Fernando Groene was 5 years old when his family fled Cuba in early 1962. Fidel Castro’s communist regime had been in power for a little more than three years.
“My sister was almost two,” said Groene, now 57 and an attorney in Williamsburg. “Because she was small my parents could pack more clothes and belongings for her. I left with one suitcase and one toy. My parents shared a suitcase.”
He views with skepticism Wednesday’s announcement that the United States would seek to normalize relations with Cuba.
“Is it good or bad?” Groene asked rhetorically. “If it leads to free elections, free speech, freedom of the press and restoration of Cuba’s Bill of Rights, then it’s a good thing. If it gives Castro and his brother hard currency then it’s just financing oppression.”
“It will probably do both,” quipped College of William and Mary professor George Grayson, regarded as an expert on Mexico. He felt re-establishing a relationship with Cuba was long overdue.
“There’s been a great lobbying effort in this country for ties, especially in agriculture. They want to sell to Cuba.” Re-establishing diplomatic ties would open Cuba to American tourists.
“I don’t think it’s much different,” Groene said. Baseball players can go there. Stars go there. Mission workers go too. All you do is fly to Mexico or Jamaica, and you can fly to Havana. You can fly there from Miami, too.”
Grayson said opening Cuba to travel from the United States essentially makes it another tourist destination to eventually compete with Williamsburg. He believes it will take 5-10 years for Cuba to develop that business.
Groene, however, readily admits he doesn’t trust the Cuban government. Nor has he ever been back.
“When we left and went to Puerto Rico, everyone said ‘we’ll be back in three weeks. It’s been 52 years. And counting.”
Ann Marie Stock, a professor of Hispanic studies at William and Mary, has been trying for more than 25 years to build bridges between Cuban and American cultures. She travels each year to Havana for a film festival and was there last week. She said she stopped tracking how many trips she had made to the island after her 50th visit.
Typically upon her arrival in the country she’ll order a mojito, walk The Malecon seawall, and connect with friends she’s made over the years. But bringing back anything from the country has been difficult. Stock said she’s been limited in what she can bring back. She can only bring art or informational material back, and the value of the informational material I limited to $100, she said.
“I’m really elated, and I believe it will be much easier to help people get to Cuba now and connect with some of the rich culture and history there.”
Gov. Terry McAuliffe said at an event Wednesday in Williamsburg he was excited about the opportunities presented for Virginia by normalization of relations between Cuba and the U.S.
“I think its’ a huge opportunity for us. I have argued for opening up Cuba for many years....90 miles off the coast of Miami, it’s crazy that it’s lasted this long," McAuliffe said.
"Every other country is in there doing business. I commend the president for stepping forward and taking the leadership on this thing. But this will increase economic activity. Our farmers are excited we will be able to sell more products to Cuba now."
Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Todd Haymore said he's visited the country nine times in recent years to boost Virginia exports. He said agriculture products from Virginia including apples, pork and soybeans stand to benefit from the normalization, as well as medicinal products. Haymore said last year Virginia exported $40 million worth of goods to Cuba, and the year before $65 million.
On Wednesday, Haymore said his BlackBerry was overwhelmed with messages asking him about the effects of the normalization of relations. "It kept buzzing in my pocket," Haymore said. "I got more than 14 messages in the first few minutes."
He noted that to ship goods to Cuba from Norfolk, it only takes three days.
"We are a massive trading partner with Cuba," said Scott McCoy, a professor at William and Mary, who is bringing a group of students there early next year as part of a global immersion trip. "Most people are confused about what the embargo means, we’ve been a huge trading partner with Cuba for agriculture and medical products.
"When Cuba wants to import from the United States they have to pay in cash before the goods leave American soil. This opens up opportunities for increased American trade and having direct financial transactions as well," McCoy said.