January 21, 1998 in Nation/World

Exiles Return To Cuba To See Pope Pilgrims Hope Pontiff’s Visit Will Move Castro Toward Democracy

Associated Press

Hundreds of Cuban exiles returned to their homeland Tuesday to witness Pope John Paul II’s historic visit, hoping the pontiff will help move the communist country toward democracy.

“There hasn’t been a single place where he has put his feet that things have not been changed,” said Elly Chovel of Miami. “Why should Cuba be the exception to his entire life?”

Chovel was traveling with a group of religious pilgrims from New York, led by Cardinal John O’Connor.

“In Cuba, there used to only be: ‘Long live Fidel!’ Today there is also: ‘Long live the pope!”’ said Chovel.

The first U.S. pilgrimages, all church-sponsored, arrived Tuesday from Florida, New York and Puerto Rico.

About 70 Cuban exiles from Tampa, Fla., flew out of Miami on Tuesday. Many also came to see relatives and packed bags filled with clothes and medicine to give them.

Of the 400 going from New York, about 100 are Cuban-Americans. A Miami charter will carry about 200 people from Tampa, including 80 of Cuban origin. The Puerto Rico group of about 125 includes some 20 Cuban-Americans.

The group going from Miami encountered delays Tuesday because of heavy security and a lengthy examination of baggage by U.S. authorities before the flight was allowed to depart. About 15 U.S. Customs Service and Miami-Dade Police Department officers lined the ramp to the Boeing 727.

Upon arrival in Cuba, the group was whisked through customs quickly with only a cursory review by authorities and was mobbed by relatives waiting at the airport exit.

Carlos Celaya, 52, of Tampa, left Cuba in 1962 as a teenager. He was anxious Tuesday about returning for the first time.

“I have to prepare myself emotionally,” he said while waiting for takeoff in Miami. “I’m going to see things I haven’t seen before, and I’m going to be seeing things that I have not seen in many years.”

Many in the Cuban exile community oppose setting foot on Cuban soil while Fidel Castro remains in power. However, Cubans going on the trip see their opposition to Castro as no reason to miss a chance to see the pope in their homeland.

“I think this visitation by the pope is going to be something historic in Cuba, and I’d like to be part of it,” said Jorge Du Breuil, a former Cuban priest who now is an educator in Maryland.

© Copyright 1998 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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