AP Hispanic Affairs Writer
MIAMI (AP) – Natalia Martinez speaks with a clinical distance when discussing her family’s decision to leave Cuba two decades ago. But the graduate student’s cool demeanor falls away when she speaks of returning to her homeland for the first time this week during Pope Benedict XVI’s historic visit.
“I am excited. I am nervous, and I’m anticipating confusion,” Martinez, 25, said with an anxious laugh.
She could be speaking for many of the more than 300 Cuban-Americans who will form a delegation to Cuba led by Miami’s Roman Catholic Archbishop Thomas Wenski. Some of those making the pilgrimage Monday fled the island half a century ago. Some grew up with only the stories their exile parents told them of the island 90 miles (145 kilometers) across the Florida Straits.
What unites these pilgrims is the attachment they feel to the country their families left years ago, even those who have long opposed Fidel and Raul Castro and the communist government they ushered in 53 years ago.
Travel to Cuba is always controversial among Cuban-Americans and the half-century-old U.S. embargo of the island severely limits trips there. In the 1970s, those who visited were often blacklisted in South Florida. A few faced violence upon their return. These days, newer Cuban immigrants often visit relatives on the island. But the issue is still a requisite topic for politicians campaigning in Florida.
It has only been magnified in the run up to the pope’s visit.
At least half a dozen older exiles who are returning for the first time to the island declined to be interviewed by The Associated Press because of concerns about the reaction their words might cause in Miami or in Havana.
Many exiles who fled during the early days of the revolution see little reason to return. Cubans are the only group of immigrants who are almost always granted what amounts to political asylum when they reach U.S. soil. Older exiles say travel to the island cheapens legitimate claims for asylum, and they complain that delegations such as Wenski’s prop up the Cuban government, which has a stake in all of the country’s hotels and tourism services.
Those traveling to Cuba argue more interaction can only help open up the island. Businessman Carlos Saladrigas, 61, is among this group. But it took him years to reach that conclusion.
Saladrigas came to Miami at the age of 12 on the so-called Pedro Pan flights that the Church organized in the early 1960s to bring Cuban children to the U.S. His parents reunited with him a year later. An outspoken critic of the Castro government, Saladrigas helped lead a successful effort to stop a similar archdiocese pilgrimage from going to Cuba during Pope John Paul II’s trip there in 1998. That visit was the first by a pope since the Cuban Revolution.
Saladrigas says that experience was a turning point.
“I saw for the Cuban people how it became a great image for change and hope,” he said. “And it quickly dawned on me that an isolated Cuba is the most counterproductive thing we can do.”
Saladrigas is now co-chairman of the business-led Cuba Study Group. The nonprofit organization advocates for political and economic change on the island but also encourages more exchanges. He returned for the first time last year as part of his work with the Catholic charitable order known as the Knights of Malta.
“But I think this will feel different. I think this is going to be an historic moment,” he said.
He is passionate about celebrating not only the pope’s visit but also the 400th anniversary of the appearance of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, Cuba’s patron. The statue is housed in a church in an old copper mining town on the southeastern coast of Cuba, where Benedict will pray.
“More than a religious symbol, she is a patriotic symbol that brings Cubans together like nothing else can,” he said.
John De Leon, president of the Greater Miami chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, says the historic and religious significance of the pope’s trip moved him to go too.
“I am totally in solidarity with Catholics here and Catholics on the island, so I think anything that can foster that solidarity on both sides of the ocean is important,” he added.
De Leon grew up in Miami and traveled for the first time to Cuba in 1993 as part of an academic mission, prompting his staunchly anti-Castro exile parents not to speak to him for months. He has returned on several occasions since then, but the last time was nearly a decade ago.
“There was a certain excitement when I went the first time” he said, “but then that sort of faded during the Bush years. There was a clamping down on any meaningful exchange.”
President George W. Bush limited cultural and academic trips and prohibited Cuban-Americans from visiting the island more than once every three years. The Obama administration has since relaxed those limitations.
Now De Leon said he is interested in seeing the effects of recent economic changes instituted by Raul Castro, who took over from his ailing brother in 2006.
De Leon said his decision to go was unaffected by the Cuban government’s crackdown on dissidents in advance of the pope’s arrival. Cuban officials recently removed 13 people from a local church at the behest of Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega. The group had demanded the pope air a list of their grievances during his trip. Meanwhile, dozens of activists who march weekly in Havana following Sunday masses were detained last weekend and told there would be no more public protests ahead of or during the pope’s visit. The opposition group Ladies in White was able to hold its weekly peaceful protest Sunday.
“Obviously it’s of concern when there is oppression anywhere of individuals’ civil rights,” he said. But De Leon said he was not surprised about the stepped-up tensions.
“I think that’s what dissidents should be doing, highlighting the problems and their cause, and the best time to do that is when the international spotlight is on the island. And I believe the pope’s visit is bringing some kind of hope and expectation,” he said.
For Martinez, the visit is less about religion and history than it is about rediscovering her own story.
Her family left when she was 6, while her father was working in Mexico. And her memories from the island are mere snapshots: growing a lima bean shoot in elementary school, her grandmother sneaking a cigarette on the patio of her parents’ home, the difficulty some days of finding eggs at the store.
For years she followed her physicist father’s creed of always looking forward, never back. But she has long felt something was missing and yearns for a glimpse of her childhood home.
She will be traveling with friends from the nonprofit Roots of Hope, which seeks to connect Cuban youth in the U.S. with those on the island.
“I have wanted to go for a while,” she said. “I think I was waiting for the right time and the right group of people.”
Follow Laura Wides-Munoz on Twitter:
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)