Source AP ©

Cuban-Americans show willingness for peaceful political change

Some Cuban-Americans as a model for how a peaceful political change could happen in Cuba are reaching out to the government of the formerly communist country through medical charity.

On Monday, nine Ukrainian children frolicked with dolphins at the Miami Seaquarium while waiting to be fitted in the U.S. with free prosthetic limbs, courtesy of Ukrainian first lady Kateryna Yushchenko, the Cuba Democracy Advocates group and others.

U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Cuban-American and Florida Republican, has worked with the State Department to send doctors to Ukraine and most recently to bring the children to Florida.

"The countries that most understand the Cuban people - besides the U.S. - are the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. When I go there, I feel so well. The people there get it," Diaz-Balart said.

The Cuban-American community and the U.S. government are also keenly aware of the decades of medical treatment that Cuba provided for Ukrainians before pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko became president in 2005. Cuba treated thousands of Ukrainian children after the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant.

Since 2005, much of that has dried up, and relations between the two countries have cooled.

"The U.S. was concerned that Cuba would cut out medical support for the Ukraine, and there was a push to say, 'if you take a stronger stance on Cuba, there are still ways to get that support,"' said Carlos Pascual, vice president and head of foreign policy for the Brookings Institution in Washington. Pascual served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2000 to 2003 and is also Cuban-American.

Pascual called the treatment for the children a good gesture but symbolic considering that Ukraine has a population of more than 48 million people.

Yushchenko won the country's 2004 election after he was mysteriously poisoned and after more than a million Ukrainians took to the street to protest voter fraud in favor of the Russian-backed presidential candidate. Not surprisingly, he has been critical of Cuba's repression of political dissidents.

But politics was far from the minds of the Ukrainian children who arrived in Florida last week. Asked what he knew about Cuba or Cuban-Americans before he came to the U.S., Paul Satsuk, 17, of Polonne, Ukraine, grinned. He mimed smoking a cigar and drinking coffee.

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