What Will New Rules on Cuba Mean, And Why Are Cuban-American Pols Upset?

By David Cruz

It’s been a busy week at the Marazul Agency in North Bergen, which books tours to Cuba. The president’s announcement is the biggest potential boost to business here, ever.

“We were not given advance notice by the president of the historic changes in U.S./Cuba relations,” said Vice President Bob Guild. “We’ve been swamped with calls and emails since the president’s announcement.”

Travel is just one of the areas affected by the new rules. The U.S. will expand general licenses to travel, making it easier for journalists, artists and humanitarian workers to travel to the island. But individual U.S. tourists are still not permitted.

On financial transactions: Remittances to Cubans will be increased to $8,000 per year. In Cuba, U.S. banks will be able to open accounts in Cuban banks and travelers can use U.S. debit or credit cards.

On imports and exports: You’ll be able to import up to $400 worth of tobacco and alcohol, two of the islands most sought after exports. And Cuban companies will be able to buy building materials and agricultural equipment from the U.S. Cubans will also be able to buy computers and mobile devices.

The president’s action this week will have a profound impact on U.S./Cuban relations. What it won’t do, however, is end the U.S. embargo of the island. That will take an act of Congress and that — say local lawmakers — is unlikely to happen any time soon.

“I honestly do not see the incoming Congress at this point in time changing U.S. law because many of us believe that we had a one-way deal,” said Sen. Bob Menendez. “We saw nothing in return.”

Maria Lau is a Cuban-American artist whose work is currently on exhibit at the New Jersey State Museum. Her work deals with themes of identity and unification. She greeted this week’s news with tears.

“There was this weight, this burden, that we carry, this generation, that we want some peace and there was a little bit of relief in that and I just cried, and cried,” she said. “I just felt that weight and it just chokes you up; it swells you up and you finally have an outlet for it.”

Lau says she’s optimistic about what happens next, despite objections from Cuban-American politicians who say the U.S. got shortchanged. To Lau, these changes seem obvious — and long overdue.

“Information, cultural exchange, these are the things that bring about change,” she added. “We can’t isolate something and expect it to change, so, that more people are going to go there, that we can interact, that we can open some kind of dialogue, is a step in the right direction.”

But Obama’s announcement has drawn a strong reaction from many Democrats, who sounded a lot like Republicans this week when talking about the president.

“This is typical of this president,” said Rep. Albio Sires, whose district represents the heart of Hudson County’s Cuban-American community. “He acts on his own. It’s one of the reasons this administration has such a bad relationship with the House and the Senate. There’s just very little interaction. And here, they didn’t talk to us. They didn’t ask our opinion. We’re only Cubans.”

There has already been talk among Republicans that the next Congress will not fund a new embassy in Cuba, or confirm an ambassador, which, like the executive order on immigration last month, leaves the president stuck in the limbo between his good intentions and his political realities.