MIAMI (AP) — The key role Pope Francis played encouraging talks between Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro left fractures among his flock in South Florida, where many older Roman Catholics equate the Castro brothers with the devil.
Many Catholics worldwide have expressed pride in seeing Francis stirring hopes of progress in communist Cuba, but some Cuban-Americans say their spiritual leader betrayed them.
“I’m still Catholic till the day I die,” said Efrain Rivas, a 53-year-old maintenance man in Miami who was a political prisoner in Cuba for 16 years. “But I am a Catholic without a pope.”
Rivas said he cried when Obama surprisingly announced a reversal of a half-century’s efforts to isolate Cuba. Then, when he learned of Francis’ role, he got angry.
Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski acknowledged that some Catholics are “concerned or suspicious,” but said many more exiles welcome the breakthrough, despite their suffering.
“The pain is real, but you can’t build a future on top of resentments,” Wenski told The Associated Press in an interview.
The Vatican has been reaching out to Cuba at least since Pope John Paul II, who declared during his historic 1998 visit to the island, “May Cuba, with all its magnificent potential, open itself up to the world, and may the world open itself up to Cuba.” Discussions continued under Pope Benedict XVI, who visited Cuba in 2012.
And Francis, the first Latin American pope, has advocated for an end to the U.S. embargo since participating in John Paul’s visit to Cuba as the soon-to-be-named Cardinal of Buenos Aires.
Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who is close to Francis, set up the papal visits and has been decisive in improving ties between the church and the officially atheist state since becoming Havana archbishop in 1981. This frustrates some older Catholics who wanted the church to use its unique position inside Cuba to take a harder line.
“The church is contaminated,” said Miguel Saavedra, a 57-year-old Miami mechanic who leads an anti-Castro group and wears a gold cross as a sign of his Catholic faith.
Exiles incensed by the diplomacy openly wonder: Was Francis strong-armed by President Barack Obama? Does he understand how terrible the Castro brothers are? Was he perhaps making a foolhardy bid to cement his change-making image?
“I don’t know what the pope was thinking,” said Jose Sanchez-Gronlier, a 53-year-old lawyer who said he was persecuted for his faith until leaving Cuba as a teenager, and will never forget watching the government seize a convent near his childhood home. “I see a certain naivete in the pope,” he said.
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American from Florida who has led the Republicans’ criticism of Obama’s executive actions on Cuba, also took a swipe at the pope, telling reporters in Washington that he would “ask His Holiness to take up the cause of freedom and democracy.”
All this is familiar territory for Francis, who has spent a lifetime navigating the after-effects of the Cold War in Latin America. In his writings before becoming pope, the Argentine church leader criticized Cuban state authoritarianism as well as the U.S. embargo, and called on both sides to talk out their differences. As pope, he wrote to both Obama and Castro suggesting that a thaw could begin by releasing prisoners.
But Arturo Suarez-Ramos, a 50-year-old Miami waiter who was a political prisoner in Cuba for 27 years, said Francis is reaching for more headlines after insisting that homosexuals and divorced people are welcome in church.
“He’s trying to get a legacy at any price,” Suarez-Ramos said.
The Catholic Church remains the dominant religious force in Cuba, though attendance at Mass is low after decades of official atheism. It has long provided an alternative power center where at least some criticism of the government was possible. Its mediation role could be seen as a reason to trust the promises of change that both Obama and Castro made this week, but many remain wary.
Jay Fernandez, a retiree who left Cuba in 1961, said Francis acted like a beggar, taking whatever scraps of concessions the Cuban government offered.
“He wants to be everywhere, he wants to be liked by everyone,” Fernandez said. “That’s his job to be a peace guy, but it doesn’t accomplish a damn thing, especially in Cuba.”
U.S. bishops also have long called for an end to the embargo and for improved relations with Cuba. Engagement can do more than isolation to open up Cuban society and improve human rights and religious liberty, they said.
That message seemed to connect with some attending midday Mass at Ermita de la Caridad, a church dedicated to Cuba’s patron saint.
“This is the best thing that could have happened,” said Lucresia Leon, 70, who left Cuba during the 1980 Mariel boatlift, when 125,000 fled the island. She smiled widely, saying “Everything will be fixed.”
Draped in the bright purple vestments of Advent, the Rev. Juan Rumin Dominguez, who arrived from Cuba nine years ago, said accepting change is not a simple thing.
“It’s not easy, but the faithful people in these kinds of situations know to trust in God,” the priest said. “We are a faithful people. We have confidence because God has his plan.”
Historian Jesus Mendez, a Cuban exile who teaches at Barry University and has written about the Latin American church, said most Catholics will welcome the pope’s intervention as an effort to increase religious freedom on the island.
“He’s very concerned over the decline of Catholic fervor, primarily in Europe but also even in the United States and Canada, so of course he sees it important to have a high profile for the Catholic Church in Cuba,” Mendez said.
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Associated Press writers Rachel Zoll in New York and Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.