100s of Cuban-Americans visit Cuba to see pope

Rosendo Castillo of Miami looks out over Havana's historic seaside boulevard during his return visit to Cuba to see the pope.
CBS News

(CBS News) Before Pope Benedict XVI met with Fidel Castro Wednesday, he celebrated mass in the heart of Havana, his last big public event there.

In the crowd were hundreds of Cubans who fled Castro's communist takeover, more than half a century ago.

CBS News correspondent Byron Pitts reports it took Pope Benedict XVI six days and 8,547 miles to arrive in Havana's historic Revolution Square. It is along the most beautiful seaside boulevard in the world.

By comparison, 72-year-old Rosendo Castillo of Miami went the long way. She was last in Cuba 57 years ago.

"It's home," he said.

He was not alone. An estimated 800 Cuban-Americans made this pilgrimage to see the pope. Many were overcome by the experience, many reunited with relatives for the first time.

Castillo's father was a wealthy sugar plantation owner. The family lost it all in Castro's revolution in 1959.

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Many Cuban-Americans of his generation have refused to step foot in Cuba until Castro is dead and communism is over, but Castillo said he had a compelling reason to come back.

"The coming of the pope, and the pope is coming here on a pilgrimage to the Cuban people, and I'm Cuban, so he is coming here for me too. So I said I want to be here with my people," Castillo said.

Andy Gomez traveled with Castillo. He too was born in Cuba. A teacher at the University of Miami, Gomez says an estimated 400,000 Americans are now permitted to visit the island annually for humanitarian reasons.

"I think they realize that the people of Cuba have nothing to do with 53 years of dictatorship. They are the consequence of a failed revolution," Gomez said.

Both men witnessed what happened during the pope's mass in Santiago. When one man yelled, 'Down with communism," he was beaten and dragged away by state security.

"The repression is still very bad," Gomez said.

Gomez served with distinction in the U.S. Army, and had a long career as an international banker. Yet Cuba is still important to him all these years later.

"The United States has been my home for 57 years, but as I said, my heart has always been Cuban. Can't help it," Gomez said.

For many Cuban-Americans, that is the heartache of this beautiful queen of the Caribbean. She is still home, but only in their dreams.