Pope Benedict's Cuba Visit Finds Support Among Miami's Exile Community

Things have changed in Miami.

In 1998, when Pope John Paul II made his historic visit to Cuba, thousands of protesting exiles took to the streets in Miami, forcing the Roman Catholic Archdiocese to cancel plans to send a cruise ship with 800 pilgrims to Havana.

Carlos Saladrigas was one of the protest organizers then. Today, as a group of 320 Catholics head to Cuba for Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the island, he's traveling with them.

"When I actually saw what happened" during the previous papal visit, Saladrigas told The Huffington Post, "when I actually saw the innocence of the pope in Cuba, when I saw the Cuban people en masse out on the streets for the first time ever, not required to go by the government but there because of their faith, and when I heard the things that were said, that made a difference ... that was the genesis of my transformation."

This time, as the pope visits Cuba on a trip coinciding with the 400th anniversary of Cuba's patron saint -- the Virgin of Charity (la Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre), a statue of the Virgin Mary found floating in the sea off Cuba -- there are no protests in Miami. The public reactions have been relatively mild, largely confined to a few denunciations on Spanish-language radio and letters to the archdiocese.

"I get more than that if I show up late for a confirmation," Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski told Reuters.

At least for some, the emotions remain raw, as evidenced in a letter from Sylvia Iriondo, president of Mothers & Women Against Repression (M.A.R. por Cuba), that was published in the Miami Herald:

"Once again we are confronting the actions of a Catholic hierarchy in Miami -- represented by Archbishop Thomas Wenski -- intent on serving as a travel agent and catalyst of the false projection of normalcy in a country where nothing is normal, where nothing essential has changed and where power arbitrarily remains in the hands of an illegitimate communist regime that continues to violate each and every one of its citizens' human rights."

But the muted reaction in Miami is evidence that times and strategies have changed, said Jaime Suchlicki, director of the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies.

"One, because they're getting old, and two, because they don't think that demonstrations and burning tires on Eighth Street is going to do anything," Suchlicki said. "The tactics are different. The tactics are work with the dissidents in Cuba, talk quietly, get organized. Not necessarily demonstrating in the streets."

Cuba, however, has seen protests, which the government has been quick to quash. Police swooped in to detain dozens of members of the Ladies in White when they marched through Havana last week. And Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega angered Miami exiles when he recently asked police to remove 13 dissidents who had occupied a downtown Havana church to demand political reforms.

"In Miami it may be a little calmer, but in Cuba there's a lot of effervescence with the visit," Suchlicki said. The exiles' reaction, he added, is "not as vociferous, but there is a nasty mood underneath the surface here."

In a pilgrimage organized by the archdiocese, more than 800 pilgrims, including an untold number of Cuban exiles, are going to the island for the papal visit. Wenski is leading more than 300 of them on a flight from Miami early Monday. Close to 500 more are expected to travel on separate charter flights.

Plans include the celebration of mass officiated by the pope in Santiago, Cuba, later Monday afternoon. Wenski will officiate at a mass in Havana's historic cathedral on Tuesday. And Wednesday, thousands are expected to be on hand in Havana as the pope conducts mass in the Plaza de la Revolucion.

"The Pope is traveling to Cuba to honor Cuba's patron saint, Our Lady of Charity, during the jubilee year of the 400th anniversary of her presence on the island nation," Wenski wrote in a statement announcing the trip in January. "We travel in solidarity with the Church in Cuba -- and in response to their invitation to share with them this historic event."

"The Pope travels to Cuba as a pilgrim of charity," Wenski continued. "We go to Cuba in the same spirit."

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) has decried the pilgrimage. "It's a trip that gives legitimacy to the dictatorship," she said.

In a statement in Congress last week, Ros-Lehtinen called on the pope to use his visit to bring attention to conditions on the island. "It is my hope that Pope Benedict will meet with these brave dissidents and shine a light on the struggles of the Cuban people who are living under the rule of the oppressive Castro brothers," she said.

Among the pilgrims are some who oppose travel to Cuba under any other circumstances, such as Republican lawyer Luis Andre Gazitua, but who have high hopes for the trip's impact.

"I wouldn't go unless I was going under the banner with the pope, with the Vatican," Gazitua said. But he added, "If there could be a healing of the spirit of those people or an energizing just by being around us, us being around them, I think it's worth the trip. This trip really could lead to a spiritual, cultural and -- I don't want to say political -- but a political renaissance in Cuba."

In Miami, Saladrigas already sees one.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that after 53 years of a failed policy, you ought to try something different," he said. "People in Miami are beginning to realize that for way too long we have allowed our passion to drive our thinking and that it is time to allow our brain to drive our strategies."

Perhaps some of their prayers for Cuba have already been answered. On a flight from Rome to Mexico on Friday, Pope Benedict told reporters that communism no longer works and the church wants to help the island make a "peaceful transition."

"Today it is evident that Marxist ideology, in the way it was conceived, no longer corresponds to reality," the pope said. "We want to help in a spirit of dialogue to avoid traumas and to help move forward a society which is fraternal and just, which is what we desire for the whole world."