Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Cuban Community Tries Dolphin Diplomacy

MIAMI -- Nine Ukrainian children played with dolphins at the Miami Seaquarium while waiting to be fitted with free prosthetic limbs courtesy of their country's first lady, members of southern Florida's Cuban-American community and others.

The nonprofit Cuba Democracy Advocates group wants to build solidarity with Ukraine's fledgling democratic government by helping to pay for prosthetics for about 30 low-income children from the former communist nation and by increasing medical exchanges.

Many Cuban-Americans see Ukraine as a model for peaceful political change and want to support its government.

Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a U.S. congressman, has worked with the U.S. 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," said Diaz-Balart, who is Cuban-American. "When I go there, I feel so well. The people there get it."

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

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

Yushchenko won his country's 2004 election after more than a million Ukrainians took to the streets to protest voter fraud in favor of the Russian-backed candidate, Viktor Yanukovych. Yushchenko had been critical of Cuba's repression of political dissidents.

Politics were far from the minds of the Ukrainian children who arrived last week. They looked alternately thrilled and terrified as the dolphins leapt out of the water for kisses and high-fives.

The connection between Ukrainians and Cuban-Americans is understandable, said Taras Tkachuk, 30, a Ukrainian doctor who works with first lady Kateryna Yushchenko's charity, Ukraine 3000 Fund, which helped sponsor the group along with Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics in Orlando.

"It's difficult to have a democracy after totalitarianism. Our parents were born under that system. But these kids, they look forward. They feel life in a different way. They are able to use choices," Tkachuk said. "The same will one day be in Cuba."