BY NOAH BIERMAN | Knight Ridder Newspapers
Elizabeth Cerejido collapsed in a surge of painful memories four years ago while walking up the broad steps of Cuba’s notorious 18th-century prison, La Cabana. As she toured the fortress, she began looking for the jail cells.
‘‘What are you talking about?’’ Cerejido says a young Cuban resident asked her. ``This had never been a prison.’‘
Cerejido knew that it had been, long before it became a tourist attraction with costumed singers, a cannonball salute and a striking view of the city and the Bay of Havana. Cerejido had been there in the late 1970s, as a little girl, walking the same steps as she visited her father, a prisoner, she said.
The return trip to Cuba in 2002 helped Cerejido establish her cultural identity, and the visit to La Cabana was one of those rare moments that crystallized a lifetime’s worth of complex emotions about personal history.
Such trips, suspended by the U.S. government when it tightened travel in 2004, have recently become the focus of wider community controversy. The exchange program that brought her to Cuba, Puentes Cubanos (``Cuban Bridges’‘), is cited in FBI documents as a possible recruiting ground for accused spy Carlos Alvarez, who served as its discussion moderator.
Alvarez, a Florida International University professor, was charged this month with acting as an unauthorized foreign agent, accused of providing information about Miami’s exile community to the Cuban government. He has not been charged with providing government secrets. FBI documents claim he used Puentes Cubanos to look for recruits, but never provided any names to the Cuban government.
Supporters of Puentes Cubanos are feeling besieged. Many contacted by The Miami Herald do not want to speak publicly, for fear of tarnishing the program’s image while Alvarez is in the news.
Cerejido traveled with four other Cuban-American professionals to Cuba in October 2002. Her trip was among five that Alvarez took with Puentes Cubanos.
Cerejido, 36, agreed to an interview because she wants to show that the programs are about more than Alvarez, though she says she would feel personally betrayed if he is found guilty of spying.
‘‘It does not change for me the legitimacy of the program,’’ she said. ``These two things should not be mixed up.’‘
Cerejido was born in Cuba in 1969 and came to Miami with her mother before her first birthday. Her father was supposed to join them later, but he was delayed and then jailed in 1975, she said. Cerejido said he was a political prisoner, but the specifics were never made clear to Cerejido. Researchers and former prisoners could not confirm or elaborate on the circumstances of Jose Cerejido’s imprisonment, but said the story sounds plausible.
‘‘My entire childhood was trying to get my father here,’’ Elizabeth Cerejido said.
At age 9, Cerejido visited her father in La Cabana, an old fortress used as a prison. ‘‘My first impression of him is my father being brought out by guards,’’ she said, ``... in a jail uniform, a very thin, tall man with very sad eyes.’‘
Cerejido would grow up with that image, in a working-class home in Little Havana. Even when her father arrived in Miami, as part of the Mariel boatlift, he did not recover from the trauma. Cerejido became one of those young Cuban Americans who translated for her parents and knew her families’ memories of old streets and songs as ``almost this virtual Cuba.’‘
She attended Coral Gables High School and got a job at Books & Books in Coral Gables that introduced her to an alternate version of Miami. She became a photographer and is now the curator at Florida International University’s Frost Museum, though the job is not how she met Alvarez. Nor is her job connected with her travels to Cuba, she said.
Cerejido wanted to find her own Cuba connection.
She returned to the island in 2000 with her then-husband and her mother, who had early signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Cerejido spent most of her time with her extended family. She never connected with other young artists or experienced the country as she expected she would. Cuba was bizarre to her, a collection of faded awnings with the slogans of a failed revolution.
She came back to Miami, and during the Elian Gonzalez saga felt silenced, frustrated and unrepresented. Her father, who would not return to Cuba, died in 2001. She sought like-minded young professionals who believed in dialogue and reconciliation. That brought her to Puentes Cubanos and the trip.
Founder Silvia Wilhelm, 59, shared many of Cerejido’s views, though she was from an older generation.
Wilhelm came to Miami as a girl in 1961, during Operation Pedro Pan, a Catholic Church initiative that brought 14,000 child refugees without their parents following the 1959 revolution.
Wilhelm had been pro-embargo, but changed her view in the 1990s after communism fell in Europe and Cuba remained unchanged. In 1999, she organized a series of five small trips, uniting about a half-dozen young professionals from each country for a week of cultural exchanges. She also organized a sixth exchange in Miami, with Cubans who gained permission to leave the island, three years ago.
Wilhelm said the generation of young professionals on both sides of the Florida Straits have inherited a dilemma and need to understand each other to prevent animosity when Cuba opens up.
Such exchange programs would raise few eyebrows in other parts of the country, but Wilhelm’s was a rarity in Miami. She said it was the only Miami-based program that promoted direct dialogue between young Cuban American professionals and Cubans of the same age and interests who stayed on the island.
Miami’s most vocal exile groups say exchange programs of any kind undermine America’s opposition to Fidel Castro’s dictatorship because they chisel away at the embargo, benefiting the government-run economy. Puentes Cubanos collaborates with the University of Havana, which gives it an automatic association with Cuba’s communist government.
Cerejido said Wilhelm told the group before they left for Cuba in October 2002 that participants were not there to change each other’s minds. It was, rather, an opportunity for open-minded discussion.
Much of the week was spent in a classroom at the University of Havana. Alvarez, a trained facilitator, and a Cuban counterpart would moderate discussions about Cuban identity. But some of the best exchanges occurred outside the classroom, over a shot of rum, she said.
‘‘Our dual identity, our being Cuban-hyphen-American brought a lot more baggage to the table than the other side because they had only lived in Cuba,’’ she said.
On the first day, following the trip to La Cabana, Cerejido told her Cuban counterparts about her father’s imprisonment and the reason for her collapse on the steps. They gasped, she said, never having heard such a story.
Living on an island where virtually everyone has relatives who had moved to the United States, she said many of her Cuban counterparts felt a disconnect, but the Cuban professionals she met were bound by a sense of tight social fabric, appreciating that they occupied a unique place in history. Yet they were critical of their government’s shortcomings and aware of what they lacked, she said.
On one occasion, Cerejido gave a presentation to a larger group of students from the University of Havana. She and a friend showed video footage of a trip they had taken to Washington, D.C. with a group called Yo Si Voy (’‘I Do Go’‘) to lobby politicians to loosen travel restrictions to Cuba. “(The students’) mouths dropped,’’ she said.
Cerejido said they were surprised, some speechless, at the level of freedom and passion the Americans had. It strengthened her conviction that reconciliation can work.
At the end of the week, she and her counterparts had another one of those moments where they broke down - a sudden realization that they were all Cubans divided by something that was beyond them.
‘‘That sort of little bubble we were in was soon going to pop because we were going to be leaving and going our own separate ways,’’ she said. ``Everything is so arbitrary and beyond our control.’’