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U.S.-Cuba Relations

Across Country, Cuban Americans Absorb Historic News

Image: Cuba Releases Alan Gross, Held In Prison For 5 Years

MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 17: Osvaldo Hernadez, Miguel Saavedra and Carlos Munoz Fontanillehas (L-R) react to the news, outside the Little Havana restaurant Versailles, that Alan Gross was released from a Cuban prison on December 17, 2014 in Miami, United States. Alan Gross, the American contractor had spent five years in Cuban jail and reports indicate he is on his way back to the United States. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images) Joe Raedle / Getty Images

News of a U.S. shift in relations with Cuba took many Cuban Americans by surprise Tuesday, but it quickly became clear that plans to turn further away from policies birthed around the same time as America's president would be an issue of much debate but great interest.

In Miami, many Cuban-Americans who were hearing of the planned changes during their work hours were extracting what details they could from mobile devices and social media. Some were uncertain how to react or were still forming opinions, while the president's announcement drew stinging rebukes from others entrenched in Cuban policies - such as Cuban American lawmakers in Congress.

Miami Residents on Gross Release: 'It's a Great Thing' 1:22

Teresa Ros, a secretary in Miami came from Cuba in 1960 right after Castro took power. She thinks American contractor Alan Gross should have been freed and was not opposed to the simultaneous release of three Cuban spies who had been held in the U.S.

Gross and the Cuban spies were both released on Tuesday, with Gross returning to the U.S. by mid-morning. His release was considered a humanitarian gesture by Cuba, not an exchange. In exchange for the three spies, Cuba released a U.S. spy who had been held 20 years.

“It has to do with human rights … he deserves freedom, regardless,” Ros told NBC News. She also was supportive of plans to ease travel restrictions. She was skeptical of the Cuban government's record on human rights, but willing to give the new policies a chance to work.

"Hopefully, the Cuban government will make positive changes according to Obama’s speech," Ros said.

U.S. to Establish Embassy in Cuba, Says Obama 0:28

Changing minds about the policy of isolating Cuba - a policy that the Obama administration said has not worked - will run up against minds and hearts hardened by the imprisonment and violence against families in the country.

Marcia Angulo Jones, 45, a project manager for government contracts in northern Virginia, said her father was a political prisoner who escaped to Miami.

"My father saw two of his best friends shot and killed by the Castro regime and it nearly happened to him. Nothing will change until both Castro brothers leave ... Castro committed atrocities and the government hasn't helped its own people and this new relationship won't help either as long as Castro is still in power," Jones said.

The exchange of imprisoned spies, the release of Alan Gross and the negotiations to improve U.S.-Cuba relations occurred through talks between Obama and Cuba President Raul Castro and their staffs. Raúl Castro is the brother of Cuban Revolution leader and former Cuba president Fidel Castro.

Miami school teacher Ruth Rivas also welcomed Gross' liberation, but that's as far her support went. Her parents fled Cuba during the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, whose repression led to the Cuban Revolution. Rivas was born in the U.S. in 1957.

“I think Alan Gross should be freed, but the Cuban spies should pay for their crime," Rivas said.

The Miami teacher backs lifting travel restrictions for those who have relatives in Cuba so they can take food, medicine and money to them, which she said Cubans are denied. “When people travel to Cuba, it gives Castro money and Castro does not give money to the Cuban people.”

Maily Ruiz, 24, came from Cuba in 1993 when she was 3 years old. She lamented that the three Cubans imprisoned for 15 years in the U.S. would return to Cuba as heroes. But she also expressed support for the administration's plans to expand travel to Cuba. However she was wary of expectations of change in the countries' relationship.

“If Obama can do that (expand travel) I think it would be a great thing. We can help our families that live over there much more by taking them things, because obviously the condition they’re living in is not OK," said Ruiz, also of Miami. “If he can compromise and come to an agreement with the Cuban government, that would be great, but I don’t think that will happen because the Cuban government hasn’t changed in decades."

However, 65-year-old Maria Mendez, operating manager of Cubanos restaurant in Silver Spring, Md., was far more optimistic. She left Cuba in 1961 for Venezuela and has been living in the U.S. for 13 years.

"I think it's about time and it's healthy that the two countries are talking," Mendez said. "I look forward to taking my children to visit (because) they've never been there and I haven't been back since I left. This is a good decision."

Juan Carlos Beltran, 54, a real estate manager in Miami, said he has many questions with what he saw as policy changes that happened fast and in secret and with what he thinks was little input from Cuban Americans.

The administration said Obama discussed Cuba with Pope Francis in March, and the pope appealed in letters to Obama and Castro for the prisoner releases and for normalization of relations. An initial meeting was held in Canada and the plans were finalized in meetings at the Vatican in October. Other negotiations occurred in between and the U.S. has moved toward easing restrictions with Cuba over several years.

Beltran said he had many questions following today's historic announcement.

"What about the political prisoners in Cuban jails? What about the government's repression of dissent? And I think it's interesting that it's happening when oil prices are down and Venezuelans can no longer help Cuba," Beltran said. "I can't help but wonder if this is a way for Cuba to prop itself up and help finance socialism in Latin America."

--NBC contributors Carmen Sesin in Miami and Patricia Guadalupe in Washington, D.C. contributed to this report.