Westchester Politicians Sound off on Obama Cuba Deal

Two county Congresspeople react to the news America and Cuba will mend relations after a prisoner swap.

You might’ve heard—the US and Cuba are restoring diplomatic relations, “started” by American citizen Alan P. Gross’ release from a Cuban Prison and the planned release of 53 Cuban political prisoners in hope of eliminating their 60-year-old trade embargo.

Two Westchester Democratic representatives—Eliott L. Engel (NY-16) and Nita Lowey (NY-17)—were quick to show their support, but Engel also extends a ‘we’re not there yet’ sentiment.

Engel, who represents parts of the Bronx and southern Westchester, praised Gross’s release, but said restoring international relations with Havana should be approached with caution. Engel charged Cuba of suppressing dissenting citizens for more than half-a-century and said that Obama’s actions should only be completely implemented if “the Cuban government responds by making fundamental democratic changes on the island.”

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Westchester Representatives Eliot L. Engel and Nita Lowey.

Obama has proposed three main provisions to help resume relations in the embargoed country of Cuba:

• To begin discussions with Cuba to reestablish diplomatic relations that have been denied and severed since the embargo
• To review Cuba’s designation as a state-sponsor of terrorism guided by the facts and law
• To increase the diplomacies of travel, commerce and the flow of information to and from Cuba

“Congress has the authority to maintain or eliminate the trade embargo on Cuba,” Engel said. “I believe that Congress must see a greater political opening in Cuba before lifting the embargo.”

Lowey, who represents central and northwestern Westchester and has voted in the past to keep restrictions on Cuba while the country still holds political prisoners, said “An improvement in the diplomatic and economic relationship between Cuba and the US would benefit both countries,” according to Voice of America reporter Natasha Mozgovaya. The Associated Press also reported Lowey saying “I am hopeful that the Cuban government’s decision to release Alan Gross portends a desire to move toward democracy, openness, engagement, rule of law, and a free civil society.”

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On the statewide level, New York Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, both Democrats, spoke favorably of Obama’s handling of the situation.

“We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries,” Obama said from the White House in a nationally televised statement. “Neither the American nor Cuban people are well served by a rigid policy that’s rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.”

Alan Gross arrives at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, December 17, 2014. Gross spent five years as a prisoner in Cuba.

As part of the deal that freed Gross, the US released three Cuban spies who had been imprisoned in America since 2001. According to American officials, the spies were swapped for a CIA agent who had been imprisoned in Cuba for approximately 20 years. However, Gross’s return was not officially included in the swap—the officials said his release was based on “humanitarian grounds.”

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According to the New York Times, Obama and President Raúl Castro of Cuba “agreed in a telephone call to put aside decades of hostility” and establish a new relationship between the two countries. On Cuban television, Castro addressed Cuban citizens, telling them that Obama’s decision deserves the respect from the Cuban people.

“This in no way means that the heart of the matter has been resolved,” said Castro, adding “the progress made in our exchanges proves that it is possible to find solutions to many problems.”

“As these changes unfold, I look forward to engaging Congress in an honest and serious debate about lifting the embargo,” concluded Obama.

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