Cuban Americans with ties to Wichita and Kansas reacted strongly Wednesday at the news the United States was restoring full diplomatic relations with Cuba and will open an embassy in Havana for the first time in more than a half-century.
Rep. Mario Goico, R-Wichita, who said he fled Cuba at the age of 15, criticized the move announced Wednesday by President Obama.
“If you listen to Obama he’s acting like he’s doing this for Cuban exiles, as a favor to Cuban exiles, when basically this is a slap in the face to Cuban exiles,” Goico said.
Former Wichita mayor Carlos Mayans had similar feelings.
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“I don’t believe Cuba will reform because the American president believes if we extend the hand of peace that suddenly the Cuban government’s clenched fist is going to open up,” he said.
“I don’t believe the Castro government is going to reciprocate.”
Fort Hays State University president Mirta Martin, 53, said she was 6 years old when she fled Cuba with her grandmother and sister. Her father still lives in Cuba.
“The Cuban people have suffered for so many years,” Martin said. “If it were not for my help in sending (my father) money when I could, he would not have any food.”
“I hope this will help Cuban people eat and travel easier,” Martin said. “I hope this will open the ability for families to be reunited. I am very distraught because what I hope may not happen.”
Goico said he recalled watching executions on television after Fidel Castro took power in 1959. Castro’s brother, Raul, is now president of Cuba and negotiated the agreement with Obama.
Goico said he left Cuba along with a younger brother and sister in 1961. He and his brother were placed at Mariana Children’s Home in Wichita, while his sister was placed in a foster home.
“It was the most difficult decision that I think a mother can ever make because my mother sent us without knowing if she would ever see us again,” Goico said, reflecting on his parents’ decision.
Goico questioned the rationale for opening relations. He argued that allowing trade with Cuba would strengthen the communist government and argued that regime was being rewarded despite continued human rights abuses and restrictions on free speech.
“None of the things have changed,” Goico said. “There is no free markets. There is no approach to improving human rights. There is no open democratic elections. There hasn’t been any political reforms.”
Martin said she remembers the harsh realities of the communist regime of Cuba.
“The government chose who left, how they left and when,” Martin said. “The government had a methodical way of doing things. It was designed to split up families.”
When it came time for her family to leave, only her grandmother, sister and Martin could leave. The rest of the family stayed behind.
Sitting in the airplane and looking out the window, she said, she saw her “father on top of a roof waving his hands.” It was 33 years before she saw him again.
On Wednesday, when Martin heard news that American Alan Gross had been released after five years in Cuba prisons, she was grateful.
“It is the greatest Christmas present and blessing for his family to have him home,” she said. “I am grateful that they will have a gift that many of us do not have or will not have. My father was not present for my wedding or at my children’s birth.
“I am hoping the United States did not legitimize a tyrannical government that exists 90 miles from the greatest nation in the world.”