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A HISTORIC PILGRIMAGE

Many Cuban Exiles Decide You Can Go Home Again

Pilgrims: All week, air charters from the U.S. have been bringing people who fled Castro back to see the pope.

January 24, 1998|MIKE CLARY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HAVANA — Along with several hundred other Cuban American exiles, Augustin Goytisolo, a Miami lawyer, returned to his beloved native land this week to look for the country he left behind. But the Cuba he last saw in 1960 is gone.

What Goytisolo, 76, along with his wife, Josefina, and their U.S.-born daughter Dolores, a 32-year-old New York banker, found instead was a tattered socialist state filled with people encouraged to hope for a better life by the visit of Pope John Paul II.

"I am not certain that anything dramatic or lasting will happen because of this," said Goytisolo, who dreamed of returning to Havana even as he became a leader in Miami's exile society. "But once a door has been opened, and people sense what could be, it is very hard to close it."

Indeed, the pontiff's five-day trip to Cuba has been an occasion for renewed optimism on both sides of the Florida Straits that 39 years of hostility between the government of Fidel Castro and eight U.S. administrations will soon end. The pope's visit also provided sufficient excuse to go back for those exiles who once vowed never to step foot on the island as long as Castro remained in power.

"I am here for the pope, and to show my daughter the house in Miramar where we lived," Goytisolo said. "This is not political."

But of course, among many Cuban Americans, particularly those who live in Miami, the capital of exile, everything having to do with Cuba is political. Opposition to visiting the island, and to spending U.S. dollars that may be used to support the Castro government, is so strong that the Miami Archdiocese was forced to cancel plans to bring more than 1,000 pilgrims to Cuba aboard a cruise ship.

All Cuban Americans who are visiting the island this week have been buffeted by criticism.

But all week, air charters from New York, Boston, other U.S. cities and San Juan, Puerto Rico, have been landing here, bearing exiles gushing with emotion and expectation. Many, like Father Alberto Bueno, were children when they left more than three decades ago, so young that they are unsure if they really remember life in Cuba or if the endless stories told by their parents have made them think they remember.

"To walk the streets of the city, to see where my mother grew up, to be here when the pope is here--well, I'm elated," said Bueno, 42, a Tampa, Fla., priest leading 80 pilgrims wearing bright yellow T-shirts imprinted with the Cuban flag and the words "The Pilgrimage--Home to Cuba."

For those who left here a lifetime ago, each charter landing at Jose Marti International Airport is the same: Grown men and women press their faces to the windows as the plane descends over the green fields of the island. Some pilgrims begin singing the Cuban national anthem. Some snap photos of open countryside. Some pray. Many weep.

"We are living history, right now," said Tampa businessman Rafael Couret, who last saw Cuba in 1959, as a boy of 17. "It is like sweet and sour pork: I am elated to see the place I was born but sad to see the lack of freedom, the economic deprivation, the deterioration of the country."

Couret is here with his wife, Domina, who left 37 years ago. But the controversy over going to Cuba has split more than one couple.

Elena Freyre came back. Her husband of 20 years, Pedro, a Miami lawyer, did not. "I will not beg an illegal and immoral government for permission to reenter my native country," he said in an interview, adding that he had a brother captured and a brother-in-law killed after the abortive 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.

But Elena Freyre decided to answer the call of the pope to show support for the renaissance of the Cuban Catholic Church and to take the opportunity to see the country she left more than 37 years ago, as a child of 12.

On Wednesday, she visited the graves of her two grandmothers in Colon Cemetery, was welcomed by strangers into the Vedado neighborhood house where she was raised, then watched the arrival of the pope from the balcony of another family who opened their doors to a visitor from Miami.

"Much of what I am experiencing is emotional and like stepping into a time warp," Freyre said Thursday as she prepared to explore Habana Vieja--Old Havana. "I wish my husband were here. But I talked to him last night, and he told me, 'It's not my time yet; I made the right decision.' And I did too. This is a defining moment in Cuban history. It is important that we are here to say, 'We are all Cubans.' "

Freyre said her six-day visit to Cuba will also let her correct what she calls "a few distortions and misperceptions" current in Miami. "I expected to see a place totally run down, where you cannot function," she said. "That's a little unreal."

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