Giancarlo Sopo: Havana trip is my form of patriotism

Giancarlo Sopo, son of Cuban exiles, says it's important to help entrepreneurs

By Andrea Torres - Digital Reporter/Producer


MIAMI - Dr. Rogelio Sopo Barreto was a poet, a psychiatrist and a Cuban Navy officer. He died at an 18th century fortress complex in Havana. It is likely that Ernesto "Che" Guevara had him executed March 1959, according to the Cuba Archive.
His son Edgar Sopo was jailed, survived the ordeal and sought refuge in Miami, where he became a prominent member of the ill fated  1961 Bay of Pigs invasion brigade   and worked with the Cuban American National Foundation.
He participated in U.S. covert operations against Fidel Castro and was politically active in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood. The 1967 manhunt for Guevara in Bolivia was a victory. And Sopo seemed hopeful in 1974 when he talked to a reporter about the future of U.S.-Cuba relations.
"We cannot renounce the idea of a free and democratic Cuba," he said during an interview for a New York Times story. "But the re-establishment of relations is now inevitable and we have to view it from a human point of view: For the first time there will be a possibility for many of us to see our families over there."
The 60-year-old died in exile Nov. 7, 1999. His U.S.-born 16-year-old son, Giancarlo Sopo, survived him. He would go on to campaign himself in the streets of Little Havana. But not for a Republican, like his dad had done. He campaigned for Barack Obama, the Democrat who would move forward with the re-establishment of U.S.-Cuba relations.
When Obama made the Dec. 17th announcement, Sopo was on a 33th floor office in Manhattan working for Benenson Strategy Group, a strategic research consultancy. He e-mailed his cousin in Havana, who was excited too. The former Harvard teaching fellow decided he was going to Cuba.
"My mom took me to Cuba when I was 10, but I don't remember anything," Sopo, 32, said, adding that his dad authorized the trip. "It was time. I felt like I was a sommelier who had never set foot inside a vineyard."
To get a ticket, Sopo stepped into the Little Havana office of Marazul. The New Jersey-based company offers air charter service between Miami and a few Cuban cities.  In the 80s and 90s, Marazul offices were bombed. The suspects: Cuban exiles who are supportive of the embargo and had been critical of the travel agency.
"I was there on a Thursday and by Saturday morning I was on a flight," Sopo said. "They asked me for my U.S. passport and my family's address in Havana ... I had a window seat."
Sopo said his ticket cost about $400. He got a bird's eye view of Miami Beach, Key Biscayne, the Florida Keys and the Florida Straits. When he started to see Cuban land, he said he got really excited. His mom, Madelaine Sopo, notified her relatives and a few of them were at the airport to meet him.
"I felt really comfortable around them immediately ... they came in a Russian car, a 1980s Lada," he said. "At the door of the house, was my mom's aunt. She is 89 years old and it was amazing just to hug her and see her. I felt like I had borrowed additional time with my grandparents."
Sopo was there for 10 days. He stayed in a five-bedroom house in the Havana suburb of Santos Suarez, which has been in the family since the 1920s, Sopo said. Although there were parts of the home that appeared to be deteriorating, he grew attached to it quickly. It was a remarkable structure that could be restored to its former glory, he thought.
"It's gorgeous. It's a really pretty house," he said. "It's got life to it."
Sopo said that as he explored Havana, he visited a lot of privately owned restaurants. He recommends the Atelier, a restaurant in the mansion of a former Cuban senator. It's on Calle 5, between Paseo y Calle 2, in Havana's Vedado neighborhood. Siblings Niuris Hector and Herdys Higuera focus on a fusion of gourmet and French cuisine.
"For my generation of Cuban-Americans, patriotism means going to Cuba and directly engaging the Cuban people and supporting their aspirations to build a better country and a brighter future for its people," Sopo said. "There's only so much you can do from Miami."
Sopo said he met many entrepreneurs, who were eager to grow. He said he enjoyed exploring Old Havana and the neighborhoods of Miramar and Vedado.
"Miramar is a beautiful high-end neighborhood and Vedado is like Coconut Grove in that it's centrally located and bohemian," he said.
When it came time to leave the island, his great aunt asked him to be sure to return before she dies. He returned with his mom soon after. This time the family greeted them with a feast that included rum, picadillo and mariquita plantain chips.
"They went all out," he said. "It was kind of emotional."
Sopo noticed he began to refer to the home in Havana, as "my house. " Although he explained his home is in Miami, the family home where his cousins and great aunt live in Havana, feels like a second home.
NOTE: The Cuba Archive reports a conflict of evidence on the cause of death of Dr. Rogelio Sopo Barreto. Some accounts indicate he was executed and others that he committed suicide. A Cuba Archive 2009 list of Ernesto Guevara's orders of execution includes his name. A member of the Circulo Naval claims he saw his body minutes after he allegedly committed suicide in prison.



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