HAVANA – When Fidel Castro staged a first, failed attempt to overthrow the Cuban government, Roman Catholic Archbishop Enrique Perez Serantes pleaded for the rebel leader's life to be saved. After Castro took power, Serantes' support turned to opposition and the prelate's family fled.
As they built a new life in Miami, Serantes' family vowed never to return while Castro was in power.
Now, as formerly icy relations between the U.S. and Cuba thaw, thousands of Cuban-American families are trying to finally put five decades of bitterness behind them. For many, the visit to Cuba of Pope Francis, the man who mediated detente between the two nations, is the moment to return.
Hundreds of Cuban-Americans are traveling to the island this week to see Francis, hopeful that the pontiff who shepherded the two countries toward reconciliation can also bring them peace with the past.
"I keep hearing that I'm going to get sad and have these overwhelming feelings and emotions of despair," said Serantes' great-niece, Frances Serantes Gomez, who flew to Havana on Friday on a trip of 250 mostly Cuban-Americans organized by the Archbishop of Miami. "I hope I don't feel that way. I hope because I'm going with the pope, I see something positive coming out of this."
For many, it is an anguished decision, with the plight of parents and grandparents, many now deceased, weighing heavily on their consciences. Fidel Castro is out of power but his brother Raul is president. The recent diplomatic opening and Francis' personal intervention nevertheless provided the final push many Cuban-Americans needed to return.
"At the end, I said, these people who were cruel, they do not own my country. That's my country as well. I have a right to go back," said Clara Gonzalez, 69, who is returning with her sister and three children. Her sister has never returned to Cuba. Her children have never been there at all.
Many of the Cuban-Americans coming with Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski have either spent decades in exile or grew up in the U.S. with only stories and faded photographs as a testament to their connection with the island. For many, the past anguish is still palpable.
"There were some really deep psychic wounds, of having lost your country, and in a lot of ways, part of your identity," Wenski said. "That's something you can feel a lot of anger about. And certainly a lot of Cuban exiles do. But I think what the pope is trying to do, and what we're trying to do in going to Cuba, is to help Cuban people build a future of hope. And you can't build a future of hope on a foundation of resentment."
Many Cuban-Americans still refuse to return.
Amparo Martinez was 14 when she was sent alone to the United States with thousands of other Cuban children after the revolution in what became known as Operation Pedro Pan. She's going to see the pope in Philadelphia.
She said that when her father died in Cuba, she was unable to return. "I didn't see my father. I wasn't able to have a Mass for him. Nothing. And now everything is going to be fine?" said Martinez, 68, who opposes the normalization of U.S. relations with Cuba.
Gomez's great-granduncle was the highest religious authority in the eastern city of Santiago when a young Fidel Castro attempted to overthrow the government of Fulgencio Batista nearly six years before the 1959 revolution. Serantes was friends with Castro's father and vouched for the 27-year-old's life to be saved.
If not for the archbishop's intervention, history may have taken a different course. Among exiles in Miami, Gomez heard that message time and again.
The full story, of course, reads slightly differently: By appealing for Castro to be spared, Serantes also helped stop the violence that ensued as authorities searched for the rebel leader. After initially supporting the revolution, Serantes was among the first church members to speak against Castro.
"He was a brave priest, with no fear about the personal consequences of his acts," said Ignacio Uria, a professor and author of a biography on Serantes. "Prophetic in many ways and able to change his mind if the reality confirmed he was wrong."
Before returning, the 58-year-old Gomez said the visit, and whether she made the right choice, had weighed heavily on her mind. She and her husband plan to visit a church program they help fund that gives food and teaches Catholic values to Havana schoolchildren. Gomez said she hopes their trip will help establish personal connections between Cubans and Cuban-Americans.
"These days I've been praying a lot to get the strength to see it like that," Gomez.
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