Hours after the news broke in December that the United States and Cuba were reinstating diplomatic relations, I arrived at a Catholic Church in one of Miami’s largest parishes. The church’s priest is a charismatic man of Cuban descent well known throughout Miami. He was in meetings all morning and thus had only heard rumors that something had happened. “Padre,” I asked him in Spanish, “did you hear the news?”
In the flurry of conversation that happened in the hallway—a discussion that only grew bigger as the cleaning ladies, IT guys, seminarians, and front office staff joined in—the details surfaced. Months of secret meetings between government officials had culminated in the announcement on Wednesday, December 17, 2014. Both the United States and Cuba would ease restrictions on travel and financial transactions between the two countries; prisoners would go free; and President Barack Obama said he would push to end the 54-year-old trade embargo.
“And best of all,” said one of the staff, “is that the pope helped make it all happen.”
Indeed, reports detailed that Pope Francis had urged accord between the two nations, writing letters to President Raúl Castro and President Obama and holding a diplomatic meeting at the Vatican.
The parish priest, who asked not to be identified, was torn. He was happy that the pope had been influential, but he was also deeply concerned. “Uff,” he said with a tired drop of his arms. “Now who is going to put up with all the Cubans saying that it was the pope’s fault?”
“No es facil,” a woman who works in the church office later said about the pope’s intervention. “It’s not easy.” This phrase is commonplace in Miami, a catch-all phrase that is used just as easily in jest or in seriousness. Stuck in traffic? No es facil. Loved one dying in the hospital? No es facil. Lost your job? No es facil.
But standing there in the parking lot outside of the parish, her words weighed heavily. Her husband had been one of the many Cuban counter-revolutionaries who worked for the CIA in Miami to topple the Castro dictatorship in the early 1960s. They both had left everything behind on the island in order to make it in the United States. And now the Catholic Church had been integral in the renewal of ties to their homeland, a homeland with both positive and negative memories.
“I know what this means,” she told me, emphasizing that her past allows her to fully understand the announcement. “This is big news, news that will have profound effects.”
And about Pope Francis? “He works for peace,” she said with a shrug before she got in her car, “pero no es facil.”
TO UNDERSTAND MODERN-DAY Miami necessitates understanding the history of Cuba—especially post-1959 Cuba. And part of this history is deeply entwined with the actions of the Catholic Church.
It was the Cuban Revolution of 1959 that began the first large-scale immigration of Cubans to Miami. As Alejandro Portes and Alex Stepick detail in their seminal book, City on the Edge, many families, mostly from the educated business class, cut their losses in Cuba and took what they could to Miami. “The first two years of the Cuban Revolution,” they write, “saw the gradual return to Miami … of the very groups who had known the city as a playground: first, the privileged for whom Miami was a day trip, and then those who could afford to come every summer.” These Cubans managed to carve a significant economic, political, and social niche in Miami. The isolation they received from the city’s white population both defined the community and strengthened its solidarity; they were able to form, in the words of Portes and Stepick, a “moral community” that helped them survive.
Beyond these economic elites, however, part of this first wave of refugees included several thousand unaccompanied minors that arrived in Miami without any contacts or family members to receive them. The Catholic Welfare Bureau stepped in to help with this emergency through Operation Peter Pan: a massive relocation project that sent these minors to foster and group homes nationwide. Headed by a 30-year-old Irish priest, the Rev. Bryan O. Walsh (later dubbed the “Father of the Exodus”), this program sent more than 14,000 children to homes between December 1960 and October 1962.
Two decades later, just as this first wave of Cubans had carved a foothold in Miami, Fidel Castro opened the Mariel harbor and permitted thousands of Cubans to leave the island. Beginning in April 1980, droves of refugees left Cuba. By the time the Mariel harbor was closed in September, approximately 125,000 new refugees had arrived on the shores of Miami.
The Archdiocese of Miami stepped in and offered a tremendous amount of assistance to the refugees in the form of food, shelter, clothing, and other amenities. But one project in particular, La Ermita de la Caridad (the Shrine to Our Lady of Charity), was integral in bringing the Cuban community together. The shrine’s construction began with a provisional chapel in 1967, and it centers around Our Lady of Charity, a Marian image who also serves as the patroness of Cuba.
As Thomas A. Tweed details in his book, Our Lady of the Exile, the shrine helped the Cuban exile community to identify as such: a displaced people, exiles undergoing struggle together. “For many Cuban exiles,” Tweed said in a phone interview, “La Caridad is the unifying symbol of religion and nation.” The site was where Cubans went to hear about loved ones still on the island, where newly arrived refugees could go for information and social services, and where news could be disseminated. Over the years, the site would remain important for both the religious and political lives of Cubans in Miami. “Lots of Cubans would say that they disagree about everything,” Tweed said, “but not about La Caridad.”
La Caridad was the first visit I made on the day the news broke. When I arrived, however, all I found was an empty parking lot and a few devotees. As I returned over the next few days, I continually found the same: no meetings, no announcements. The priest did not mention the news outright during daily mass but rather asked for all to pray for God to guide our politicians and the pope. A staff member blocked me from reaching the priests for comment, and few devotees felt comfortable speaking with me.
One of the shrine’s longtime volunteers was not surprised when I told him that I was having a hard time getting people to talk. “Even if they agree [with the news],” he said, “they won’t admit it to you. This is too sensitive a topic, too divisive an issue. Many of the people feel betrayed: why would the Vatican do this?”
Ambivalence was found elsewhere in Miami’s Catholic circles. The Rev. Arturo Kannee, of San Juan Bosco Church in Little Havana, said he also avoided discussing the news in his homily because “it’s a very, very sensitive issue.” Although his congregation is now predominantly Central American, the church is still called the Cathedral of Exiled Cubans because of all the Cubans that used to go to services there. “I say to pray for Cuba, but that is not a topic that you can touch,” he said. Still, he added, “Thank God the pope got involved.”
MANY OF THOSE I approached in Miami recommended that I go to the one place where I was sure to get opinions: Versailles Cuban Restaurant and Café. Established in 1971, Versailles touts itself as “the world’s most famous Cuban restaurant” and is the epicenter for political conversation among Cubans in Miami. This is where politicians come to round up their Cuban constituents and where local Cubans have loud conversations about all topics.
Sure enough, the place was a madhouse the day of the announcement and those following: news vans and cameras littered the parking lot, people chanted slogans in front of the café window, and a man in a homemade oversized Obama mask walked around the area for people to take pictures of themselves knocking Obama out.
Efraín Rivas, a 53-year-old maintenance man and former political prisoner in Cuba, said, “This is treason against us. The pope is supposed to be about honesty, not about secrecy. How could he have participated in secret talks for 18 months like this?” He is a devout man, he told me, a Catholic man until the day he dies. But, he blurted, “I am now a Catholic without a pope.”
Carlos Alcover, 66, is a former Peter Pan refugee who has lived in the United States for more than 50 years. Although angered by the decision, he was careful to not criticize the pope. “We should give him thanks because he has been serving as a bridge between two sides,” he said, adding, “I hope he continues serving.”
Listening nearby was Barbara Pernaris, 48, who waited until Alcover ended before giving me her opinion. “The pope is supposed to be about peace and unification of the world,” she said, “but he’s caused a divide in the Cuban population.” She told me that she believed Pope Francis was completely in the wrong for getting involved. He is not a diplomat, she said, and it is important to maintain a separation between church and state.
The pope’s role complicates the Cuban response in Miami. The same Church that served the exiles so faithfully by saving thousands of Cuban refugee children and building a place for exiles in Miami has now become involved in the renewal of ties to Cuba. Whereas the Church once brought the Cuban exiles together, it seems to now be tearing them apart.
By the end of December, however, in the midst of the holiday season, the air appeared calmer in Miami. On December 30, I joined a friend at Versailles restaurant. I stood at the café window sipping my cortadito and asked the barista about the chaos that was still engulfing the café just days before. “This place?” she said. “This was una locura [a crazy scene]. No way, mijo, thank God that that passed.” In between steaming the milk for the next Cuban espresso and teasing another one of the baristas, she repeated what so many Cuban Americans had. “No es facil,” she said. It’s not easy.
Alfredo Garcia is a graduate student in sociology at Princeton University.