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Thursday, January 22, 1998 Published at 16:00 GMT


Cuban exiles' crisis of conscience
image: [ Catholic Cuban exiles in Miami celebrate the Pope's visit ]
Catholic Cuban exiles in Miami celebrate the Pope's visit

The Pope's historic visit to Cuba has split the 1.7 million-strong Cuban exile community living in the US.

As the Pope touched down in Havana in Cuba, restaurants in Little Havana in Miami, Florida were packed with exiles watching the event on television.

Most of the exiles who fled to the US after the Cuban revolution live in Florida. But the Papal visit has presented them with a painful dilemma.

With travel restrictions lifted for the occasion, the exiles are allowed to go back to attend masses.

But they have clashed on whether they should and what their response should be to the Pope's call for changes to the US embargo against Cuba.

The split, which includes prominent exile groups, reflects the wider debate in the community on how best to influence change in Cuba.

[ image: Fr Fernando Heria: going home]
Fr Fernando Heria: going home
Father Fernando Heria, a Catholic priest in Miami, is returning to Cuba after 36 years in exile.

"It means a way of showing the people of Cuba that those of us who are on this side of the Atlantic love them and support them," he said.

But his congregation is divided, even among families.

Pedro Freyre refuses to return to Cuba while Castro is in power but his wife Elena, who left as a schoolgirl, is set to fly out.

"It's going to be extremely emotional. I don't know how I'm going to react when I first land," said Elena. "I think it's wonderful."

[ image: A monument in Little Havana to those who died in the Bay of Pigs.]
A monument in Little Havana to those who died in the Bay of Pigs.
But Pedro said he could not bring himself to go. His brother-in-law was killed in the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, in which US backed exiles unsuccessfully tried to overthrow Castro.

"Where I draw the line is that I personally can not bring myself to ask that government to go back to the country where I was born and where I was basically thrown out."

The moral dilemma began when the Catholic Miami Archdiocese chartered a luxury cruise ship to take over 1,000 exiles to a Papal mass in Havana.

After complaints, the church backed down and arranged a smaller charter flight instead.

[ image: Some prefer to play a waiting game]
Some prefer to play a waiting game
The Cuban American National Foundation, which has strong support among politicians in Washington, wants Cubans to turn out in force for the Pope but for American exiles to stay away.

It claims nothing has changed in Cuba and returning exiles will give Castro's rule a boost.

But another exiles' group, Cambio Cubano, calls for increased dialogue with Castro and an end to the embargo.


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Cuban American National Foundation

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