Cuban-American leader alters pilgrimage stance

Papal visit prompts differing opinions among Cuban-Americans

MIAMI - Among the South Florida pilgrims to Cuba during Pope Benedict XVI's visit later this month will be some Cuban-Americans who opposed exiles visiting the island 14 years ago for another Pope's visit.

Hundreds of Catholic pilgrims from South Florida are expected to head to Cuba for the papal visit. The Pope will first head to Santiago on March 26, then move on to Havana on March 27 and 28.

Carlos Saladrigas used to be a hard-liner on Cuba, refusing to have contact with Cubans on the island and criticizing exiles who did so during the 1998 visit of Pope John Paul II.

"I have changed substantially. I used to believe that was the right policy, that isolating Cuba was the right answer. I've come to realize that it was absolutely a mistake," Saladrigas said.

But now, Saladrigas says half a century of trying to isolate Cuba through the embargo, diplomacy and travel restrictions has not brought down the Castros and has only hurt the Cuban people.

"Why do we think that after 53 years of failure, all of a sudden, there's going to be a silver bullet, and all of a sudden, it's going to work, when it hasn't, and it hasn't anywhere else?" Saladrigas said.

Saladrigas and a few dozen other exiles have formed the Cuba Study Group, which seeks openness with the Cuban people and support for a civil society.

The Castro regime, however, has cracked down on the Ladies in White and other dissidents on the island. It also jailed American aid worker Alan Gross, who was handing out cellphones and satellite dishes to Cuban Jews.

In Miami, the Ladies in White support Cuba's Ladies in White. One leader is Sylvia Ioriondo, who has called it "humiliating" that the Archdiocese agreed to conditions for Cuban visas set by the Castro regime.

"I come from a perspective of faith, and I think the Pope says it will be very, very important," said Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski.

"There are people on both sides of the Straits who want things to remain the same, and I think what the Pope is going to do, he's going to argue for change. He's going to argue for that hope that can be the catalyst of change," Saladrigas said.

Saladrigas sees the South Florida pilgrimage to Cuba as an important step toward reconciling Cubans in the U.S. and in Cuba, and he said it's more important to help Cuban people than to hurt the Castro government.

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