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Locals react to U.S.-Cuba developments

BRADENTON -- Jose Baserva watched the news unfold Wednesday as the United States and Cuba announced a thaw in their complicated relationship.

The nation swapped prisoners -- two jailed U.S. citizens and three Cuban spies imprisoned in Florida.

United States Agency for International Development contractor Alan Gross, imprisoned in Cuba for five years, spoke hopefully about the future at a press conference hours after his release.

Gross was encouraged by President Barack Obama announcing the United States would restore diplomatic relations with the island nation, which means a relaxation of travel, banking and commerce restrictions.

"It's time for a new approach," Obama said.

The Cuban-born Baserva, who owns Jose's Real Cuban Food at 8799 Cortez Road W. in Bradenton, said his family fled the Caribbean country in 1959.

"My father is a staunch anti-Communist just like I am," the 56-year-old said. "He lost everything and he had to leave his homeland so he can raise his kids in freedom -- which he did."

Baserva said there's no freedom in Cuba.

"As long as Raúl and Fidel Castro are alive, this American here ain't gonna spend a penny over there," he said. "I know where it goes ... to Castro and his cronies."

Baserva said he wasn't angered by Obama's move but he likes to "go by the rules."

"I vote. That's a privilege. Where I come from, you vote but there's only one candidate on the ballot," he said.

Another Manatee County resident with Cuban roots said he saw Wednesday's news as a positive for the United States and Cuba.

Carlos Beruff, a Bradenton homebuilder and president of Medallion Home, was born in Miami to Cuban parents who left the island nation as Castro rose to power. His brother and sister were born in Cuba and his family lost property in their flight from the revolution.

Beruff said he believes opening Cuba to U.S. economy and culture will be the end of the Communist regime in that country. He sees no reason for the two nations to remain locked in an embargo, least of all over the oft-cited issue of human rights.

For example, he noted a 2013 Amnesty International report found Cuba executed no prisoners and sentenced no people to death. China, one of the United States' biggest trading partners, executed thousands.

"If human rights are the only reason we're not doing business with Cuba, then we're doing business with a lot of countries we shouldn't be doing business with," he said.

Also applauding the political thaw from a business point of view is Carlos Buqueras, executive director of Port Manatee. The port has been planning for the trade embargo's eventual end by courting a Florida-to-Cuba ferry service and writing a strategy for warehousing goods bound for the island nation.

Closer to the new Cuban port at Mariel than even the Port of Miami, Port Manatee could become a major debarkation point for Cuban-Americans who want to take durable goods such as refrigerators to Cuban relatives. At present, it can cost $1,000 to ship a television to Cuba.

"This relaxation in policy is a great step forward to confirm we were on the right path to prepare for the eventual resumption of trade in passengers and cargo," Buqueras said.

The port could also become a major shipper for northern companies, including Cargill and ADM, that could easily move food products by rail to Port Manatee.

For the moment, Buqueras said he remains cautiously optimistic over a possible resumption of trade. The embargo remains in full force even as the political relationship between the United States and Cuba improves.

"This is not the end to the embargo," he said. "It could be the beginning of the end."

Bradenton attorney Connie Mederos-Jacobs, 61, said she read about the prisoner exchange online and learned Obama announced there would be some movement between the countries.

"I think it's a positive move. Once we do that, I think the people in Cuba are going to start to get more access to the Internet and be able to see how the rest of the world is and get unbiased news as opposed to the controlled news they have now," she said. "Once they have exposure to the rest of the world, only good things come from that."

Mederos-Jacobs, born in Ybor City and raised in Hialeah, is of Cuban descent. Her grandparents left the island nation and settled in Ybor City to work for the city's once-thriving cigar factories. Mederos-Jacobs' parents were born in Ybor City.

Though she has only been to Cuba once, Mederos-Jacobs said she would absolutely return.

"My whole office is filled with Cuban art and Cuban maps -- and a few Jewish things," said Mederos-Jacobs, who follows Judaism. "I'm just so happy that we're finally, finally coming to admit that maybe the embargo lasted long enough. ... It's been long enough."

Back at Jose's Real Cuban Food, Baserva hinted once Castro dies life will be very different for those who have supported the leader throughout the years.

"I would venture to say that the people that have supported him throughout all these years will be dealt with firmly," he said.

Amaris Castillo, law enforcement/island reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7051. Follow her on Twitter @AmarisCastillo.

Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027. Follow him on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.

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