It seems like yesterday that I was standing in front of the late great Pope John Paul II in Havana's Revolution Square for his historic Papal mass in 1998 with the front row seats filled with Fidel Castro, his senior staff and communist party leaders.
The historic event was interrupted by news broadcasts of President Clinton "wagging" his finger at the world, denying a relationship with Monica Lewinsky. The next morning, before the Papal Mass in Havana, there was a mass exodus of the top anchors covering the Pope's Cuba trip — Dan Rather and Peter Jennings among them — to get back to Washington D.C. to cover the Clinton revelation. The late Peter Jennings later admitted that it had been a mistake to leave Havana at that time.
Pope John Paul II's visit to Cuba, it turns out, had a positive impact on that island nation. As a result of the 1998 visit, President Fidel Castro allowed Cubans to once again celebrate Christmas openly; as a matter of fact he made Christmas a national holiday.
Now, fast forward 14 years later. Pope Benedict XVI made history himself by announcing last December that he would be returning to Cuba in March.
The moment I heard this news I started planning a journey that would take me and 18 of my fellow Knights of Columbus and friends back to Cuba. Putting this trip together was not easy due to the trials and tribulations one has to deal with when going to Cuba from the U.S., including dealing with OFAC rules and regulations still present from our embargo laws.
We arrived in Havana on Sunday, March 25 and immediately could sense the excitement around us. I noticed as we approached our hotel by the malecon (Havana's famous seven-mile seawall) that there was an abundance of scaffolding and cranes, evidence of the restoration of buildings that had been seriously deteriorating over the years.
Once we arrived at the hotel, another observation was the sheer number of Cuban-Americans from Miami who had made the journey to Havana for this event. I also saw, on the lobby board, the day schedules for a number of U.S. groups. More and more Americans are finding their way to Cuba under the auspices of "bird watchers" or "Architecture Studies of Havana" simply to visit the island forbidden to Americans because of the outdated embargo established in 1961 by President Kennedy to punish the Soviets and only supposedly to last a couple of years... .
This was a very different Cuba from the Cuba of the 1998 trip. Fidel Castro, after battling a life-threatening illness, has stepped aside and now his brother Raul is the president. Cubans are permitted to purchase cell phones and start their own small businesses such as hair salons, home restaurants, engine repair shops and so forth. The Catholic Church has has actively assisted in the release of political prisoners, and Cubans can now use the hotels and restaurants once reserved only for tourists. These are social and economic reform changes that appear minor to the average American, but are major for Cuba.
And yet, there is still a long way to go — and changes are, in part, hampered by the existing and outdated 50-year-old embargo and travel restrictions for Americans.
On March 28, we left the hotel at 7 a.m. for the 9 a.m. papal Mass at Revolution Square, which was only about two miles from our hotel. As we approached the square, the crowd walking to get standing-room-only spots was amazing. The square filled with hundreds of thousands of participants. Chants like "Se oye, se siente, el papa esta presente" became louder as the Pope drove by in the popemobile, and large banners saying "Caridad nos une" were draped next to a large mural of Che Guevara.
As I looked around me I saw a crowd full of joy and hope, for this day was a day to be full of hope and joy. The Pope was eloquent in his homily, opening with a quote from Ven. Father Félix Valera: "No hay patria sin virtud.” His message was twofold: to Cuba, calling on the government to change and allow more freedoms; to the United States, to end the harsh embargo and pursue a road of engagement
As always, whenever I am fortunate enough to go back, deep feelings emerge from when I was a young boy and of the chaos that led us to flee as political exiles, along with tens of thousands of other Cubans, in the early 1960s.
But that was then and now is now. The time for positive changes, forgiveness and engagement is now. The winds of change and hope are blowing again in Cuba, thanks to this papal trip.
Let's hope that Washington will also feel the breeze and build bridges between the American people and the people of Cuba and, for once and for all, tear down the embargo walls that have proven to be non-productive and hurtful to the innocent.