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Pope’s Cuba Visit Fosters Attitude Shift

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For nearly four decades, virtually the only good reason a Cuban exile had for visiting his island homeland was to see a relative. And to avoid any risk of community censure, that relative had better be very close, very elderly and very near death.

“Yo no voy,” reads the slogan over a map of the island that is still frequently seen on car bumpers in Miami: “I am not going"--not until Fidel Castro, the man who drove tens of thousands of Cubans into exile, is gone.

The 71-year-old Cuban president is not gone, of course. But in the aftermath of Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to the communist nation last month, an event that prompted several hundred Cuban American Catholics to travel to the island as religious pilgrims, some rock-hard attitudes have begun to crumble.

Many exiles are rethinking their support for the 36-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, for example, after the pope condemned it as “ethically unacceptable” and many news reports spotlighted the hardship of daily life for the majority of Cuba’s 11 million citizens.

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Other exiles, moved by firsthand reports of those who traveled to Cuba last month, are making plans to go themselves, many for the first time in more than 30 years.

“They like us!” said Eliseo Perez-Stable, a physician and one of several speakers who last week told a group of about 150 influential Cuban Americans of the warm reception he has received on the island during several recent visits. “I strongly recommend that all of you go there.”

Public Challenges Have Been Rare

In last 30 years, people have been attacked for even suggesting dialogue with the Cuban government. In the 1970s a journalist was gunned down in a parking lot in retaliation for a magazine story, and a radio commentator lost his legs when a bomb went off in his car. Thus, public forums in which conservative exiles challenge traditional thinking on Cuba have been rare.

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“The pope’s visit has emboldened people and cracked the veneer of the hard-line policy of economic asphyxiation and isolation that has held sway in Miami for decades,” said Max Castro, a fellow at the University of Miami’s North-South Center. “With his moral authority, the pope has opened the way for those who want to help the Cuban people. And this has left those in the hard-line camp sort of naked.”

Indeed, for the first time since the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the vehemently anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation has proposed sending food and medicine to Cuba, provided it is funneled through the American Red Cross or the Cuban Catholic Church, and only if Congress can monitor distribution. Castro immediately dismissed the offer as “repugnantly cynical.”

The foundation’s proposal, backed by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), a staunch supporter of sanctions against Cuba, is seen by many here as an effort to head off increasing pressure from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, many American business executives and the U.S. Catholic Conference, among others, to end the embargo. As a first step, two congressional Democrats--Rep. Esteban Edward Torres of California and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut--have sponsored a bill to allow the sale of food and medicine to the Castro government.

Castro’s decision to free more than 200 prisoners, including political dissidents, is seen by many Cuban Americans and others here as the type of gesture that could lead the Clinton administration to moderate U.S. policy toward Cuba. An end to the 2-year-old ban on direct flights to the island, for example, would ease the flow of humanitarian aid to Cuba.

But even without a change in U.S. policy, many Cuban Americans here say that the visit of the pope, the renaissance of the Cuban Catholic Church and a shift in attitude among exiles has changed their perspective on a nation that lies just 90 miles from Key West, yet for so long has remained so far out of reach.

“Many of my friends thought it was wrong to go,” said Clarita Baloyra, 59, a widow who returned for the first time since leaving Cuba at age 22. “They said: ‘If you want to see the pope, go to Rome.’

“But I wanted to be there for this historical moment, and it was very rewarding and an eye opener. I don’t believe we can wait until Castro leaves. The church needs our help now.”

Since her return from Cuba, Baloyra said, “many of my friends say they wish they had gone.”

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With U.S. restrictions still in place, wholesale travel is unlikely soon. U.S. Treasury Department rules prohibit all but journalists, scholars and those visiting immediate family members from spending money in Cuba.

But thousands of Americans do journey quietly to Cuba each year on legal trips to visit family members or, illegally, with tourist visas aboard flights from Mexico or the Bahamas. And now others are making plans to go too, many on missions to various Catholic parishes within Cuba.

“This has certainly opened up a window of opportunity. The climate has changed,” said Miami Bishop Thomas G. Wenski. “People listened when the pope said: ‘Be not afraid.’ ”

Husband, Wife Disagree About Trip

Among those undergoing a change of heart is Miami attorney Pedro A. Freyre, who with his wife, Elena, provoked considerable discussion before the pope’s visit when each published columns in the Miami Herald detailing their divergent opinions on the political correctness of traveling to Cuba. Elena Freyre returned for the first time since leaving more than three decades ago and said she was responding to the invitation of the Cuban Catholic Church.

But her husband decided not to go, refusing to ask permission to enter Cuba from a government he holds responsible for the death of his brother-in-law and the imprisonment of his brother during the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.

“I was not ready this time, but I would go next year,” Pedro Freyre said. “I think my wife was more advanced than I was. I admire what she and the other people did. To be there in the plaza and yell ‘Liberty!’ under Castro’s nose was a courageous thing.

“Next time I want to be there. And I think other moderates like myself are beginning to rethink issues of national reconciliation and the embargo.”

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Since the Cuban government quit issuing visas for routine family visits during the pope’s five-day stay, a reported uptick in bookings this month may represent only those who would have traveled in January. But Francisco Aruca, whose travel agencies book family visits to Cuba, said he believes the papal visit and the testimony of pilgrims will convince more exiles that they can go home again.

“An increasing number of Cuban Americans are going to think: ‘If it happened to Juan, it could happen to me. I have been away too long,’ ” said Aruca. “And if enough people overcome their fear and the social pressure to travel to Cuba, then these guys [hard-line anti-Castro lobbyists and radio commentators] who have made an industry out of using that fear to make Cuba policy are in trouble.”

According to recent public opinion polls, support for the embargo remains strong among Cuban Americans and the Clinton administration has been cautious in its response to Cuba’s release of prisoners. President Clinton has promised to moderate U.S. policy toward Cuba only when Castro takes steps toward democratic reforms.

Still, even those who traditionally have opposed any concessions to the Cuban government while Castro remains in power seem loath to condemn those who went back as religious pilgrims.

“I myself will not go until Castro is gone,” insisted well-known television and radio commentator Tomas Garcia Fuste. “But I cannot ask others to make the same sacrifice that I do. I might have criticized these people before. But I’m not going to do that now.”

Miami lawyer Rafael Penalver said he worries that, as more exiles make nostalgic visits to the island, they could become dupes of the Castro government if they come back “talking about an openness that does not exist.”

“We have to be bold about making moves for change but not naive,” said Penalver, who led the successful effort to scuttle the Miami archdiocese’s early plan to ferry pilgrims to Havana aboard a luxury cruise ship. “Strengthening the Cuban church is fine, but the real objective is the freedom of the Cuban people.”

No Immediate Change Seen

Although many visitors to the island expressed sadness over the hardships most Cubans face daily, few think that Castro’s troubled socialist state is near collapse. “There is a demand for change but change that comes slowly,” said Marivi Prado, a human rights activist who left Cuba as a child in 1961. “The Cuban people are afraid of sudden change.”

The majority of those longtime exiles who returned with hopeful outlooks on the future of U.S.-Cuba relations are upscale, professional and white. They returned to Miami with a new appreciation of the reality of Cuba, where most people are poor, black or of mixed race, and have grown up under communism.

“We have had a lot of misperceptions,” said Elena Freyre, “including the notion that people are not hurt by the embargo. I saw people lacking basic nutrition and medicines.

“But I also found no resentment on their part whatsoever. Cubans on the island don’t hate us. From their point of view, we are one people. When I arrived at the airport in Havana and handed over my papers, I was nervous. But the official asked me: ‘How long have you been gone?’

“ ‘Thirty-seven years,’ I said.

“And he replied, ‘Welcome to your country.’ ”

Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this report.


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