Pope Francis was greeted by throngs of cheers upon his arrival to the island nation of Cuba, a country where I was born and I called home for the first six years of my life. And as the Pope traveled through my birth town ( Holguin ), celebrated Mass and met with Cuban leaders including Castro, where, according to the Vatican, they had a mutually beneficial conversation. I could not help but have mixed emotions about the pontiff’s visit.
As an immigrant from Cuba, I had witnessed the harsh living environment the Castro regime had created for millions of Cuban citizens. And as an ex-patriot, with friends still living in Cuba, I know those conditions have only recently begun to change – not quickly enough for many whose lives have been stymied by the communist dictator’s policies.
During his homily in Holguin he thanked those who had provided mission homes for people to be able to practice their faith and community life. He talked about our way of seeing things, about transforming our hearts to serve others.
As a person of faith, the Pope brought new hope that those who have been persecuted and negatively affected by Castro will hopefully see the light of freedom soon, especially in the practice of their chosen religion.
But it also shed light on the fact that 90 miles south of American shores an entire nation of people have been lost in time living without basic human freedoms – freedoms we often take for granted.
People have asked me this week whether his visit is validating the atrocities of the past and the lack of rights that are common there today. I answered them that as a world figure only Pope Francis can start the dialog that is needed. That progress does occur when we seize the opportunity to create change. The old cliché is fitting; today will always be the beginning of any journey.
Only by dialogue and conversation can things change in Cuba. If we want to carry our bitterness towards the injustices into infinity, nothing can be accomplished. But we have to forgive and try to bring about change.
I don’t condone what has happened and continues to happen under Castro’s regime, but I am excited about the possibilities that lie ahead. I am conflicted but happy for those whose life was made just a little bit better by his visit. I was proud to see him in my hometown but emotional that my former neighbors have suffered for so long.
I remain hopeful the wave of U.S. influence combined with visits by dignitaries of compassion, faith and peace, like Pope Francis, bring down the communist wall that has imprisoned members of my family and the millions of other Cubans for decades. But as Yogi Berra once said, “the future is hard to predict because it involves the future.”
With U.S. business interest being given the green light to open offices in Cuba next year and commercial travel becoming readily available in the very near future change cannot occur fast enough for Cuban-Americans and for the good people of Cuba.
Mario A. Guerra is the former mayor of Downey, president of Independent Cities Association, current treasurer of the California Republican Party and an ordained deacon in the Catholic Church.