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Chicago Cubans cautious yet hopeful about historic policy shift

Two generations of Cubans sat in a Logan Square restaurant Wednesday, one smiling, the other holding a Cuban cigar.

“I’m not going to tell you where I got this,” Alberto Gonzalez Jr., owner of 90 Miles Cuban Café, said with a smile.

Gonzalez Jr., 46, has owned the popular café and restaurant, along with another in Roscoe Village, for seven years. His father, Alberto Gonzalez Sr., 71, was visiting from Florida when he heard the news that President Barack Obama is re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba and easing some travel and economic sanctions.

“It’s the right step in the right directions. After a year of negotiations, and a 45-minute phone talk with [Cuban President] Raul [Castro], they must have been negotiating for the benefit of the United States and Cuba,” Gonzalez Sr. said, his son translating for him.

He says he sees the changes as a way for the Cuban government to “rethink the mistakes” they’ve made in the past: “There’s always time for change.”

“I’m most excited that there has actually been a year of negotiations. I’ve got to believe that something good is going to come out of it,” Gonzalez Sr. said. “We haven’t seen any results for more than 50 years, so I think it’s time for results.”

The two came to America on a shrimp boat in 1980. Gonzalez Sr. lives in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Gonzalez Jr. hopes the changes will benefit the 11 million Cubans in the country — not the government.

“I hope all the sanctions are lifted. I hope that Cuban people will reap the benefit of it, instead of the government just making the regime more powerful,” Gonzalez Jr. said.

He said he has many relatives in Cuba, and his family sends money to them frequently. Changes Obama has outlined include an increase in the amount of money Americans can send to Cubans from $500 to $2,000 every three months.

“Your family doesn’t really get a lot of the money that you send them. A lot of changes have to happen. All of these are good things, but we have to make sure the money is really getting to our family, instead of just supporting the government,” Gonzalez Jr. said.

He fashioned his restaurant from memories of his young life in Cuba: using mason jars as beverage glasses, like his grandmother did after a mayonnaise jar was finished, and doors as tables.

“I want to show people what Cuba is about today, and not in the 1950s,” he said.

Jose Gonzalez, another Cuban living in Chicago, left Cuba with his family when he was 4. With Obama’s announcement, Gonzalez, at 48, says he may finally go back to his homeland for the first time since he left, at least for a visit.

“What’s important is that I would be able to go without all the red tape. Now I can go back to where I was actually born to see where I was born and visit,” Gonzalez said.

Jose Gonzalez — no relation to the 90 Miles owner — has owned Paladar, a Cuban restaurant in Logan Square for three years.

His tales of Cuba come from his parents, who left because of Fidel Castro.

“Castro came and took everything away from them. My grandparents owned land and everything, including their businesses were taken away from them. They left,” Jose Gonzalez said.

He said although he’s happy about the impending changes, not all Cubans are on board.

“For some of the old Cubans, they’re not very unhappy about this move,” he said. “And the reason is because they don’t want to step foot in Cuba until Castro dies.”

Still, Jose Gonzalez is hopeful: “I think it’s way overdue and it’s about time.”