More than 5,000 Cuban exiles live in North Carolina, and many of them live in the Triangle. And they were watching very closely Monday as President Obama did what no U.S. president has done in 88 years -- visit Cuba and open talks with Cuba's president.
One exile here in Morrisville was watching his television with hopeful eyes.
"From this point on, it's a big step forward," Alfonso Sama said.
Sama is a 75-year-old Cuban exile who fled the repressive Castro regime on a raft in 1962. He settled in Morrisville and is the proud owner and chef of Carmen's Cuban Cafe. He named the restaurant after his late mother who also fled Cuba.
Sama was smiling as he watched what happened Monday in his homeland
"I was very happy," Sama said. "I was very happy."
Happy about what he sees as big first step for freedom.
"Because finally somebody took a step forward to help the Cuban people, never mind the politics," Sama said.
But politics hang heavy over Obama's visit. The White House has been criticized by conservative Cubans for a move they see as legitimizing a brutal Castro regime. The same regime that jailed Sama for a year over his outspoken criticism as a teenager.
Sama got a kick out of watching President Raul Castro in the rare position of being pressed by news reporters about human rights abuses.
"What political prisoners? Give me a name or names," Castro quizzically said back to American news reporters during his joint news conference with President Obama.
At one point, Castro indicated he couldn't hear the question.
"It was funny to see him, because he's not used to (being challenged)," Sama said with a smile. It was awkward for him."
Sama is planning his first trip back to Cuba in 54 years, convinced the seeds of freedom have taken root.
"And that is something nobody can contain from inside out," Sama said.
On Monday, Obama said that the last 50 years of difficult relations between the U.S. and Cuba will not be transformed overnight.
But the crowd of entrepreneurs and U.S business people in the audience are counting on a surge of economic activity. And Sama is counting on a big dose of democracy as well.