Why I Didn't Return to My Homeland
(Published in The Record of Hackensack, NJ. on January 25, 1998)
A part of me wants to be there. No other wish or desire compares to the passion I feel for seeing my homeland again. But another part of me says Cuba is off limits, even when the pope is leading the way.
“Why aren't you in Havana?” my friends kept asking all this week. They expected me to be covering Pope John Paul II's historic trip to Cuba.
For this question, I have a short, standard response: "I still have principles." It usually ignites animated discussions.
Some of my non-Cuban friends can't understand my refusal to return to Cuba. But I can't comprehend how they don't understand. I fled from the same repressive regime that still denies the most basic human rights to the Cuban people.
I've been away from home for almost 36 years. But as long as dictator Fidel Castro is in power, I chose to continue living on memories.
No doubt, I've wanted to be there — especially when television reports on the pope refreshed my mind's faded images of my homeland, and when I hear other journalists commenting on what an exciting time it is to be in Cuba. The journalist part of me is envious of them.
But not even the pope can get the Cuban part of me to lend legitimacy to the Castro regime.
There are too many bad memories my mind can't erase, too many issues the pope shouldn't overlook: 39 years without free elections, a controlled media, hundreds of political prisoners and persecuted dissidents, closed borders, thousands drowned while trying to flee, kangaroo courts, one-party rule, outlawed labor unions, confiscated properties, firing squads, political indoctrination, government-sponsored drug trade and prostitution, shooting down unarmed civilian airplanes. The list goes on.
And yet in the United States, we're already talking about impeaching President Clinton because he may have told a young woman to lie.
The contrast is startling. Clinton was democratically elected, but if he broke the law, he could be out of a job. Castro has never been freely elected. He has been lying, making his own laws and presiding over genocide for 39 years, and he gets the pope's blessing.
Even before his airplane arrived in Havana, the pope wasted no time in condemning the U.S. economic embargo against the Communist island, telling reporters he was calling for “change.”
“May Cuba, with all its magnificent potential, open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba,” the pope said.
Castro seized the opportunity. In his welcoming remarks, Castro sought to identify his revolution's ideals with those of the church — as if they really had anything in common — and denounced the embargo as “genocide.”
But will the pope deal with Castro's genocide? Does he recognize that Castro, and not the embargo, is the main source of Cuba's problems?
“You know very well what I think about human rights — the same that I have spoken about in Poland and so many countries beginning in 1979,” the pope told reporters aboard his Havana-bound flight.
But although he has made some passing references to human rights, calling for a "climate of freedom" on a couple of occasions, it's not enough to set a new course for Cuba.
The self-described "messenger of truth and hope" has yet to tell the Cuban people the truths they long to hear. And if all he accomplishes is more freedom for the church, many Cubans will be disillusioned.
He is running out of time to prove he is still the anti-communist crusader who punched holes through the Iron Curtain. Today, at a mass in Castro's own Plaza of Revolution, before he flies back to Rome, he gets his last chance.
Imagine the contrast. At the place where the communist dictator has preached his atheist ideals for decades, the Catholic pope, flanked by towering contradictory murals of Christ and Che Guevara, may still shock Castro and his comrades by calling for freedom — not just for his church, but for all the Cuban people.
A part of me would give anything to be there -- but it's only a part of me.