Greek-American Leaders Respond to President Obama’s Cuba Opening

NEW YORK – When President Obama called for the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba, he unleashed floods of both hope and anger among Cuban-Americans. The decision also stimulated interest in the Orthodox Christian community in the United States in renewing ties with their co-religionists in the Caribbean nation.
In 2004, the Greek Orthodox church that was built in 1950 as Sts. Constantine and Helen but was never used as anything but a children’s theater was reopened after renovations as the Church of St. Nicholas according to Asia News, which also reported that about 50 Greeks live there among a few thousand Orthodox Christians.
The president’s announcement came after 18 months of secret talks “that produced a prisoner swap negotiated with the help of Pope Francis and concluded by a telephone call between Mr. Obama and President Raul Castro,” wrote the New York Times,
The agreement, the Times noted, will not lift the embargo but “will ease restrictions on remittances, travel and banking, while Cuba will allow more Internet access and release 53 Cubans identified as political prisoners by the United States.”
Obama has called for an “honest and serious debate about lifting’” the embargo, which would require an act of Congress.
Republicans who will soon take control of the Senate – they already have a House majority – said they would resist lifting the 54-year-old trade embargo.
Leading Cuban Americans were unhappy with Obama’s action. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, a Democrat, who joined Florida’s Republican senator Marco Rubio in condemning the move, issued this statement regarding the U.S.-Cuba relationship. “Today’s policy announcement is misguided and fails to understand the nature of the regime in Cuba that has exerted its authoritarian control over the Cuban people for 55 years,” he said.
Menendez noted that “in November, the Cuban Commission for Human Rights & National Reconciliation (CCHR) documented 398 political arrests by the Castro regime. This brings the total number of political arrests during the first eleven months of this year to 8,410.”
“A majority of democratic activists on the island, including many that I have met with, have been explicit that they want the U.S. to become open to Cuba only when there is reciprocal movement by the Castro government,” Menendez said, and added “The United States has just thrown the Cuban regime an economic lifeline. With the collapse of the Venezuelan economy, Cuba is losing its main benefactor, but will now receive the support of the United States, the greatest democracy in the world. This is a reward that a totalitarian regime does not deserve.”
The senator also brought up a notorious terrorism case: “To suggest that Cuba should be taken off the list of state sponsors of terrorism is alarming…Cuba harbors American fugitives, such as Joanne Chesimard, who is on the FBI’s list of Most Wanted Terrorists for murdering New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster.”
“When the new Congress convenes in January, I urge incoming Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker to hold hearings on this dramatic and mistaken change of policy,” he said.
New York State Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, who has Greek and Cuban roots, told The National Herald that “the president made a bad deal. We did not get anything in return, not only for the United States but for the Cuban people.
“We gave away our leverage to a regime that is aging – the Castro brothers won’t be there much longer and there will be some kind of transition and that would be the time to use this leverage,” she said.
Malliotakis also has national security concerns. “Cuba is working closely to Venezuela to help spread communism throughout Latin America and both countries are working to give Russia access to bases and storage for nuclear and other weapons.”
“We also traded three criminals…who are responsible for the deaths of Americans…for Allen Gross, who is not a criminal. He should never have been imprisoned,” she said.
“That should have been the first stop in a conversation…with Raul Castro on possibly lifting certain sanctions, but there needed to be something in exchange.”
Asked why the Cuban people should have to wait until the Castro brothers go away and why she though normalizing relations would not accelerate the transition by putting more Cubans in contact with Americans and commercial activity, she said “what it will do is stimulate the regime economically,” and keep it alive. “The economic activity will not trickle down to the people,” she said.
Malliotakis emphasized that Cuba has had open relations with the rest of the world, but that has not done anything for the Cuban people.
Business and community leader John Catsimatidis told TNH that he discussed the issue with Malliotakis.
He told her “the Cuban government is a bad government, Castro is a bad leader, but the Cuban people are very good people. I have been there several times,” and said to TNH “I truly believe this is the beginning of the fall of the Cuban Wall…piece by piece.”
Catsimatidis also noted the United States will monitor the situation and respond to abuses.
Catstimatidis told TNH “Castro personally talked to me about the embargo. He said, ‘John, Korea and Vietnam killed hundreds of thousands of American soldiers. What did I do?” Castro said, but Catsimatidis cares about the Cuban people he said.
Known also for his philanthropic endeavors, Catsimatidis contributed to the new St. Nicholas Church. “I was there during the opening…We provided the artifacts, the iconostasis, the icons…but Castro built the Church.”
He said the opening of the church, which was presided over by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, was a moving experience. “When the patriarch placed a cross around Castro’s neck, he accepted it.”
According to Catsimatidis, Castro agreed to rebuild the church as a personal favor to Constantine, the former king of Greece, who had helped him in some way. “Castro asked ‘what can I do for you’ and Constantine said ‘you can give us back our church,’ and the dictator said to the former king: ‘Done.”


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