The Pope in Cuba: Tears and prayers for the exiles on Eighth Street

Click to follow
The Independent Online
They could not bear to watch. While the Pope was addressing Cubans, Cuban exiles, including many who reached Florida on rickety rafts, turned away from the live TV images, knelt and prayed. Phil Davison reports.

In some areas of Miami, church bells rang out to the tune of the Cuban national anthem. Priests, including many expelled by Cuban leader Fidel Castro after his 1959 revolution, said Masses and held prayer services to wish the Pope well.

It was as though the Pope was visiting not only Cuba itself, but the proxy Cuba - including Miami's so-called Little Havana district - built up in Florida by hundreds of thousands who fled Mr Castro's Communist regime.

The Pope appeared to make that very point in his arrival speech in Havana when he greeted "the entire Cuban people... [including] those who for various reasons will not be able to take part in the different celebrations". Observers also saw that as a reference to the hundreds of political prisoners in Cuba, some jailed for such crimes as distributing leaflets saying "abajo [down with] Fidel!"

Among those unable to attend was Miami Bishop Augustin Roman, who was a 33-year-old Havana priest when Cuban soldiers took him from his rectory at gunpoint in 1961 and put him on a ship along with 132 other priests. Like many, if not most Cuban exiles, he has vowed never to return while Mr Castro remains in power.

Bishop Roman led prayers at the exiles' most famous shrine, to Cuba's patron saint, Our Lady of Charity, which is the site of round-the-clock prayers in Miami while the Pope is in Cuba. Although TV sets had been installed in the church, the bishop asked his congregation to turn from the images of the Pope's arrival and pray for the Pontiff and their homeland.

Many, recalling the repression of Catholics throughout most of the last four decades, wept as they prayed. "We shall see our homeland again from Heaven," the bishop said later. "I would like to see the island before I die but I know that when I am in Heaven, I will see it even better."

When the Pope said his first open-air Mass yesterday, in the central city of Santa Clara, Cuban-Americans stopped outside electronics stores or crowded into such Cuban hang-outs as the Versailles Cafe in Little Havana, to listen. Cynicism was as prevalent as religious devotion, particularly among those critical of the Pope for giving credence to Mr Castro's one- party regime. When the Pope referred to "the poor and the marginalised," one woman exile yelled "you mean all Cubans, your Holiness!"

As Florida TV stations carried live pictures of the Popemobile moving through Havana, exiles peered at TV sets, often shouting "look there it is, the factory," or "that's my house, right there". They were referring to properties confiscated by Mr Castro or taken over by squatters after the exiles fled the revolution.

On Little Havana's Calle Ocho (Eighth Street), the heart of the Cuban community in Miami, several people wept as the Popemobile turned onto Havana's malecon (seafront) and the waves of the Straits of Florida came into view, separating Cuba and Florida by only 90 miles.

Thousands of Cubans have put to sea from Havana in rafts, often nothing more than the inner tubes of lorry tyres, to row the treacherous seas towards Florida over the past few years. Hundreds, if not thousands never made it, their rafts found later broken up into driftwood.