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Diplomatic, and familial, ties to Cuba

There would be roast pork, black beans and rice, yucca and flan at Eva Queral Fiastro's annual holiday dinner for her large Cuban-American family this weekend, as always. But this year, there will be an even bigger helping of news to digest: President Barack Obama's surprise announcement that he would normalize relations with the homeland that so many of them fled in anger and despair.

"My father is rolling in his grave right now," said Queral Fiastro, 62, a dentist who lives in Lutherville.

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Her father, Dr. Louis Queral was one of the first Cuban immigrants to settle in Baltimore after Fidel Castro began imposing communism on the Caribbean island and setting up firing squads to remove opponents. He remained virulently opposed to Castro, leading protests in Baltimore in 1999 when the Orioles became the first professional baseball team to play a game in Havana in 40 years and hosted a Cuban team at Camden Yards.

Queral died in 2010. His daughter, like other Cuban-Americans, was cheered by the release of Alan Gross, the international aid worker from Maryland who had been imprisoned in Cuba for more than five years. But she and others are leery of Obama's decision to recognize a regime that they believe should continue to be shunned.

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"We're dealing with people who are not good people," Queral Fiastro said. "I'm questioning why we are doing this. What is in it for us?"

Obama wants to ease business and travel restrictions, open an embassy in Havana and review the country's status as a state sponsor of terrorism.

In return, Cuba, now headed by Castro's brother, Raul, has said it will release 53 Cubans the United States has identified as political prisoners, allow more Internet access and grant the United Nations and the Red Cross access to the country. The embargo that restricts most business and travel to Cuba remains.

While polls show some softening in views toward Cuba, even among the emigre community, Obama's decision still stirs deep emotions among those Cuban-Americans who have an abiding distrust of the Castros. They want nothing to do with the country until there is a regime change.

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"I will not return to Cuba until Cuba becomes a more democratic country," declares Jorge Giro, 81, a retired chairman of the modern languages department at Towson University.

Giro was part of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion directed by the United States to topple Castro. After its failure, there would be no future for him in Cuba, so he came to the United States, first to study at Indiana State University and then in 1966 to accept a teaching position at Towson. He spent 38 years there before retiring.

He worries that the promised release of political prisoners will end up as another Mariel boatlift, the 1980 emigration in which Fidel Castro allowed 125,000 Cubans to leave the country — including criminals and mentally ill people that he wanted to be rid of.

Those to be released now "are probably criminals," Giro said. "The Cuban government will say they're political prisoners."

Estella Chavez, 74, remembers Mariel well: She volunteered as an interpreter for Cuban refugees who were taken to Baltimore's old naval hospital. She had left Cuba in 1960 and now directs religious education at Sacred Heart of Jesus in Highlandtown.

They told her about being imprisoned for stealing loaves of bread or being forced into labor camps for being gay, Chavez said.

"Many were happy to leave to get their freedom, but others were forcefully put on a boat," she said. "It was shocking to hear."

And the repression has continued, she said, citing the persecution of the "Ladies in White" — wives and other female relatives of political prisoners in Cuba who attend Mass on Sunday and walk the streets in peaceful protest. Some of the women have been attacked or arrested, according to Amnesty International and other international observers.

Younger Cuban-Americans such as John Fiastro, 36, have a less direct connection to the events that shaped their elders' fervent anti-Castro politics. He is the son of Queral Fiastro and was born in Baltimore.

"Our homes were not stolen from us," he said.

And yet, the legacy of his family remains. He is, after all, the grandson of Queral, widely acknowledged as the leader of the first wave of Cuban emigres to settle in Baltimore.

Queral, a physician, worked long and successfully to erect a monument at Broadway and Fayette to Jose Marti, the 19th-century national hero who fought for Cuban independence from Spain. As The Baltimore Sun noted in 1999, other Hispanics in Baltimore used the terms "Cuban-American" and "Queral's people," interchangeably.

Fiastro shares his mother's skepticism of the new U.S. approach and says he doubts it will benefit the average Cuban. Worse, he said, it gives legitimacy to the Castro government.

"One of the reasons why we broke up diplomatic relations is to lower their relevancy," he said. "That has worked to a great extent."

Alexis Landa, 38, who lives in Washington, believes it's long past time for a different approach.

"It's been way too long for something to continue that has no impact other than negative consequence to the Cuban people," said Landa, who left the country 10 years ago.

He said the reaction back home, where his family still lives, is mixed with uncertainty.

"A lot of people want this to happen, but not everybody," said Landa, who works part time as a doorman at the Cuban restaurant and club Habana Village in Washington. "Some people fear the government will no longer take care of them. Some people think Raul Castro is giving up."

Landa said many Cubans are suspicious about the timing of the policy shift, which came a few months after news reports that Russia is trying to reopen a naval base in Cuba and reinvigorate connections that weakened after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"Why is [Russia] interested in doing that now?" he asked. "If I was president of any country, especially the United States, I would want to know."

Marta Quintana, 56, said she doesn't believe the United States sought enough concessions from Cuba in exchange for restoring diplomatic ties.

"I don't think President Obama asked for the most important things to ask for: human rights, release of political prisoners, freedom of speech," said Quintana, who was the proprietor of the now-closed Havana Road restaurant in Towson.

Quintana said she felt a kinship with Gross, who was shown aboard the plane leaving Cuba on Wednesday morning throwing both arms up in exultation after the pilot announced they had just entered U.S. airspace. He immediately called his daughters to say, "I'm free."

"I remember the same thing," Quintana said of the Pan Am flight her family took out of Cuba in 1962. "The pilot said, 'You are over international waters — you are free.'"

Cuban-Americans say they will be watching to see what happens with the embargo that limits business and travel to Cuba, and remains even with the new diplomatic shift. Lifting it would require congressional action.

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Giro said it should remain.

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"They should keep it until they decide to make serious change in Cuba, positive change," he said. "Changes that represent the freedom of people, the freedom of speech, the freedom of religion and human rights."

Quintana, though, said she would like to see the embargo lifted. The return of American industry could help bring about the end of communism, she said.

Quintana would love to do business in Cuba. She plans to relaunch a retail line of Cuban foods in the coming year. She previously sold bottled sauces and condiments and precooked meals to such outlets as Whole Foods and Harris Teeter.

Quintana said she's always believed that food breaks down barriers across countries and cultures, remembering the first meal she ate in Miami after arriving from Cuba as a 5-year-old: spaghetti, an apple and a glass of milk.

She became a naturalized U.S. citizen as a child, and moved to Baltimore in 1978 to attend the College of Notre Dame. After a career in sales and marketing, she opened Havana Road in 2009, using recipes handed down through her family.

Now she can only hope that the past week's events someday lead to American entrepreneurs such as herself being allowed to sell products in Cuba — and to feed a people who have been deprived on so many levels over the past decades.

"It would be," she said dreamily, "like taking my land back."

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