There has been swift reaction following news of the release of American contractor Alan Gross after five years imprisonment in Cuba and the expected announcements on changes to hardline U.S. policy towards Cuba that the administration on Tuesday decreed had not been working.
Senator Robert Menendez, (D-NJ), one of two Cuban American U.S. senators, has been an outspoken opponent of the Castro government and has not advocated for lifting the economic embargo against Cuba, in place since 1960.
"This is a moment of profound relief for Alan Gross and his family. Mr. Gross' physical and mental health has declined severely as a result of his five-year imprisonment under difficult conditions. He should have been released immediately and unconditionally five years ago," said Menendez in a statement. "He committed no crime and was simply working to provide Internet access to Cuba's small Jewish community. His imprisonment was cruel and arbitrary, but consistent with the behavior of the Cuban regime."
Menendez blasted the news that the U.S. was releasing three members of the "Cuban 5" who had been imprisoned in the U.S. after conspiracy and spying convictions. Senior administration officials said on the condition of anonymity that the Cubans' release was in exchange for a swap for a U.S. intelligence asset whom they did not identify by name, but whom they said had been imprisoned in Cuba for 20 years and was responsible for important intelligence prosecutions, including of the Cuban 5 and Ana Belén Montes, a former U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency analyst who had spied for Cuba. The administration said Gross' release was released on humanitarian grounds by Cuba.
“President Obama's actions have vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government. There is no equivalence between an international aid worker and convicted spies who were found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage against our nation. One spy was also convicted of conspiracy to murder for his role in the 1996 tragedy in which the Cuban military shot down two U.S. civilian planes, killing several American citizens. My heart goes out to the American families that lost love ones on that fateful day," Menendez stated.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, criticized the announced policy changes and said he plans "to make every effort to block this dangerous & desperate attempt by (Obama) to burnish his legacy at the Cuban people’s expense."
The news prompted Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla. to tag Obama as the "appeaser in chief who is willing to provide unprecedented concessions to a brutal dictatorship that opposes U.S. interests at every opportunity."
Senior administration officials told reporters they anticipated strong disagreement from some congressional members, particularly some of the Cuban-American members. "We respect the passion of those who have been advocates for change in Cuba," the official said, but he added that the administration is taking the steps because of concern as well and a belief that the embargo policy has not succeeded.
Although Obama can make some of the changes, such as starting talks about an opening an embassy in Havana, can be done administratively, Congress has to change laws on things such as travel rules and lifting the embargo.
Though some Cuban-Americans share Menendez's more hardline stance against the Cuban government, Wednesday's news follows what has been increasingly evolving attitudes towards Cuba.
"This does not need to be a relationship that is frozen in time," a senior administration official told reporters in a conference call Tuesday morning.
As news trickled out, groups such as #CubaNow that had implored Cuban-Americans during election season to vote "to protect their right to travel to Cuba to see their families sending a strong message to politicians who continue to cling to failed hardline policies."
"It is well within the President’s authority to improve our ability to support the Cuban people, including the growing class of independent entrepreneurs and to bolster civil society on the island," said Ric Herrero, president of #CubaNow.
Ramon Saul Sanchez, a Miami-based human rights activist and president of Democracy Movement has been active in the Cuban–American community for 45 years, undergoing five hunger strikes, but he has never supported the U.S. embargo on Cuba. He is open to changes in Cuba if the island reciprocates and allows political dissent and allows people like him to travel to his homeland.
Speaking before the president's announcement on Cuba changes, Sanchez said:
“The changes that may be introduced represent a large question mark to the Cuban population. They may also present an opportunity for change in Cuba. A closed society can only be changed when you are able to have people to people contact … And also provide them with communications.”
In Florida, a major battleground state in U.S. politics, discussions of lifting or easing the embargo and softening relations toward Cuba have always been treacherous.
A Florida International University poll during the summer showed slightly over half of Miami-area Cuban Americans favored lifting the U.S. embargo against Cuba, as well as lifting travel restrictions and establishing diplomatic relations, NBC News reported. It's results came admid other surveys showing similar thawing of hardened views towards Cuba, particularly among younger and more recently arrived Cubans.
However, more than two thirds of Cuban Americans felt the country should remain on a list of four countries designated as state sponsors of terrorism.
Herrero's group had run a television ad in October featuring Cuban-American families divided between Cuba and the U.S. who told how 2009 changes in travel restrictions allowed them to reunite with family. Before 2009, Cuban-Americans could only travel to Cuba once every three years and faced tougher restrictions on sending money home to family in Cuba.
--Additional reporting by NBC News contributor Carmen Sesin from Miami, NBC News Latino Editor Sandra Lilley from New York and NBC News reporter and producer Frank Thorp V in Washington, D.C.