Cuban Americans in the Baton Rouge area on Wednesday reacted with a mix of shock, joy and some displeasure after President Barack Obama announced plans to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than 50 years.
While the end of the long-standing embargo widely came as a surprise, many Cuban Americans embraced the news as a step in the right direction for the Communist nation.
“I’m elated, absolutely elated,” said Carlos Padial Sr., 79, who fled from Cuba to Baton Rouge in 1960. “I thought it would never happen.”
Padial, now president of Padial Real Estate on Bluebonnet Boulevard, left Cuba with his wife and 6-month-old daughter to escape the regime of Fidel Castro. Padial returned briefly to try to help save his mother’s pharmaceutical company, but to no avail. Castro’s government shut down the firm, along with scores of other private businesses.
“It was scary,” Padial said. “I remember planes firing (guns) over my home during the Bay of Pigs invasion and waiting for the government to take me to jail.”
In Baton Rouge, Padial and his family found political and economic refuge. A retired chemical engineer, he visited Havana two weeks ago for a book he is writing on avant-garde art in Cuba. Still, the announcement Wednesday caught him off guard.
“The people in the street there are very, very pro-American,” he said. “Cuba was ready for this.”
At least 1,092 Cuban Americans lived in East Baton Rouge Parish in 2010, according to U.S. Census data. With at least 10,330 people of Cuban origin as of the latest census, Louisiana has the 15th-largest Cuban American population in the U.S.
The re-establishment of diplomatic ties means a new source of income for Cuba, a country that’s struggled mightily since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Cuba’s feeble economy should have served as a greater point of leverage for the U.S. during negotiations, said Will O’Halloran, who fled from Cuba with his family when he was 8.
“I think we could have done a lot more to help the Cuban people,” he said. “Still, it’s obviously way overdue.”
O’Halloran, 54, owner of O’Halloran’s Fine Jewelry on Sherwood Forest Boulevard, remembers the excitement of leaving Cuba to reunite with his father, who had already moved to the U.S.
“Everybody in Cuba spoke about the U.S. as this miraculous place where all your wishes come true,” he said. “I couldn’t wait.”
One of O’Halloran’s wishes as a youngster was a transistor radio, which, in Cuba, his family couldn’t afford. When O’Halloran stepped off his Louisiana-bound plane in 1968, his father handed him the radio he had always dreamed of having.
He returned to Cuba about a decade ago with his wife and daughter to find the island largely unchanged from his childhood.
“It was like stepping into my memories,” he said. “But what if there was no embargo? Where would the Cuban people be now?”
Follow Matt McKinney on Twitter, @Mmckinne17.