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Miamians Go to Cuba for Reunions

January 26, 1998

HAVANA (AP) _ Adelaida and Migdalia Alvarez hadn’t seen their sisters Rosala and Teresita Alvarez in more than 36 years. On Sunday, they had just a few heart-wrenching yet precious minutes together _ barely enough time to say hello.

For all the 180 people who came in from Miami on a one-day religious pilgrimage, and for all the friends and family members awaiting their arrival, it was an emotional and frustratingly short visit.

``I’m going crazy,″ Rosala said just before the reunion.

She stood among seven other relatives at the Havana airport entrance. Iraida Lugo, who held her 17-month-old son Michael, had never met her aunts Adelaida and Migdalia, who although only about 270 miles away had been unreachable for so long.

When the electric doors to the terminal slid open and the sisters emerged, the screaming, tears and hugging began.

``It’s been 36 years, 36 years!″ Adelaida said as tears streamed down her face, her mascara streaking. ``Do you know what it is not to see your sisters for that long?″

Even little Michael cried, tears welling up in his big blue eyes.

``He is so cute,″ Migdalia said as she pinched the toddler’s plump, rosy cheeks. Michael is too small to know what was going on, let alone to comprehend the politics and years of conflict between the United States and Cuba that had divided his family.

Here to attend Pope John Paul II’s Mass in Havana, the exiles were in and out of the city in less than nine hours. Their trip was to have been longer _ a four-day cruise _ but hard-line Cuban exiles in Miami objected. They oppose any travel to Cuba while communist leader Fidel Castro remains in power. The Archdiocese of Miami came up with the quick one-day flight instead.

Arthur Fernandez, 42, saw his cousin Maura Marrero for the first time since he left Cuba 35 years ago at age 7. ``Oh my God! After all these years. How good! How good!″ he said as he bear-hugged Marrero.

``I remember her as a baby,″ Fernandez said. ``To see her now as a beautiful woman is so exciting.″

The joy was short-lived. The pilgrims had to quickly board buses for Revolution Square for the pope’s sermon. The Miami pilgrims packed into five buses, led by a host of priests, bishops and cardinals.

Their relatives stood on the curb at Jose Marti Airport waving and crying.

The buses arrived at the Mass site just minutes before the popemobile began its ride around the plaza, which was called Civic Square before the exiles left Cuba.

Monuments to the Cuban revolution were all around them. A huge iron image of the late communist rebel leader Che Guevara loomed over them. But none of that imagery could spoil the magic for the exiles.

``I feel like now I can die,″ said Silvia Lambert, her voice cracking with emotion. ``I didn’t think I’d ever come back, but I came for Jesus!″

Lambert, who left Cuba in 1959, said the experience had rejuvenated her. She sobbed as she walked into Revolution Square and the Cuban national anthem played. When the popemobile drove by she looked as if she were ready to faint.

``Did you see how the people clapped, how they received his message of liberty and justice?″ Lambert asked. ``I haven’t jumped in years. Did you see me? And I have a bad hip. But I jumped and jumped.″

The pope had his own message for Cuban exiles Sunday. Speaking to Cuban bishops, he said Cubans abroad ``must cooperate, peacefully and in a constructive and respectful way, in the nation’s progress, avoiding useless confrontations and encouraging an atmosphere of positive dialogue and mutual understanding.″

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