MIAMI (AP) – For 50 years, Felice Gorordo’s grandmother and great uncle did not speak. She fled Cuba after the 1959 communist revolution and never looked back. Her brother fought with the revolutionaries and remained on the island.
Today, they not only communicate but have reunited during trips to Miami.
“It’s as if, I don’t want to say the last 50 years never happened, because obviously there’s still pain there,” said Gorordo, co-founder of Roots of Hope, a group that connects young Cubans in the U.S. and on the island. “But we’ve been able to move past that pain and find what still brings us together.”
There have been no truth and justice commissions. No transition to democracy after more than five decades of communist rule. And the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba remains firmly in place. Yet in small but important ways, a reconciliation has already started to occur among Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits.
That was firmly on display when Cuba’s most well-known dissident, blogger Yoani Sanchez, visited Miami this week. She called on Cubans on the island and in the diaspora to be one community again.
“I like the metaphor of the mirror,” she said at an event Wednesday. “It’s as if the Cuba inside the island and outside were approaching and watching one another. We look at each other and think it is someone else, but when we get close we see it is our own reflection on the other side. We are the same.”
Cuban-Americans from generations new and old responded with an enthusiastic applause.
In the not too distant past, talk about reconciliation and dialogue were taboo subjects in the Cuban-American community. If anyone traveled to Cuba to visit family on the island, they did so quietly, and against the wishes of many friends and family. Those feelings have not entirely disappeared, but they have been tempered.
Ten years ago, the Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya, who was killed in a car accident last year, visited Miami and received a very different response.
Paya was the lead organizer of the Varela Project, a signature-gathering drive asking authorities for a referendum on guaranteeing rights such as freedom of speech and assembly in Cuba. The initiative was seen as the biggest nonviolent campaign to change the system Fidel Castro had established.
Instead of welcome and applause, Paya was largely criticized and attacked by the Cuban-American media in Miami. Critics chastised his ideas because they created a path for change within the existing political structure. His call for reconciliation and unity among Cubans was denounced as well.
Some exiles in Miami criticized Sanchez when, during her trip to Brazil, she ironically suggested that the U.S. should let five Cuban men convicted in 2001 of attempting to infiltrate military installations in South Florida free because of all the money Cuba could save and spend on more important matters than campaigning for their release. She’s also been criticized for her stance against the U.S. embargo, which many Cuban-Americans still support.
Yet when she visited Washington, Sanchez received a warm welcome from Cuban-American politicians like Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who strongly supports the embargo. There were less than a dozen demonstrators outside her event at Miami’s Freedom Tower on Monday, and even they hesitated to call themselves protesters.
“She has accomplished what very few other Cubans have been able to accomplish,” said Carlos Saladrigas, co-chairman of the Cuba Study Group, a nonprofit organization that advocates for political and economic change on the island. “She really began to build a huge bridge between Miami and Havana.”
Part of the reason Sanchez’s message resonated in Miami, unlike Paya’s, has to do with the ways the exile community has changed _ in particular, the increased amount of interaction between Cubans on the island and abroad. Many newer arrivals make frequent trips back to visit family. Last year, more than 300 Cuban-Americans made a pilgrimage to Cuba during Pope Benedict XVI’s historic visit.
“Visits like Yoani’s here are significant,” said Roman Catholic Archbishop Thomas Wenski, who led the Cuban-American pilgrimage. “The visit of these Cubans who went back to Cuba for the pope’s visit was also significant. These are small steps, and hopefully bigger steps will follow.”
Wenski noted that bishops and the Catholic church in Cuba have been talking and making steps toward reconciliation for many years.
Saladrigas was among those Cuban-Americans who traveled to Cuba during the pope’s visit last year. He once was adamantly against any engagement with Cuba and even led a successful campaign to stop a cruise ship from traveling from Miami to Havana during Pope John Paul II’s trip in 1998.
But as he watched television footage of the pope’s visit, he realized he made a mistake. The image of Cubans on the island and from Miami praying together would have been extraordinarily powerful, he said.
Saladrigas recalled how on one trip to Cuba with his family they went to see the woman who was in charge of the Committee in Defense of the Revolution on the block where his wife once lived. The committees were established after Castro took power to monitor resident activities, and have created a sense of mistrust among many Cubans.
“It was heart wrenching to see the two of them embrace, kiss and just reconcile in a powerful, personal, emotional way,” Saladrigas said.
This process has certainly come easier for younger Cuban-Americans, many of whom were born in the U.S. For others, particularly older Cuban-Americans, reconciliation can only come with political change that has not occurred.
“Ultimately for people to be reconciled, you do need the rule of law and civil liberties,” said Marifeli Perez-Stable, interim director of the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University, and the author of a report on Cuban reconciliation.
Maria Werlau, executive director of the Cuba Archive Project, which documents cases of human rights abuses on the island, said she has attempted to establish a truth and reconciliation commission. But a group that has organized such commissions to expose abuses in other countries told her that is not yet possible.
“They said Cuba is not in a transition,” she said. “We cannot work on a country to achieve reconciliation until they are in that transition phase.”
On the island, the official discourse is still one that pits Cubans on the island and those who have left as enemies. Since the early years of the revolution, those who fled or expressed dissent were known as “worms.”
But it isn’t an attitude of fear and confrontation that Cubans who travel back have found, and less and less the Cuban artists, musicians and families that visit Miami. Gorordo said his family in Cuba welcomed him without prejudice. When it came to politics, they simply didn’t discuss it, and didn’t need to, either.
“Reconciliation happens person to person, one family at a time,” Gorordo said. “No government can stop that.”
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