Wednesday when President Obama announced historic steps to normalize relations with Cuba after a half-century of acrimony and isolation.

Manuel welcomed the news.

"Everything needs to change. If it ain't broke, don't fix it? They need to fix it," said Manuel, 32, whose father was born in Cuba and whose mother is African American.

The policy changes, which include reopening a U.S. embassy in Havana, reconsideration of Cuba's designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, prisoner releases, and restructuring of rules on travel, remittances, and business exchanges, set off strong reaction on all sides.

They were lambasted as "misguided" and naive by Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.), whose parents were born in Cuba.

Menendez, a staunch critic of the dynastic dictatorship of Fidel and Raul Castro, is widely viewed as Congress' most influential voice on Cuban affairs.

"It is a fallacy that Cuba will reform," he said.

U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R., N.J.) was harsher still. He cited the case of Joanne Chesimard, who was convicted of killing New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster in 1979 but escaped from prison and lives in Cuba.

Smith blasted Obama for "enabling tyranny," and called Cuba as "an island paradise ... turned into a gulag under the Castros."

The 2010 Census counted 7,768 people in Philadelphia and its four suburban Pennsylvania counties who identified themselves as Cuban, plus 2,717 in Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester Counties in South Jersey.

Across the region, other strong voices weighed in, pro and con.

Obama's proposals "are very positive measures," said Roman de la Campa, who was born in Cuba, came here in the 1960s, and is a University of Pennsylvania professor of romance languages.

"But [they] will require big adjustments in Cuba as well as in the U.S.," he said. "Cuba has been using the embargo as a reason for its economic malaise for some time. It is partly true, partly not. Now [if the embargo ends], it won't have that excuse."

De la Campa said that "punishing Cuba for wanting to be socialist" is "retrograde" and out of sync with other foreign policy decisions. "We stopped doing it with Vietnam, China, and Russia," he said, "and yet we do it to this little island."

U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D., Pa.), who has cosponsored legislation to lift Cuba travel and trade bans, said he supported Obama's move to end "outdated policies," and hoped that Congress would lift the embargo.

Aini Martin Valero, 42, was born in Cuba, lives in Philadelphia, and writes for Primavera Digital, a Cuba-themed website. Restoring diplomatic ties is "very important," she said.

"But we must remember that Cuba lives under a dictatorship that doesn't respect human rights . . . where people are imprisoned and punished for thinking differently. ... There is much fear that this relationship between Obama and Cuba won't reach the goal [for the] people of Cuba: liberty."

Gary Albertini, owner of Mojito's Cuba Caribe restaurant, which opened four months ago in New Hope, was born in Cuba in 1950 and left the country with his parents and five siblings after the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. "I agree wholeheartedly" with Obama's plan, he said.

"If something hasn't worked for 55 years, why continue with it? . . . Open up the borders and get some trade back and forth. That's what's going to bring down the communist regime in Cuba."

Frank Mederos, 67, of Mullica Hill, was a Cuban soldier when he fled to Florida in a small boat in 1967. On Wednesday, he was running errands, so his wife taped Obama's speech. When Mederos got home, he watched it twice.

"I love Cuba. I still have brothers and sisters and dozens of nieces and cousins there," he said.

"There isn't anything wrong with what Obama is trying to do. I know that by saying this I am going to get people in the community mad at me. But I am witness to the fact that the embargo did not accomplish anything. I assure you that in the next 10 years, there will be no communist government in Cuba because of what happened today."

For Rich Negrin, Mayor Nutter's managing director, the news had special meaning. He was 13 and living in Union City, N.J., he said, when he saw his father killed by anti-Castro gunmen.

Both of his parents had fled Cuba in the 1960s. "He believed in diplomatic relations," Negrin said of his father, who met with Fidel Castro to negotiate the release of 3,000 prisoners in 1987, a year before he was slain. "I think he'd be delighted to see people released from Cuban prisons, which are notoriously horrific in their conditions, and delighted to see openness in starting conversations that could ... benefit the Cuban people and reunite families."