MIAMI (Reuters) - In 1998, Cuban American businessman Carlos Saladrigas was so opposed to Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to Cuba that he organized a coalition of Miami civic leaders against it.
More than 10,000 people, including Miami’s most prominent Cuban American politicians, held a protest rally in the city’s Little Havana district, forcing the Church to cancel its plan to send a cruise ship to Cuba carrying pilgrims from Miami.
Now, 14 years later, Saladrigas says he was mistaken. As Pope Benedict prepares to visit Cuba next week, Saladrigas not only supports this papal mission; he plans to be there himself, accompanied by his wife and hundreds of other Cuban exiles.
“I want to be with my Cuban brethren. In many ways it’s my own personal revenge on myself,” he said, explaining that scenes of Cubans thronging to the pope’s masses in Cuba in 1998 made him rethink his position.
Saladrigas’ change of heart is a sign of how much things have changed in Miami since that visit. Polls show declining Cuban American support for the U.S. embargo against Cuba, as well as growing approval for family travel to Cuba by exiles.
While a few Cuban Americans have complained on local radio about the pope’s visit, their voices are muted, and no street protests are planned.
Instead, many Cuban Americans will likely tune in to watch live TV coverage of the three-day visit, hoping to hear the pope utter some criticism - however veiled - of Cuba’s one-party communist system, and its treatment of political dissidents.
Cubans in Miami still recall Pope John Paul II’s words at a Mass in Havana when he said, “May Cuba ... open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba, so that this people ... may look to the future with hope.”
While Cuba’s political system has not changed, the hope inspired by that visit had a lasting impact on Saladrigas and others in Miami’s overwhelmingly Catholic Cuban exile community.
“It was really the beginning of my catharsis,” he said, adding that he has evolved from “just another Cuban American hard-line radical seeking to isolate Cuba,” to a firm believer in building bridges between Cubans on the island and in Miami.
“For all these years rather than hurting the Cuban regime we were helping it,” he said. “This image of Cubans in Miami as barbarians at the gate was exactly the image that the Castro regime wanted to create. It was a gift.”
To be sure, not everyone in the exile community agrees with Saladrigas. He has been branded a “Judas” in some quarters and some Cuban exiles complain the pope’s visit hurts the chances of a transition to democracy. “It’s a trip that gives legitimacy to the dictatorship,” Cuban American congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican, told a local audience recently.
Many younger exiles support the pope’s visit while urging the Vatican to encourage human rights activists in Cuba instead of only criticizing the U.S. trade embargo against the country.
“We believe there’s too much talk about U.S. policy towards Cuba, the trade embargo and all of that,” said Giancarlo Sopo, a 28-year-old Miami marketing executive who organized an online Facebook petition asking the pope to meet with dissidents in Cuba. “The real story is human rights.”
It is unclear if the pope plans to speak with dissidents though his official agenda does not include such a meeting.
Some exiles direct their ire at the Archbishop of Miami, Thomas Wenski, the architect of the aborted cruise in 1998, who will lead more than 300 Miami faithful on a special church-organized package to Cuba by plane next week.
Sylvia Iriondo, a Cuban American realtor and head of the group Mothers and Women Against Repression, accused Wenski of fomenting division between Catholics. He is “intent on serving as a travel agent” for “an illegitimate communist regime”, she wrote in an article published by The Miami Herald.
But Wenski isn’t troubled. The backlash has been much milder this year, limited to a few hardline commentators on Spanish language radio and some angry letters to the archdiocese.
“I get more than that if I show up late for a confirmation,” Wenski joked in an interview with Reuters.
Wenski is widely admired within and outside the Church as a bold leader not afraid of speaking his mind. Born in Florida to Polish immigrant parents, he rose from parish priest in the impoverished Little Haiti district and chairs the committee on international affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
A burly figure, he rides a 1,800cc Harley-Davidson motorbike and bears an uncanny likeness to Lech Walesa, the Polish shipyard union leader who led the Solidarity movement against communist rule in Poland.
A conservative on some issues, he spoke out against the White House’s birth control policy requiring employer-sponsored health plans, including the Church, to cover contraception.
Fluent in Spanish and Haitian Creole, he is a champion of immigrant rights as well as greater engagement with Cuba, while also advocating political and economic change on the island.
Wenski is ideally suited to his role in Miami, said Father Juan Molina, director of Latin American affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington.
“He’s a bridge builder. He understands that the Church is not going to dismiss a political system outright. The Church will always work within the constraints of a system to find ways to improve human life and dignity,” he said.
Wenski said Benedict’s visit was an opportunity for the Church to use its spiritual role to help heal divisions within Cuba, and with its exile population. Some 250,000 Cubans have moved to Miami in the last 10 years, and an estimated 375,000 Cuban-Americans visited Cuba last year, he pointed out.
More older generation exiles are returning to Cuba, some for the first time in 50 years. “When they do go back it’s very emotional experience for them, but also very healing,” he said. “They don’t like the regime any more than they did before, but they understand there are real people of flesh and blood there.”
It’s also important for younger Cuban Americans who have never seen the island, said Luis Gazitua, 36, an attorney in Miami who is traveling with the Church group for what will be his first visit to Cuba. “It will be good to finally see what I’ve heard so much about.”
Saladrigas said the lesson he learned from the 1998 papal visit was that change is a slow process that requires patience.
“In Miami we used to have this parachute theory that one day, all of a sudden, Cuba will be free and we will parachute in,” he said. “The pope’s visit in 1998 taught me that we need to seize opportunities. Every time a door opens you don’t slam it shut, you put in your foot and you prize it open.”
Editing by Kieran Murray