White House

Miami Cuban exiles trek to Washington to protest Obama policy

Violetta Pons of Miami, Fla., holds Cuban flags to raise awareness of continued oppression and human rights abuses by the Castro regime during a rally across the street from the White House in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 17, 2015.
Violetta Pons of Miami, Fla., holds Cuban flags to raise awareness of continued oppression and human rights abuses by the Castro regime during a rally across the street from the White House in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 17, 2015. McClatchy

Cuban exile Aracely Rodriguez San Román commemorated the one-year anniversary of U.S. relations with Cuba by holding a Cuban flag in the cold rain Thursday in front of the White House. The 75-year-old child services worker from Miami made clear that she didn’t travel this far to celebrate.

“So many deaths, so many firing squads. All under the Castros,” San Román said. “And now without receiving anything in return, the U.S. government has negotiations with Cuba. They’re giving Fidel everything he wants and not receiving anything. We’re not OK with that. We feel it’s a betrayal.”

When President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro, who took over leadership from his older brother in 2006, announced they would begin the process to normalize relations, it marked the end of more than a half century of hostility.

On Thursday, Obama said human rights were a priority and the two governments were working through their differences. But he added that the United States is in a stronger position now to help the Cuban people and Cubans are more engaged with Americans than at any time in the past 50 years.

“Change does not happen overnight, and normalization will be a long journey,” Obama said in a statement. “The last 12 months, however, are a reminder of the progress we can make when we set the course toward a better future.”

Cuban exiles from Miami to New York traveled to Washington, D.C., to protest the year anniversary of Obama policy opening U.S. relations with Cuba on Dec. 17, 2015.

The State Department touted a list of positives, from re-establishing diplomatic ties to opening embassies to resuming direct mail. On Wednesday, the two countries announced that they would soon restore regularly scheduled commercial flights.

We feel it’s a betrayal.

Aracely Rodriguez San Román, Cuban exile from Miami

All that meant little to San Román, who was sent to prison for 15 years as a political prisoner when she was just a teenager. On Wednesday and Thursday, she endured another 20 hours of discomfort, fighting for bits of sleep in a rigid bus seat. She said it was worth it to get to Washington to share another perspective.

She was among a group of more than 80 Cuban exiles and demonstrators from South Florida, Chicago, New Jersey and New York who endured chilly rain Thursday morning outside the White House. They said they wanted people to know that the Castro regime was the same today as it was decades ago, when they were wrongly imprisoned. They charged that oppression continues and that the average citizen in Cuba continues to live in despair, which is why tens of thousands in the past year have risked their lives trying to flee the communist country.

“Doing business with Cuba means doing business with the Castros and their sons and their elite group,” said Ley Salcedo, a 40-year-old psychologist who grew up in Miami but traveled to Washington from New York. “That’s important for people to know that. We don’t want to do business with a dictatorship that doesn’t take into account human rights.”

South Florida members of Congress appear to agree.

U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., cited statistics of increasing political arrests in Cuba. He said Obama should not “coddle brutal dictators” and should instead embrace the Cuban people, who are oppressed.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., wants the U.S. government to keep a list of human rights violators. There should be some form of accountability, she said.

“They have nothing to fear from the United States,” she said.

Change does not happen overnight.

President Barack Obama

Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., on Thursday blamed the Obama administration’s policy for the latest surge of Cubans trying to flee the island to the United States through Central America.

“If you’re a Cuban on the island and you see the president of the United States sitting at the table with Raúl Castro,” Curbelo said, “and the United States of America recognizing one of the most brutal dictatorships in the history of our hemisphere as legitimate, what does that say about your future?”

Jeffrey DeLaurentis, who heads the U.S. Embassy in Havana, acknowledged in a conference call with reporters that human rights are among the “areas of disagreement” between the governments. He said talks on these issues had begun and would continue but that change would take time.

San Román remains confused. She said she didn’t understand why the U.S. government would work with a country that had spent 50 years oppressing its people.

“And now the government is opening the door to work with them without any concession?” San Román said. “They say they’re going to remain communist. They say they’re not going to change. That’s what they tell Obama, and Obama keeps going.”