Local Cuban Americans divided over changes in US-Cuba relations

Anto Kamarian enjoys a cigar in his Pasadena, Calif., cigar shop
Anto Kamarian enjoys a cigar in his Pasadena, Calif., cigar shop
Ashley Bailey

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There are an estimated 86,000 people of Cuban origin in California, more than half of them in the Los Angeles area. Word that the United States would reestablish diplomatic ties with Cuba swept quickly through the local community.

At the Tropicana Café in Downey, the lunch crowd was buzzing. The café is a popular hangout where longtime expats and more recent arrivals talk over cafecitos and pastries.

Here, the divide among Cuban Americans — often along generational lines — was in full swing.

Idilio Sanchez, 76, left Cuba in 1967. He's skeptical about who will receive the benefit of the changes in Cuba.

"For the government, yes, but not for the people on the island. The Cuban people will be the same way, with communism, with the whole system by the Castro brothers," Sanchez said.

But others said they were eager for a change.

Luis Melvyn Madrazo, 38, who works at the restaurant, said the lack of diplomatic ties makes it hard to send money and other necessities to his mother and teenage son on the island.

Madrazo arrived from Cuba just four years ago. He said the economic situation in Cuba is dire, that families have little to eat. He said he thinks that with improved relations, there wouldn't be so many barriers to helping and visiting relatives.

Still, the president's move does not lift the 54-year-old trade embargo with Cuba — only Congress can do that. It does, however, change regulations on Cuban goods by allowing Americans to purchase $400 worth of goods, including alcohol and tobacco. That includes the once-illicit Cuban cigar.

Cigars by Chivas CEO Anto Kamarian received the news with optimism on Thursday.

Kamarian founded Cigars by Chivas 18 years ago in Pasadena, Calif., and said he thinks an open relationship with Cuba can bring good business to the cigar industry. 

"We have Dominican, Nicaragua, Honduras cigars on our establishment, but at the same token there have been several clientele that have come in and have asked for Cuban cigars and obviously we don’t have them," he said in an interview with KPCC's Ashley Bailey.

There is still a limit of $100 on the amount of goods that can be brought back to the U.S. Although Kamarian said that $100 worth of Cuban cigars would not be much — he estimates seven or eight cigars — he believes the excitement of having Cuban cigars could possibly bring more business.

"I think it is a good thing that we [have an] open relationship with Cuba...I hope that we will only see positive things," he said.