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Cuban Exile Returns Home

January 21, 1998

HAVANA (AP) _ Elena Freyre’s family fled this communist island 37 years ago, abandoning their apartment on Havana’s waterfront. On Wednesday, she visited her old home and met the woman living there now.

After the meeting, the Miami woman who returned to Cuba to see Pope John Paul II said she will leave with at least one new friend: Ileana Nieto Bonet, who now lives in the apartment.

The two had never met before, but there was an almost instantaneous connection between them _ both from the same generation, but one fled and one stayed.

``I believe the moment has arrived to stop looking back and move forward,″ Mrs. Freyre told Mrs. Nieto.

A cool sea breeze poured through the open windows of her old apartment as Mrs. Freyre rediscovered the world she left behind as a 12-year-old girl. The flat in Havana’s Vedado district has been well-preserved, she said, but smaller than she remembered.

``This is the best. This is heaven,″ Mrs. Freyre said excitedly as she gazed out the apartment’s windows, seeing the most vivid memory of her childhood _ a 15th-floor view of Havana’s striking waterfront. ``It’s like turning the clock back 37 years.″

The glowing pink bathroom that Mrs. Freyre once shared with her sister was virtually unchanged. The worn stainless steel faucet handles are the only sign of how much time has passed.

Mrs. Freyre smiled like a little girl as the two chatted about the neighbors, the decaying city and politics.

The women managed to do what their governments and decades of politicians have failed to do _ open a friendly dialogue.

And in a small way, the women bridged a huge canyon between exiles in Miami, derided as worms and traitors by Cuban communists, and the people who stayed behind to build a socialist society.

One of the biggest fears for Cubans who live on the island is that exiles will return to claim their homes and lost properties, displacing them.

``Here there is room for all of us,″ Mrs. Nieto, 50, said.

Mrs. Freyre said the encounter proved she did the right thing by coming to Cuba. She and her husband debated for weeks before she decided to come as a pilgrim. Her husband refused, saying returning would be too painful.

She bucked the exile mainstream in making this trip. And by allowing a reporter and camera crew to document her homecoming, she risks a bitter backlash in Miami from exiles who shun any connection with communist Cuba.

Mrs. Nieto’s two-bedroom apartment is not typical for most Cubans. The sociologist and researcher for Havana University said she still faces many hardships, but she has been very lucky.

Four wicker rockers and a small round table furnish her living room, along with a brand new Sony television and VCR on a small entertainment unit. An ornate wooden clock, a few sketches, plants and a colorful textile mural decorate the apartment.

A sticker on one of the bedroom doors reads: ``No Newts! Don’t let the Congress be newtered,″ in a reference to U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the Republican Party.

After the 30-minute visit, the two ladies hugged warmly and parted. ``We’re going to become pen pals,″ Mrs. Freyre said.

But the return to her apartment was just the beginning of her tour into the past. She went for a ride on El Malecon _ Havana’s waterfront _ and rode past the school her husband, Pedro, attended. She also stopped by the house her husband lived in, which is being connected with two other houses to form the new headquarters for Cuba’s food administration.

The most emotional moment for Mrs. Freyre was finding her grandmother’s grave in the sprawling Colon Cemetery. She navigated the maze of crypts, guided by cemetery workers who measured distances in paces following fading maps that predate the revolution.

After about an hour of searching she arrived at the grave of Elena Crespo.

She grabbed the foot of the simple stone crypt, made the sign of the cross. Tears streaked down her face as she asked for a moment alone to talk to the grandmother who died after her family fled the country.

After the visit, she took a deep breath.

``I’m OK, but this has been a day,″ she said. ``I’m very drained, very drained.″

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