Pope’s Cuban Mission Leads Some Exiles in Miami to Soften Stance

The Roman Catholic Church’s campaign for change in Cuba may not have led President Raul Castro’s government to weaken the power of the communist party, though it has convinced some Cuban Americans to call for an end to the U.S. embargo they once tenaciously backed.

Carlos Saladrigas, who was smuggled out of Cuba at the age of 12 before making his fortune as chairman of Miami-based Vincam Group Inc., will be in Havana’s Revolution Square today to listen to Pope Benedict XVI deliver a message of gradual change.

The visit comes 14 years after Saladrigas led a group of Cuban Americans that blocked Bishop Thomas G. Wenski of Orlando’s plans to take a cruise ship of Catholics from Florida for Pope John Paul II’s visit to Cuba. Later, sensing the impact the 1998 papal visit had on Cubans he softened his stance. Today, he is one of about 800 pilgrims accompanying Wenski, now Archbishop of Miami, to hear Benedict celebrate Mass.

“It wasn’t an overnight epiphany but it got me thinking,” Saladrigas said in an interview outside Havana’s cathedral yesterday. “It was the realization that a policy that focuses exclusively on damaging the regime, even when it costs us collateral damage to the people, not only is it unethical, it’s counter-productive.”

U.S. sanctions imposed in 1962 make it illegal for Americans to buy Cuba’s famed cigars and impede U.S. companies such as Coca Cola Co. from gaining a foothold on the island of 11.2 million people.

During his 1998 visit, John Paul II called on the world to open up to Cuba and Cuba to open up to the world, a sentiment echoed by Benedict during his current tour of the island.

Peter Pan

Saladrigas, 63, was smuggled out of Cuba in 1961, one of 14,000 children taken out of the island in the early 1960’s as part of the U.S. government’s Peter Pan project to help resettle opponents of the communist regime. His parents followed him a year later.

“It marked me in a very significant way,” Saladrigas said. “It is ironic that the Pedro Pan generation -- the generation that most deeply suffered from the division of the country -- is probably set to be the bridge generation that brings things back.”

The U.S. banned exports to Cuba in 1960 and imposed a full trade embargo in 1962 after Fidel Castro seized American properties and sided with the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War.

“I was very much in favor of a policy cocktail of sanctions and isolation,” Saladrigas said. “That has been the formula for many years and used to be the required creed in Miami.”

Mixed Results

The church’s attempt to bridge the political divide in Cuba and win greater economic, political and spiritual freedom on the island has met with mixed results. The Cuban church came under criticism after it stood by as Castro’s government rounded up more than 70 dissidents last week and helped evict protesters seeking refuge in a church.

Benedict has refused to meet with the dissidents though he has sympathized with the plight of the island’s inmates in comments since arriving in Cuba March 26.

Saladrigas, who headed the employment outsourcing company Vincam until it was bought by Automatic Data Processing Inc. for $280 million 13 years ago, said that he understands the anger dissidents and hard-line opponents of the Cuban regime feel. Still, he said they’re not grasping the important role the church is playing helping open up Cuban society.

“The church is finding new space for dialogue, for reflection and for Cubans to come together to solve their own problems,” Saladrigas said. “While the church is not a political agent, it is becoming an interlocutory.”

Economic Opening

Since Raul Castro took over from his brother in 2006 and began accelerating the pace of economic liberalization, the church has been able to publish magazines that are critical of the government. It also runs business courses, training some of the 500,000 state employees being laid off as part of the economic overhaul that has also allowed Cubans to buy and sell property for the first time since the 1959 revolution.

Before traveling to what pollsters call Latin America’s least devout nation, the pope criticized Marxism as outdated and urged Cubans to seek out new models.

That call for a change in ideology was rebuffed yesterday after vice president of the Council of Ministers Marino Murillo ruled out political reform while leaving the door open for further economic adjustments.

“Cuba is in the process of carrying out the Cuban economic model that will make our socialism sustainable,” Murillo told reporters in Havana yesterday.

Cubans have a “long road” to travel and the church wants to walk it with them, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said yesterday.

U.S. Sanctions

While the trade restrictions that were tightened by Congress in 1996 have crippled Cuba’s economy, Saladrigas said they’ve also prevented the island’s exiled community from engaging with their homeland.

“I hear from many Cuban-American businessmen that the theme emerging is that the embargo is turning out to be an embargo on us,” said Saladrigas, who is co-chairman of the Cuba Study Group, a Washington-based group that seeks to change U.S. policy toward Cuba and encourage the adoption of a market-based economy on the island. Ending the embargo is not about making money, it is “about using our talent to help Cuba.”

The same message was transmitted by Wenski, who yesterday in Havana urged Cubans to seek a “soft landing” away from the “spent ideology” of Marxism.

If that happens, Saladrigas said he is ready to invest in his former homeland.

“The question is when, at what time and under what circumstances,” he said. “Those questions are not yet ready to be answered.”

For now though he has his sights on a more immediate objective: receiving a papal blessing today like the thousands of other Cubans expected to pour into Revolution Square.

“It’s a little bit of my own personal redemption,” he said.

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