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Pope Lures Exiles Back to Cuba, Where a Lifetime Ago Is Yesterday

Pope Lures Exiles Back to Cuba, Where a Lifetime Ago Is Yesterday

HAVANA — Gloria Arazoza, her step crimped just a touch by age, walked
into what was once Cuba’s most formidable and ornate yacht club on
Saturday afternoon and headed straight for the beach. Suddenly, a
lifetime ago felt like yesterday.

“This,” she declared, pointing at the spot, “is where I met him.”

It was 1952. She wore a mod red bathing suit and, recently home from the
United States, boasted a newly shaped nose (well ahead of her time). The
young man in swim trunks sported finely sculpted rower’s arms. By way of
introduction, her cousin walked up to the man on the beach and said,
“This is Gloria, my cousin. She has a new nose.”

The young man, Carlito, chuckled. That afternoon, he announced to Mrs.
Arazoza — “I am going to marry you.”

“I laughed,” said Mrs. Arazoza, 78. “But I always laugh.”

For Ms. Arazoza, the great-granddaughter of one of Cuba’s most revered
military heroes, her visit to the then-named Havana Biltmore Yacht and
County Club was no casual stroll down memory lane. It was a
long-resisted journey — spiritual, emotional, physical — decades in the
making, with Pope Francis’s visit here offering the final, irresistible

More than 55 years ago, a year after the Cuban revolution, Ms. Arazoza
boarded a plane out of Havana, eight months pregnant and unaware of just
how necessary her memory reel of this island would prove to be.

She never returned. Until last weekend.

She was accompanied by a few dozen other Cuban exiles, some of them part
of Miami’s Cuban elite, who were visiting Cuba for the first time since
their rushed exit from the island in the early 1960s, when they left
behind so much more than relatives, houses, schools, clubs and jobs.

Now they have returned as pilgrims with the Archdiocese of Miami to see
Pope Francis celebrate Mass here. In so doing, this group of
“historicos” — the first wave to settle in Miami after the revolution —
joins a small but steady stream of old-guard Cuban-Americans who, while
still somewhat reluctant, say they have moved beyond once overpowering
feelings of anger toward for cloaking Cuba in Communist

In the politics of the exile community, it is as momentous a shift as
the diplomatic thaw between the United States and Cuba.

Beyond the draw of the pope, who traveled from Havana to the cities of
Holguín and Santiago de Cuba on Monday, many of the Cuban-Americans
traveling here said the time had come: they are old now, uncertain of
how many tomorrows God will offer them.

Just as important, they have come for their children and grandchildren,
who urged them to visit and who now joined them on the journey,
delighted to see their tableaux of Cuba memories play out across the island.

Politics was not entirely on their minds. But a few of them said
Obama’s move to draw the two countries closer together, once
fiercely opposed by many Cuban-Americans, could prove more fruitful
today than the unsuccessful isolationist policy of the past 50 years. At
least, some of them say, it is worth a shot.

“It’s time to change,” said José Cuervo, 82, the retired general counsel
for the Dow Chemical Company’s Latin America and European division, who
left Cuba in 1960. “But we will have to wait to see. This will happen
over a long period of time.”

Mr. Cuervo echoed others in saying the bitterness is mostly behind him.
“I am past that. We were very fortunate. We were given a great
opportunity in the United States to reconstruct our lives.”

On Saturday, Mr. Cuervo wandered the corridors of the yacht club, which
now mostly serves Cuba’s international crowd. He scoured the faded
black-and-white photographs on corridor walls for images of him as a
rower for the Biltmore. Every day after work, Mr. Cuervo, then a young
single man, came to the club to shower and hang out with friends on the
dock and beach.

“That guy rowed with me,” he said, smiling, pointing to a young blond
man. “But I can’t remember his name.”

The rooms in the club were recognizable, their grandeur mostly
preserved, unlike many of Cuba’s older, statelier buildings, which have
badly deteriorated. His wife, Cristina Deschapelles Cuervo, 77, looked
for a light switch in one hallway to get a better look.

Beyond the beach, though, much is different. Gone is the manicured golf
course and the bowling alley, though the old pool was still there. The
club is in Miramar, where Mr. Cuervo lived, a beautiful Havana
neighborhood now home to many of Cuba’s powerful leaders and organizations.

In the city around him, the buildings and the streets were vaguely
familiar, as if someone had placed an overlay of neglect and time across
his memory. Many of their names now carry a revolutionary flavor, a sore
point for some on the pilgrimage. They sometimes pointedly shouted out
the pre-revolutionary names of things to the guides on the .

Yet, Mr. Cuervo said, the spirit of the Cuban people surprised him,
their “industriousness,” their sincerity.

“It feels like seeing an old relative,” Mr. Cuervo said, of the island.
There is an innate connection, an awareness of unbreakable ties, “but it
doesn’t mean I want to move in with them.”

Earlier that afternoon, his wife and brother-in-law, Carlos
Deschapelles, ventured back in time to their grandmother’s old house in
Vedado. The owner allowed them inside, a moment that was at once
rewarding, draining and discombobulating. Emotions ricocheted.

“It was like a relic,” said Mrs. Cuervo. The one-story house with wooden
cathedral ceilings now had a second floor tucked inside. Two families
lived there. But a few surprise touches remained, tweaking reminiscences
— the green stained-glass window near where the girls sewed with their
grandmother. The black-and-white flooring, the entree to the house’s
traditional family feasts. And the brass handle on the front door, their
portal back in time.

“I felt very relieved to be able to go into the house,” she said. “Very
relieved it existed.”

Her brother, Carlos, said his photographic memory did not betray him
here. “This is it,” he said, when he popped from the car and spied the
little patio and porch. “Behind that wall there was a bathroom,” he
said. The owner, he said, replied, “It’s still there.”

The owner was so astonished by their remembrances that she asked them to
return and tell her more about the house. Smiling, they told her they
would try to return Wednesday.

On Friday night, Mr. Deschapelles, a former trader at a sugar trading
company, celebrated his 80th birthday at a — a private
— called Atelier, surrounded by family and friends. “It was a
gift from God; I didn’t plan this,” he said. The trip was a last-minute

He left Cuba when he was 24 and still has vivid memories of the
buildings along the Malecon, next to which he rowed, and of winning
several national championships.

His first impression, though, saddened him. With so many sagging
buildings, it was all mind-bogglingly different.

“This is not what I was expecting,” he said. “This is not my Cuba.” It
felt “alien,” he said.

But, open to making new memories, he said he found them in the people of
Cuba. A talker by nature, he chatted with cabdrivers and people standing
on the street.

He was always pleasantly surprised by the welcome he received as someone
who had historically been presented as the enemy.

“I had a vacuum,” he said, pointing to his chest, “and that is filled
now with something other than geography. It is filled with the
friendliness of my Cuban brothers.”

He added, “I love Cubans; that friendliness is what we are born with and
you can’t take that away from us.”

On the street, waiting for the popemobile to zoom by a large, tree-lined
avenue in Havana, Mr. Deschapelles sat next to a little girl and handed
her a rosary. “You know why we’re here,” he said in Spanish, “to see the
pope. He’s the head of the Catholic Church.” The girl grinned.

Many exiles said that while they heard frustration among Cubans, they
heard hope, too, that a bend in the road lay ahead. The pace of change
was, at long last, quickening.

On her own intimate journey home, Mrs. Arazoza made a point to visit the
family’s former young housekeeper, hugging her into forever. “You aren’t
Gloria,” the housekeeper laughed. “You aren’t that tall skinny girl, I

But her trip here was also part history lesson for her children and
grandchild. For years, they heard stories about her great-grandfather, a
19th century general who fought in Cuba’s War of Independence.

Standing in front of one of many monuments to him in Cuba, the three
generations gaped at the homage. This time, Mrs. Arazoza recounted the
stories a stone’s throw from the windswept Malecón before a series of
pictorial friezes about her great-grandfather’s life. The general sat on
a horse high above them gazing at the sea.

“I’m very glad I came because I don’t think I will have another chance
to show this to my children and grandchildren,” she said. “I believe in
forgiveness; it is not good to have all that inside and not let go. We
hope they will have and that this diaspora, that we can live as
one together.”

Source: Pope Lures Exiles Back to Cuba, Where a Lifetime Ago Is
Yesterday – The New York Times –

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