Here in Chicago, the Cuban community is not large, about 22,000 according to the latest data available from the U.S. Census bureau. But at venues like the popular 90 Mile restaurant on Armitage Avenue today, Cuban-Americans were toasting the news of the thaw in relations with their homeland.
“Hearing the President’s words, brought me to tears,” said Marta Garcia, a customer who was celebrating over mojitos with three friends. “Absolutely, I thought I was dreaming.”
Indeed, owner Alberto Gonzalez said the news came so suddenly, it generated a wide range of emotions.
“My kids actually texted me, ‘I guess we know where our next vacation is…Cuba!’” he said. “My dream is to go back to Cuba and show them the house I lived in.”
Gonzalez came to the United States in 1980, aboard a crowded shrimp boat in the Mariel boatlift. He was 11 years old. His restaurant features a mural of his family saying goodbye to the Havana they left behind.
“When I heard I was very excited,” he said. “My wife was actually with me and she was crying.”
Still, Gonzalez says knows some older Cubans, are either angered by the news, or at best, greeting it with trepidation.
“I understand why they feel that way,” he says. “But after 50 some years, nothing has changed. As long as I have reason, I have heard the same thing, over and over again.”
His father, Alberto Sr., welcomed the president’s decision, which he says, if nothing else, will open the doors to conversation.
“The best thing that could happen is a dialogue,” he said. “Because hostility and wars do not reach any good outcome.”
Not everyone was so positive. Republican Illinois Congressman Peter Roskam called the Obama administration policy a dangerous mistake.
“Cuba continues to refuse to hold free and fair elections,” he said. “The administration’s intent to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba only rewards and legitimizes the Castros’ decades of repressive, dictatorial rule.”
Even Republican Senator Mark Kirk, who often serves as a voice of moderation on severely partisan issues, blasted the change in Cuba policy.
“President Obama has continued the practice of treating our friends like enemies, and our enemies like friends,” he said. “He is giving concessions to dictators, and is offering all carrots and no sticks.”
Outside the Kluscinski Federal Building in the Loop, Democratic Senator Richard Durbin disagreed, saying the decision will be good for America, and especially for Illinois.
“It is time for us to bring Cuba into the 21st century,” Durbin said. “I cannot tell you how long the farmers of Illinois have told me they’ve wanted to sell to the 11 million people on that island.”
Cuban-American Jose Gonzalez agrees. He was just 3 years old when he came to the United States in 1971.
“I think it was long overdue,” he said, at a table in his Paladar Restaurant on North Western Avenue. And he agreed that if possible, he would like to take his family to see where he was born.
“We’re doing business with China and Russia and all these communist countries. What’s Cuba?”