Here in Miami, there’s a Wall of Martyrs in our son’s Jesuit high school, lined with pictures of handsome young men who died in a failed but heroic attempt to save democracy in their little country. It was a flawed democracy, it’s true, but certain freedoms we take for granted here were taken for granted there: religion, association, press — even the ability to travel freely or start a business.
Will economic freedom filter down to them and offer them a chance at dignified work? Cuba is full of people who have never known hope, and it is long past time they had their chance.
Those young Cubans weren’t successful, of course, and some of them died on the beach or in the jungle. Some of those who survived the battle died in heinous prisons. Fidel Castro, who had attended the same Havana Jesuit school as the martyrs, proceeded to turn the country into a prison, an island of despair and dejection. My father visited last summer for the first time since his forced exile 50 years earlier. When he came home he got in bed and stayed there for two weeks, grief-stricken by the devastation, both spiritual and material, that had overtaken the beautiful island that he had visited nightly in his dreams for so many years.
One of Castro’s first moves as dictator was to expel the Jesuit priests who had educated him, a few of whom are still alive and educating our son. Now there is a Jesuit in Rome, a Pope who practices radical forgiveness and bridge building, even across chasms of offense and abuse. Heartbroken, I’m sure, for Alan Gross, imprisoned for trying to bring some light to Jewish people trapped in this island dictatorship, Pope Francis has helped to create a rapprochement between the United States and Cuba. There has been at least one joyful result: the release of this poor, suffering hostage. If anyone doubts the cruelty of the regime, take a look at the frail and tottering man who emerged from that plane on Wednesday.
It is Pope Francis’ job to point to Divine Mercy and model radical forgiveness. St. John Paul II did so when he forgave the man who attempted to kill him, even visiting him in jail. I often picture him entering that prison cell when I have trouble forgiving someone who has offended me. Following this lead, even Cuban exiles are asked by the demands of the Gospel to grapple with encounter and dialogue – perhaps even to the very men who filled that wall with pictures of Jesuit martyrs.
Like many watching this moment and as a daughter of exiles living among so many others who know the evils of the Castro regime, I am filled with trepidation. The people of Cuba live lives of such wretchedness that it’s hard to believe it can get worse.
Still, I am trying to transition from a very intimate fear to hope. Pope Francis leads the way, and I will try to follow. I will pray that their hard hearts will finally soften, and that cruelty will end. The people thirst for, need, and deserve freedom. I think of the poor mothers who work as prostitutes in and around luxury hotel lobbies, desperate to feed their children. Will economic freedom filter down to them and offer them a chance at dignified work? Cuba is full of people who have never known hope, and it is long past time they had their chance.