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Local reactions to improving relations with Cuba

By Susan Shinn

For The Salisbury Post

Local residents with ties to Cuba say they hope that whatever happens in the coming months will serve to benefit the people of this island nation.

On Wednesday, President Obama announced his intentions to normalize relations between the United States and Cuba, eventually lifting an embargo America put in place more than a half-century earlier.

As word spread through Salisbury, residents here expressed optimism as well as reservations for what might ultimately be the fall of Communism in Cuba.

Jonathan Rojas was at Mambo Grill late Thursday afternoon when he was asked about the news. Rojas, who goes by the name Johnny Reds since moving here three years ago from his native Miami, has family who left Cuba before the Castros took power. His father and grandparents are Cuban, and his mother is German. The family first moved to California before settling in Miami.

My grandfather supported Castro, and my grandmother was apolitical,” said Rojas, 22. “I feel like Cuba’s done well even with the embargo.”

He wonders how the changes will affect a people who have been self-sufficient by necessity over the years, he said. “I worry that a capitalist free market will damage the sustainability created by socialism.”

Here, Rojas keeps busy working in the Kabobs food truck with Andrew Dionne, as a shift leader at Go Burrito, and as a carpenter. He’s also a musician. He still has family in Cuba, but has never been there.

We haven’t kept in touch,” he said. “The U.S. embargo is all-encompassing. Hopefully, changes will take place for the better. Whatever happens hopefully will fix it, right?”

Maday Sanchez, husband Roger Espinosa, and sister Ariella Sanchez are owners of the popular Mambo Grill, a Cuban restaurant on South Fulton Street. Sanchez said Thursday that she and her family are politically neutral, but she has traveled to Cuba numerous times. Her family left Cuba for Spain before settling in Miami.

It’s beautiful,” Sanchez, 33, said of her native country. “Everything feels like Spain, but nothing has been done in 50 years.”

Her family is mostly from Havana, although her grandmother came from a town near the coast.

When you walk the island, you can practically see the ocean all the time,” she said. “Everybody’s always happy, despite the poverty. Most people don’t work. There’s dominoes and rum and music.”

Sanchez said that people who live in the city trade chicken and pork with rice and beans grown in the countryside. There’s a busy underground trade as well. She also spoke of neighborhood committees that are compelled to report everything that goes on around them.

Sanchez found out about the president’s decision on Thursday.

I don’t have cable, and I’m always here at the restaurant,” she said. “We still have family there. We help when we can.”

The family moved from Miami to Salisbury in 1997, because they had friends here, Sanchez said. They opened the Mambo Grill in February 2008, and the MG Lounge next door last December.

Sanchez estimated there are about 20 Cuban families in Rowan County, with more in Concord.

Ray Alessandrini’s family came to Salisbury by way of Charlotte. His parents met in Cuba — his father was Italian and his mother was Cuban — but left before Castro took over, eventually settling here.

Since the announcement, he’s been on the phone with relatives in Chicago and Miami, discussing what might happen next.

I’m sorta torn,” Alessandrini said Saturday. “I understand diplomacy needs to be done.”

But he’s also aware of the staunch opposition to president’s decision by Cuban Americans in South Florida.

Alessandrini, 54, whose family owns Rico Tile and Marble Co., has traveled to Cuba several times, and is now anticipating another trip.

It’s a beautiful country, and the architecture is phenomenal,” he said. “The people down there realize what they’re missing already.”

One cousin, an artist, has Internet access — a perk of very few Cubans — and keeps Alessandrini up-to-date on family there.

I’d love to see my family and have easy access to them,” he said.

Luke Fisher also has family in Cuba, but had not spoken with them yet on Thursday. His mother, the late Sonia Fisher, was born there, and his aunt and cousins still live there. Fisher, 56, and his family visited Cuba in April with Preservation North Carolina. He noticed quite a change from the last time he was there 15 years ago with his mother. Things were so bad then that she said she’d never return.

It’s already changed,” Fisher said Thursday night. “Raul Castro is allowing the Cubans to work more.”

The service sector, including the taxicab and restaurant industries, is growing.

Not everyone can be a taxicab driver or work in a restaurant,” Fisher pointed out. “But, since the door’s cracked, he’s got his hands full.”

Fisher listened to the president’s speech about his plans to open an embassy in Havana.

That’s fine,” he said, “but it’s still a Communist country.”

Ed Norvell, whose family also went on the April trip, thought he was dreaming when he heard the news this week.

I thought it was a joke,” he said Friday morning. “We had a wonderful trip in April. There’s lots of potential in Cuba, but it’s been frozen in time. My father and mother loved to go to Cuba in the 1950s, and when we went there this spring, nothing had changed.”

He added, “I can understand folks in Florida who were forced out. I can understand their bitterness. But we rode by the Castro family complex, and they’re not being hurt by the embargo at all. But the people of Cuba are being hurt. I hope this is going to be a good thing.”

Norvell likened the news to the fall of the Berlin Wall some 25 years go.

There was a free interchange of people back and forth, and within a few months, the Communist government fell. Once the people get a breath of fresh air and access to information, and once they see what they’re missing, the Cuban government will fall. The Castros can’t hold on forever.”

Fisher’s son, Tom, 24, visiting for the holidays, said he thought the decision came out of the blue. “When we were there, I knew it would happen one day, but I didn’t think it would be this soon.”

Tom Fisher closely follows news about Cuba, and had been keeping up with the release of American Alan Gross. “Then it turned into something so much bigger.”

Fisher said he understands the position of older Cuban-Americans, who had all of their property taken when the Castros came to power. “They absolutely have their heels dug in about lifting the embargo. It’s gonna be interesting and different.”

Tom Fisher said he hoped that because Cuba is already open to the rest of the world that opening it to America won’t make much of a difference. But he and his father doubt it.

The Cuban government controls everything there,” Fisher said. “They want you to put your money in. You know what? It’s OK to do it in steps. But the floodgates will be open. Still, I can’t see developers being able to go there and buy property.”

There’s also the fact that Cuba still maintains a strong military presence throughout Havana. Fifteen years ago, he said, it was obvious, and heavy-handed. Now things are a bit different.

When he asked his tour guide about it in April, he was told, “They’re here. They’re everywhere. They’re just disguised.”

Tom Fisher said he understands that Obama wants to improve U.S.-Cuban relations as part of his legacy, but the reasons that created the embargo still exist.

I think Nana would be nervous,” he added. “Before she died, she plainly said, ‘If the embargo is ever lifted, be careful and keep your guard up.’

There are a lot of trust issues.”

We still don’t condone Communism,” his father said. “I have mixed emotions. I think it’s gonna go slow, and I wouldn’t trust the Cuban government.”

The Cuban people, however, he feels completely different about.

It’s a beautiful place, and the people are wonderful,” he said. “I’m for anything to give them hope and opportunity. That’s what democracy does. That’s the answer.”

Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury.

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