Some who had fled the revolution led by Fidel Castro traveled from Miami to Cuba to see Pope Benedict. NBC's Mark Potter reports.
MIAMI – When Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in 1998, the Archdiocese of Miami expected so much interest from U.S. parishioners wanting to witness the historic event that they booked a cruise ship to transport and house all the expected pilgrims.
But many in South Florida’s Cuban-American community were outraged by the image of a cruise ship full of Americans docking in Havana, so under pressure the archdiocese cancelled the charter.
Now, 14 years later, Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski is leading a pilgrimage of 302 mostly Cuban-Americans to Santiago de Cuba and Havana to witness Pope Benedict XVI’s visit. And the Miami archbishop will even celebrate mass at Havana’s Cathedral on Tuesday afternoon.
University of Miami Professor Andy Gomez says many in the exile community are beginning to embrace the idea of direct contact with the Cuban people even though they do not agree with the government. Others, who still do not agree with travel to the island, Gomez says, are just plain tired of arguing about it.
“After 53 years of that system of government on the island, we are tired,” he said.
Gomez is among the Miami Cuban-American pilgrims traveling to Cuba for the pope’s visit. He says he chose to make the trip as an academic – to take the pulse of the situation on the island and the mood of the population. Even so, Gomez’ decision to make the trip – and the pope’s visit itself – is a source of debate among his friends and family.
So Gomez gathered a group – his wife and his two daughters’ in-laws – to discuss the issues and let NBC News sit-in to hear the “family debate.” The three couples are all successful professionals living in Miami who emigrated to the U.S. with their families as children shortly after the revolution.
Esteban Felix / AP
American pilgrims, mostly Cuban-Americans, pray at the Virgen del Cobre Church in Santiago de Cuba on Monday. More than 300 Cuban-Americans and other pilgrims have arrived in Cuba for Pope Benedict XVI's visit on a trip led by Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski.
Here are snippets from their conversation.
“For 53 years we isolated the island. We do have an embargo and Obama is the eleventh president that has tried to negotiate with the Castro brothers. Nobody has been able to negotiate with these guys. So isn’t it time maybe to build bridges with the people directly?” Andy Gomez said to kick things off.
But Maria Eugenia Smith, the mother of one his son-in-laws, disagreed. She’s not ready to go back yet. “I came to the United States when I was 3 years old. And I would like to go to my homeland and see where I was born. But I would never step there with Communism. I would never do that.”
Tony Rivas was exhausted by the whole debate. “The exile community is tired. We are tired. We have lived our entire lives outside of Cuba. Most of us came here when we were very small or teenagers. Basically, this is our country, the United States.”
Although, his wife, Virginia Rivas, felt that pope’s visit could unify the two disparate groups. “I think that is the role of the pope going to Cuba,” said Virginia Rivas. “Trying to unite, not the exile or the Cuban people there, but we are all one nation and we have to overcome all… We have to be better people.”
Almost 800 Miami pilgrims have traveled to Cuba in celebration of the Pope's visit. Archbishop Thomas Wenski talks about the changing role of the Church since his last visit to Cuba and the criticism of the Pope.
Will anything really change?
“I think one of the key issues here is how much space the church is going to gain after the pope’s visit,” said Andy Gomez. “Fidel Castro was very good at opening the faucet and letting the water out and then closing it. Raul has opened the faucet but these are different times, he’s not going to be able to close it.”
Tony Rivas didn’t think the Cuban people will gain much in terms of freedom and individual rights. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing for the pope to go, but the people are not going to be any better off than they were before the visit. [The government is] using this…but they are still putting everybody that has any disagreement against the government in jail.
“I disagree,” said Frances Serantes Gomez, Andy’s wife. “I feel that there is some type of movement right now and if anything this is an acknowledgment that they know about [the dissidents].”
But Tony Rivas countered, “In 1998 when Pope John Paul II went to Cuba, everyone was expecting great things and change. Everyone was expecting Poland all over again. And the reality was … nothing happened.”
“But you know what? It’s Fidel Castro who opened the faucet and closed it back up,” Frances Serantes Gomez. “This is Raul – things might be a little different now.”
NBC's Andrea Mitchell and Mark Potter talk about the changes in the relationship between Cuba and America during the Obama administration.
“We hope,” said Tony Rivas.
“But I see it that the people there do need the Church, so we have to reach out to them,” said Maria Eugenia Smith. I have mixed feelings with this trip. I really do.”
Her husband, Jose Smith, also believed that the church could potentially be a force for change. “If you’re going to eradicate Communism, it’s going to start through the Church. The only thing is they just don’t have the power to do it,” said Jose Smith.
“The Catholic Church is really where you are. If you want to reach out to the people, it’s really not the Vatican, it’s the local church, the local priest that has to reach out,” said Tony Rivas. “I don’t see them as being a force in the community.
Jose Smith countered, “[If you are just] 10 percent of the population, what kind of force can you be?”
“Hopefully the Church will do what they have to do. Forget about Fidel Castro and the politics involved,” said Maria Eugenia Smith. “We need to get to the people. We need to get God and faith there. Hopefully, if we get Jesus Christ, God, faith there we can motivate those people to do something about their lives.”