RICHMOND, Va. -- The restoration of diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Cuba are stirring passions across the country. Some Cuban-Americans love the step in the countries’ relationship, but some still have some concerns.
Tico Sanchez now owns Kenn-Tico’s Cuban Restaurant, a Richmond business he built from the ground up.
Sanchez left his native Cuba more than two decades ago in search of freedom, opportunity and the chance to provide for his family.
In 1994, the 23-year-old battled stormy swells and two days in the water, swimming nearly seven miles to freedom by reaching the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay.
Despite his success in America, Sanchez said he misses family members that he’s been unable to see for years because of his status as a political exile.
“I escaped and sacrificed to provide for my family,” Sanchez said. “I left half my family and risked my life, knowing that for a long time I would probably not be able to see the people I sacrificed my life for and that was painful.”
Sanchez said a veil was lifted Sunday when Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. President to visit the island nation in nearly 90 years. Sanchez believes the president’s visit is one more step toward diplomacy since the U.S. opened an Embassy in Cuba in August 2015.
“We’ve seen results,” Sanchez said. “Now we can communicate with family more often, they have cell phones. They have access to the internet, it’s limited but they have something.”
While some Cuban- Americans, like Sanchez, believe the President is helping usher in a transformational era of greater freedoms for its citizens, several are suspicious of the communist country that has suppressed human rights and individual liberties for decades.
Virginia State Delegate Jason Miyares (R -Virginia Beach), the first Cuban-American to be elected to the General Assembly, penned a harsh letter to the president condemning his actions of granting diplomatic recognition to a country that has long made political prisoners out of government dissidents.
“What I’m begging the president to do is give a voice to the voiceless,” Miyares said. “To give voices to the prisoners of conscious who are rotting away in Castro’s prisons and speak to them and demand the Castro government for their release.”
Sanchez said he understands the pain and frustration for families torn apart by the Castro administration.
However, he said diplomacy must start somewhere. Sanchez now has the freedom to visit his family in Cuba as often as he wants. He yearns for the day that his family can visit him in the United States.
“I have that emotional feeling that tells me, it can change,” Sanchez said.