By Denise Dick
and Peter H. Milliken
Change in U.S. policy toward Cuba is welcome news to Mahoning Valley residents with ties to the Caribbean nation.
“Certainly it’s a welcome change and it did come as a surprise right before Christmas,” said Dr. Milton Sanchez-Parodi, a Poland physician. “It’s a surprise that there are so many changes that the president has addressed.”
Dr. Sanchez-Parodi came to the United States from Cuba in 1962. He was 13. Initially, the family lived in Miami, then moved to California. He came to the Mahoning Valley 27 years ago.
Some of his family members remain in Cuba, and while he hasn’t returned for the last two years, he used to visit annually.
President Barack Obama announced Wednesday that full diplomatic relations with Cuba would be restored after more than 50 years. The U.S. will open an embassy in Havana. The agreement follows the release by Cuban authorities of U.S. contractor Alan Gross, who was imprisoned for five years; and the U.S. release of members of an alleged Cuban spy ring.
The U.S. embargo against Cuba began in 1960 after Fidel Castro’s forces wrested power from dictator Fulgenico Batista the previous year. Batista fled the country. In 1961, the U.S. severed relations with Cuba and closed the embassy.
President John F. Kennedy expanded the embargo in 1962.
Dr. Sanchez-Parodi believes the embargo was more harmful to the Cuban people than to the government. “The government in any country can have their own resources rationed to them at the expense to the people,” the doctor said.
Opening trade between the two countries will benefit the Cuban people.
“Materials, any kind of materials — paper, pens, parts for the car, concrete for the house, paint — the average Cuban did not have access to that,” he said.
Elimination of the embargo will decrease the expense to Cuban people for such items as cellphones and Internet access, Dr. Sanchez-Parodi said.
Americans being allowed to travel freely to Cuba and use credit and debit cards also will allow more businesses to open.
The embargo also was a waste of U.S. tax dollars on ineffective policies, he said.
The doctor said the government has been “spending our tax dollars on policies that Patrick Leahy has called very stupid policies,” he said. “We spend $100 million per year on various poor policies with Cuba when we can actually open dialogue instead.”
It will benefit U.S. companies that want to do business in Cuba, too, he said.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., president pro tempore of the Senate, and chairman of the State Department and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, has long sought the release of Gross and visited him twice in prison.
“From what the president said, these changes are just the beginning,” Dr. Sanchez-Parodi said. “This is welcome both here and in Cuba.”
An owner of three Northeast Ohio tobacco shops said he does not know when normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations might result in imports of Cuban cigars into this country.
However, Geno Bellatto, an owner of Havana House, said he believes such imports will satisfy a large pent-up consumer demand here.
“We haven’t had them since 1960. Everybody’s going to want to try them,” said Bellatto, whose stores are in Boardman Plaza, in front of Eastwood Mall in Niles and in Akron.
“It’s going to be great for the retailers and the cigar smokers in the U.S.,” he said of importation of Cuban cigars into this country.
“I think it would start another cigar boom,” he added.
“Companies are not going to be able to export [cigars] yet” from Cuba to the United States, he noted.
“As soon as they become available, the companies will call me, and I’ll order them,” Bellatto said.
Although American tourist travel to Cuba is still prohibited, Americans who are permitted to travel to Cuba for family visits or government and educational activities will now be allowed to return to the United States with $400 worth of Cuban goods.
That includes tobacco and alcohol products with a combined value below $100.
However, Bellatto observed: “Cuban cigars are $20 to $25 apiece. You can’t even bring a box back.”
A box contains 20 to 25 cigars, he said.