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Local Cuban supporters cheer Obama visit, urge more change

Howard Ehrman, a member of the Chicago Cuba Coalition, says there are many things President Obama can do via executive order to help Cuban people. | Kaitlyn Rodriguez/For the Sun-Times

Cuban supporters in Chicago cheered President Barack Obama’s visit to Havana on Tuesday, but urged him to do more to help the Cuban people.

“It is sweet to see Air Force One on the tarmac in Cuba,” said Steve Eckardt of the Chicago Cuba Coalition. “The last time a U.S. government airplane visited the airport, they were bombing.”

Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced a new course in relations between the two countries in December 2014. Part of that included Cuba being taken off the State Sponsor of Terrorism list, the re-opening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana and a Cuban embassy in Washington, D.C.

Last week marked the first direct mail flights between the U.S. and Cuba in 50 years.

Howard Ehrman, a retired professor and member of the coalition, said there are many things Obama can do via executive order to help Cuban people, like allowing them to sell their products in the U.S. He also urged a lifting of the economic embargo when it comes to medications.

“The question of medications and how the blockade affects medicine and supplies to the Cuban people and to the Cuban government is still a question mark,” Ehrman said. “What does this mean for the Cuban people? It means death.”

Ehrman said dozens of Cubans are dying every year because they can’t access cancer drugs that only exist in the U.S. and medicines they can’t get in other countries as well.

Ehrman and the coalition are asking Obama to authorize direct exports of U.S. products to Cuba, to authorize U.S. companies to invest in Cuba, and to allow Cuba to import products from countries that contain more than 10 percent of U.S. components, among other changes.

Of Obama’s speech on Tuesday, Ehrman said the president deserves some credit.

“He certainly has moved to take down part of the blockade but that’s not good enough,” Ehrman said. “The entire blockade has to come down, and it’s great that he called on Congress but he has to take down every part … by executive order.”

Ehrman, who is married to a woman of Cuban descent, last visited the country in 2002, where he said private businesses were flourishing and public transportation had vastly improved.