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Wednesday, 21 January, 1998, 17:50 GMT
Miami's Cubans protest about Pope's visit
Cuban exiles in Miami
Cuban exiles in Miami took to the streets to protest at the Pope's visit to Cuba
Some of the most intense debate over the Pope's visit to Cuba is not raging in Havana, but in Miami, Florida.

South Florida is home to more than a million Cuban exiles. Their influence is everywhere.

Miami radio stations pump out a constant diet of Latin American music and much of the city's business is conducted in Spanish. But above all, the Cuban exiles weigh in heavily in politics.

Many hard-line Cuban exiles took to the streets in December to protest against the Pope's visit which they see as an endorsement of an oppressive regime.

Others argue equally vociferously that it could lead to major changes in the Communist system. The papal visit, they say, ultimately represents the Cubans' best chance of achieving a more open society.

Paramilitary soldier
Cuban paramilitaries are stepping up their training for Day X
Hard-liners take to the streets

Ever since Castro's revolution, the powerful right-wing Cuban community has regarded isolation of the island as the best way to bring down the regime.

But some now hope the visit of the Pope will spark off exactly what they have been unable to achieve: an anti-Castro revolution.

"Some people expect this [the visit] to be a mass showing of opposition to the government, one of the few times that the regime has allowed mobilisation that is not for the purpose of sustaining the regime," said Professor Damien Fernandez of Florida International University.

"There might be a dynamic involved with the Pope's visit that could be quite revolutionary."

In fact, several private Cuban-exile armies, which operate openly in Florida, are stockpiling weapons and stepping up training. They hope that the visit will spur a Romanian-style revolution.

Moderate Cubans back the Pope

Protester
Protesters: No Castro, no problem
Less militant groups also are making their voices heard. Ramon Cernuda, a moderate leader of Cuba's exiles, says that the Vatican's aims are more realistic than that of the anti-Castro old guard.

"The young people inside Cuba want the transition to a more open society," he said.

"They want the opportunity to improve their lives. The young Cuban Americans are sick and tired of this one-issue exile community who for over 35 years have essentially been saying the same thing."

Church leaders in Miami had to cope with the split in the Cuban community as well. They organised a pilgrimage to Cuba, and originally wanted to send a cruise liner with 800 on board to see the Pope in Havana. This plan was scrapped after considerable opposition from exile leaders. Now more than 100 people are expected to make a day trip by plane.

Bishop Thomas Wenski, who is organising the trip, says those opposed to it are short-sighted: 'When you speak to people who have come out of Cuba in recent years, people that left in the '80s and '90s, they seem to be much more receptive to the idea of the Pope going to Cuba ... and perhaps that's because they are closer to reality."

Despite the split in the Miami community, there are some common goals.

Ninoska Perez, a member of the main exile group, encapsulated what many throughout the community are saying. Although she says she would never go back to a Cuba governed by Mr Castro, she is hoping the pope's visit will do some good.

"We will be watching it on television and we hope that the pope will be as firm as he has been with other dictators," she said. "We all know what happened in Poland. Why should Cuba be different?"

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BBC Correspondent Malcom Brabant: The pope has not won over Miami's Cuban exiles (3'31")
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