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Long Islanders who fled Cuba, academicians hail policy change

Margarita Grasing, director of the Hispanic Brotherhood of

Margarita Grasing, director of the Hispanic Brotherhood of Rockville Centre, who came to the United States from Cuba, stands inside their headquarters with a cuban statue of La Caridad del Cobre, in Rockville Centre, Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014. Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

Margarita Grasing fled Cuba with her brother and sister-in-law as an 18-year-old in 1961. Her family, she said, suffered irreparable loss from the Cuban Revolution that put Fidel Castro in power in 1959.

Her father, a banker in Havana, lost all he owned when the Castro government nationalized financial institutions, said Grasing, a Baldwin resident who is director of the Hispanic Brotherhood of Rockville Centre. He died in despair in Spain in 1966, and her mother then joined the family in New York City.

"In all honesty, the embargo never worked and all it's done is hurt the people in Cuba -- not the politicians like Fidel and his compadres," she said Wednesday of the United States' sanctions.

"We deal with China and we deal with Russia," Cold War foes of the United States, she noted. "Why not Cuba? I think people, if they can be helped to start new businesses in Cuba, the economy will improve for the people living there."

James Wiley, a professor of geography at Hofstra University, will lead a group of Hofstra students to Cuba next month. He said the U.S. embargo "has not worked. Our best friends in the world, Canada and Western Europe and others, all opposed our policy."

Katie Laatikainen, professor of international relations at Adelphi University, noted, "The normalization of relations between the two countries doesn't mean the cessation of sanctions," which were imposed by Congress. Still, she and others saw the potential for improved U.S.-Latin American relations.

"Looking at the Latin American press, it's been hailed by Venezuela and Bolivia," whose heads of state "are not thrilled by [President Barack] Obama," said Eric Zolov, a professor of Latin American history at Stony Brook University. He called the action "symbolic in diplomatic terms, but less consequential in economic terms."

Wiley, who last visited Cuba 21 years ago, said his upcoming journey to the country with 15 Hofstra students and another professor for a 17-day multidisciplinary educational program -- a trip approved by the U.S. State Department -- "will probably be even more exciting given the new developments."

Mishaina Joseph of Lake Ronkonkoma, 21, a Hofstra senior who plans to go on the trip, said that as she and other students in the global studies and geography department listened to Obama's announcement, "We were just surprised [and] excited that we were in the middle of history."

Said Wiley, "I'm expecting it will reshape conversations we'll have with the people in Cuba."

On his last visit there, Wiley recalled that tense relations between the two countries were not reflected in his encounters with the Cuban people. "Once we told them we were Americans, they became even friendlier. People view it as a problem between governments, and not among people."

Jose Dominguez, 77, was 29 when he left Ciego de Ávila, Cuba, in 1968 with his wife, Clotilde, and two daughters because "I didn't like the system." He said Fidel Castro "was bad and [his brother] Raúl is worse."

Dominguez, who is locally well-known as the proprietor of Pioneer Hair Design in Rockville Centre, last visited Cuba 24 years ago to see his ailing father, who died about a year later. For years, he said, he vowed not to return until Americans could travel there freely, even though he still has relatives in Cuba. He became a U.S. citizen in 1976.

"I want to go when Americans can go free. . . . When they say, 'Where are you going?' and I can say, 'I'm going to Cuba,' " he said.

Helen Dorado Alessi, 55, a Long Beach resident, said every new year's her family's celebration included a Hispanic tradition of eating 12 grapes, one for each month of the past year, with a wish stated for the following year. Their annual wish has been, "And next year we celebrate in Cuba."

Dorado Alessi's father, who died in 2012 at 83, never made the trip back home. She hopes improved relations will mean she can visit with her two children and grandson in the near future.

"I welcome any type of movement toward better understanding and potential relations between Cuba and the United States," said Dorado Alessi, director of the Long Beach Latino Civic Association. "In terms of foreign diplomacy and opening up markets to business in Cuba, I would be careful, because we are not quite sure what we are dealing with. But in my opinion, it's a great step in the right direction."

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