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Return to Cuba: A ‘Homecoming’

February 21, 1998

MIAMI (AP) _ When I returned to Miami, I went to see my grandmother, not knowing how she would receive me.

The last time I’d talked with her, Beba was crying into the phone, begging me not to go to Cuba. The woman who once confronted Che Guevara, demanding that the revolutionary release her family’s friends from prison, was reduced to tears.

She feared for my safety. Besides, ``La Causa″ _ a free Cuba _ was much more important than the opportunity for a young journalist to cover the first visit by a pope to the island nation.

``This will kill me,″ she’d said then, before I interrupted to say I had no time and had to leave for the airport.

``I will pray for you,″ Beba said, and hung up.

Now, back safely, I was forgiven with a tight hug and a beaming smile, and Beba became the reporter: she followed me from room to room, peppering me with questions about what I saw, heard, felt during my week-long stay in the country she had been forced to leave more than three decades ago.

My trip had stirred all kinds of contradictory emotions.

For me: guilt and excitement as I left, sadness as I walked Cuba’s shabby streets, and since I’ve been back, a newfound love for an island I can now say I know.

For Beba, and other exiled relatives: a longing for a connection with old places and old times, a still burning anger, but with that, a deep fear.

``You don’t know how many `promesas’ I made for you,″ she told me. ``Promesas″ are deals that Cuban Catholics make with saints to intercede with God on their behalf.

``I’ll be paying them back for the rest of my life.″

Beba was the last of my family to leave Cuba. She stayed behind for more than five years because my grandfather Eduardo, Beba’s husband, was in jail for crimes against the revolution _ in other words, he opposed Fidel Castro.

The revolution turned against them. Friends were gunned down. Some simply disappeared. It divided my family and cost them everything.

My generation is so different. A twentysomething born in the United States, I was raised watching ``Sesame Street,″ ``I Love Lucy″ and Bugs Bunny cartoons, eating ``guayaba″ (guava paste) and cheese, speaking Spanish to my grandparents, English to my Cuban-born dad and Tennessee-born mother.

My grandparents and I haven’t always seen eye-to-eye, but at least I can grasp the Cuban exile experience and the emotions they feel. I only hope I will never know what it’s like to lose my country.

My family were privileged Cubans who were in politics, owned businesses, traveled. When they left Cuba, they were penniless. Settling in America, eight relatives shared a one-bedroom apartment. The women, who had servants in Cuba, now toiled in a shoe factory to help make ends meet.

As my plane took off for Jose Marti Airport in Havana, I could not know what awaited me. Still, when Cuba came into view, I recognized it. The skinny palm trees. The dark orange soil. The old cars on the roads. My hands shook as I remembered family stories and thought of my grandmother back in Miami.

My family was labeled traitorous. My grandmother’s brother, whom we all call Tata, had been ``comandante,″ holding the same rank as Castro.

But in January 1961, he became the first member of my family to leave, fleeing with 14 other military officers on two boats shortly after being summoned to meet Castro. They feared they were about to be jailed or killed as Castro purged any budding opposition.

Staying behind, my grandfather worked to undermine Castro, who until now had been a family friend. My cousin Lazaro, Tata’s son, earned a special place in family lore when, as a baby, he urinated on Castro as the soon-to-be Marxist held him.

It wasn’t long before my grandfather was in prison, and he was never the same after that, relatives said. There were stories of torture, near execution. He was released in 1965 on a humanitarian request from the Swiss ambassador to Cuba.

In Miami, he never talked very much about that time. And you didn’t ask. He died in 1991.

Beba survived losing her country, having her family divided, being strip-searched and humiliated every time she visited her husband in prison.

I had understood her telephone plea. To older-generation exiles _ staunch, bitter, outspokenly anti-communist _ you are either with them or against them, and I was walking a fine line. I had been for a while.

But I thought: It’s been so long.

My assignment in Cuba was to shadow Cuban exiles who were returning, many for the first time since they fled.

For two days I was numb. The first night in Havana I took a walk to the Malecon sea wall with my editor. He laughed as I told quirky family stories.

The little kid who would stand on an upturned bucket to make impromptu speeches against Castro’s tyranny, entertaining Tata and his friends, had come a long way. I still couldn’t believe I was in Cuba.

It finally hit me as I stood on a 15th floor balcony at the Havana Libre hotel as a huge orange sun went down on the city. It was a breathtaking sight.

But the marvel was short-lived: I wondered if my grandmother or uncle would live to see this again.

Until Castro is out of power, they won’t return, they’ve said. And as that thought worked through my mind, my eyes welled tears.

My dad, Eddie Sr., was 14 when he was separated from his parents _ his father sent to prison _ and he left Cuba, traveling through Mexico City with other relatives.

The next time he saw his parents, he was a young man dating the woman who would be my mother.

In 1962, Beba put her daughter Carmen and niece Martha on a plane to Miami.

And here I was, walking freely in the country my family fled. I often thought of how my life would have been different had Castro not taken power. When visiting the University of Havana, I told my driver that I would have gone to school there. What a bizarre thought.

The driver, Rafael, a heavyset 43-year-old with three children and a wife, studied in Moscow. Once an ardent communist and top economist in one of Cuba’s ministries, he is now disillusioned. He gave up his job to drive a taxi so he could earn U.S. dollars from tourists _ a must for survival in Cuba. We rattled through the streets of Havana in his 1958 Hillman, a fine car by Cuban standards.

To get around, most in Cuba hitchhike, or take ``camellos,″ tractor trailers converted into buses.

I purposely avoided getting the names of distant relatives who still live in Cuba, afraid it might interfere with my work, making it too personal. But once there, I realized there was no way this homecoming of sorts could not be.

On the other hand, I did plan to meet my friend Omar’s family.

After several attempts to leave Cuba legally, Omar embarked on an odyssey through Europe, using a fake passport until he reached the United States, where he requested political asylum.

Trained as a doctor, Omar works as a nurse now. He is alone in Miami.

His parents live in Alamar, a suburb of Havana. They invited me to dinner. Omar’s mother hugged me and told me how much I looked like her son. She misses him dearly.

Water spots cover their ceiling. As we ate an elaborate meal of yellow rice with shrimp, salad, beer and french fries, water leaked steadily from the roof onto the dinner table.

For my benefit, they played American pop music CDs sent by Omar. They told me anti-Castro jokes and showed me the meager rations they receive and the government-issue ration book.

They live like millionaires with all the food they need, two television sets, phone service, two refrigerators and two dogs. It’s all thanks to Omar, who sends them American dollars.

They gave me letters and photos for Omar. He reacted as though I’d given him a bag of gold.

It made me think: to some degree, he is living as my father did as a child.

I walked the streets of Havana, talking to anyone. Cubans in Cuba are no different from Cubans in Miami _ same friendliness, just as enterprising. How they keep their 1950s cars running without spare parts is mystifying.

Waltero supports his sister and grandmother by selling stolen cigars and pointing tourists to secret, non-government restaurants in return for commissions.

Irene, 29, works as a prostitute serving tourists to support her parents and 3-year-old son.

Others siphon gas from their government cars to sell on the black market. Everyone has an angle to make a few dollars. Capitalism is alive and well in communist Cuba.

You see what Cuba could be by the booming growth of Miami. You see what Cuba was in the majestic, now crumbling architecture in Havana. All these years I thought my grandparents were exaggerating.

I followed the returning exiles for six days. I watched as Elena Freyre, who left Cuba 37 years ago as a 14-year-old girl, found the graves of her grandmothers and rediscovered the waterfront apartment where she once lived.

She met Ileana Nieto Bonet, the woman who lives there now. They had a warm chat, discussed neighbors, remarked on how little the apartment had changed. They sat on the balcony, drinking juice and gazing at the sea. It was the view Mrs. Freyre remembered most vividly from her childhood.

Reconciliation between those who left and those who stayed _ it was a theme Pope John Paul II touched on repeatedly during his visit. But it was the meeting of the two women that made me dare to hope it would happen; that someday my grandmother, my uncle, my father, would be able to return.

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