In 1960, when I was five, I left Cuba for the United States, for what I was told was a vacation. At the same time, there was some political thing that needed to be sorted out in Cuba, some “evil” man named Fidel Castro took over. We knew “Los Americanos” would help us fix this, so during that time, why not see the sights in Miami? Our vacation would be for two, maybe three weeks. No date was set for our return. As time passed, I began to realize that the return date was set to “never.”
When I became an American citizen and an adult, I went abroad, to Europe and South America. Curious about returning to the country of my birth, I found out a visa from Cuba was essentially unattainable, and all because of having left the country before 1971. Later, the United States would allow me to go to Cuba only with a license from the State department, and going without a license invited big trouble from the USA side.
I convinced myself that I did not want to go. I had no family in Cuba; everyone had left or died. The “Cuba” I returned to was Calle Ocho, or Eighth Street in Miami, which had been taken over by the Cuban Diaspora. And Fidel Castro, was wedged in my subconscious as some bad guy who not only ruled the nation of Cuba but also regularly defied the U.S., where I was now a citizen.
In 2016, I learned about a conference that St. Luke’s Church in Darien about the Episcopal Church in Cuba. I am Episcopalian, too, so I decided to go. Speakers and attendees would include Cuban Episcopal Clergy from Cuba and Episcopalians from Connecticut who had visited Cuba. When I attended I discovered that the diocese was led by one of the few female bishops in the developing world, Griselda Delgado Del Carpio, and that there were regular trips being planned to Cuba.
This year I found my trip, and on February 3, 2018, I finally returned to Cuba. I was traveling with a group of Episcopal and Anglican Church leaders from the Community of Cross of Nails, (CCN) a worldwide Anglican-Episcopal group, dedicated to reconciliation that had active members in Cuba.
One of the attractions of this trip by CCN was that I, too, hoped to reconcile myself to Cuba after having left under very sudden and politically divisive circumstances. Fifty-eight years later, I was very curious about my compatriots that continued to live on the island. Reconcilement does not mean agreement, something that my CCN co-travelers understood. And Fidel was gone – or was he? Posters and quotations from him were everywhere in Cuba. Very soon, though, his brother would no longer be president and instead someone without the name of Castro would be in charge.
As I prepared myself for the trip, I read about religion in Cuba. To my surprise, Fidel had granted 23 hours of interviews to a journalist and priest, Frei Betto, which had been condensed into a book, Fidel and Religion. Could this be a way to learn about what Cubans on the island value most, in the context of a topic I already knew well?
I was halfway through the book when we landed in the airport in Holguin and headed by bus to Santiago de Cuba, a three hour ride. In addition to the organizers of our tour, we were accompanied by a Cuban tour guide, whom I will call Sofia.
After an hour on the bus, I moved to the front and sat across from Sofia, introducing myself, telling her I was born in Cuba and this was my first time back since I was five. I said, “I am reading a book called “Fidel and Religion,” based on the interviews of journalist Frei Betto.”
Sofia replied, “That is a book that is required reading for all Cuban students.”
I was surprised, since though I knew the Cuban government was no longer openly hostile to Religion, I did not expect it to be a topic of interest, even when Fidel discussed it. Sofia was a tour guide and very outgoing. Eventually we talked about family, how the Cuban state was organized, the origin of slang words in Spanish, and how Cuba had prepared and defended itself through a rough onslaught from Hurricane Irma.
“Fidel had much respect for religious views, and understanding of them as well,” Sofia told me. I agreed with her, because the information Fidel gave on the practice of Catholicism in Cuba was well aligned with what I had had heard myself and what I knew about the faith of my parents and their generation in the Cuban Diaspora. What Fidel didn’t like were religious counter-revolutionaries. In addition, my father and Fidel had gone to the same Jesuit Prep School, Belén, in Havana, and Fidel’s descriptions matched quite well what I had heard from my father. I was never too fond of the sense of superiority that my parents and their friends and relatives felt compared to other Cubans. That is something Fidel described very accurately, and I had seen it firsthand.
I could tell by how Sofia spoke of him that Fidel was her hero. Although I could not say the same for myself, I was glad that we were getting along so well. Whatever I thought of Fidel, he and the Cuban revolution were Cuba’s history now. “Please show me where the schools were that Fidel attended, and also the Moncada barracks, where the revolution began,” I asked. Sofia’s eyes lit up, and she began to explain that the Moncada barracks was now a school, and as she spoke I tried to guess her age. I decided that she was probably in her 30s, and had never known a Cuba without Fidel.
Sofia wasn’t the only Cuban I was charmed by. I also enjoyed the openness of the people of Santiago, many whom I found out were descended from Haitians and Jamaicans who had immigrated to Cuba during sugar booms. And the group of youths in Havana that I ate breakfast with who peppered me with questions about cars in the U.S. and told jokes about the shortages they continually put up with. Not to mention the breathtaking scenery.
My own experience led me to conclude that Cuban-Americans, especially those who feel an affinity for the land of their birth or the land of their parents, should visit Cuba. It is beautiful, and the people will welcome you. Certainly, if you have qualms about the politics, there is no need to force yourself to go. I am very happy I have few memories of Cuba in 1960, when I left, so I was not looking to revive the feeling of that Cuba. Cuba is a new place, beautiful and fascinating, a developing country, and deserves to be seen as it is now.