- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 17, 2014

UNION CITY, N.J. (AP) - High-ranking Cuban-American lawmakers in New Jersey spoke out Wednesday against U.S. plans to normalize full diplomatic relations with Cuba, while feelings among former Cubans living in the state were mixed about the groundbreaking change.

U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez, whose parents came to New York from Cuba just before he was born, assailed the deal, saying “President Obama’s actions have vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government.”

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, a Cuban native who immigrated to the U.S. when he was 11, said he fears normalizing relations will strengthen the Cuban regime and “cement its permanency.”

Obama announced the re-establishment of diplomatic relations and an easing in economic and travel restrictions on Cuba, but the longstanding economic embargo would have to be overturned by Congress.

In the northern New Jersey towns that make up the so-called Havana on the Hudson, home to one of the largest Cuban populations outside of Cuba, reaction to the news was mixed.

“I think it’s great. I think interacting and trading and stuff with Cuba, we will look forward to, you know, getting back a lot of our Cuban heritage. And going to see our family will be easier,” said Ileana Ferrandiz, who moved to New Jersey from Havana when she was young.

Rob Gordillo, whose grandparents left Cuba in the 1950s to seek a better life in America, hopes his family’s native country will regain its long-lost prosperity.

“I think opening up the floodgates will bring a lot of money into the economy and will actually improve the island, and it’s what the people need,” Gordillo said. “The communist regime has been in power for so many years and the people of the island have been suffering for a very long time.”

Roberto Martinez Gonzalez, a 73-year-old Union City resident who was among the thousands who fled Cuba during the Mariel boatlift in 1980, voiced displeasure with Obama’s decision.

“I want Cuba to be free,” Gonzalez said. “All of my family is in the U.S. except for one of my half-sisters, so there’s nothing for me to do there. The only thing I want is for those two (former leader Fidel Castro and current President Raul Castro) to go away.”

The re-establishment of diplomatic ties was accompanied by Cuba’s release of American Alan Gross and the swap of a U.S. spy held in Cuba for three Cubans jailed in Florida.

–—

Associated Press photographer Julio Cortez, in Union City, contributed to this story. Shipkowski reported from Trenton.

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