Seven years ago, I visited Cuba to report on President Barack Obama’s first flirtation with normalizing relations with the island nation.
I’m here again, now, as the President makes the first visit to Cuba by a sitting president in 88 years.
Back in 2009, it was a harried, five-day crash course on the strained relationship between our two countries. But it was also a deeply moving personal experience.
First, the reason why I went. Back in 2009, Obama loosened travel restrictions on Cuban Americans visiting their homeland. Under the Bush administration, Cuban Americans could only journey to the island once every three years. If you visited your sick mother in Havana and returned home to the U.S. only to find out she died days later, the Bush policy would bar you from attending her funeral.
Obama changed that policy seven years ago, essentially allowing Cuban Americans to go back and forth as they pleased.
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When I went to Cuba to report on these changes for CNN, family reunions were breaking out immediately upon arriving at the airport in Havana.
One young man on my flight to Cuba had stuffed a flat screen TV in the overhead bin for his mother. (That’s a good son.) Another woman had brought clothes and toys, telling me Cubans didn’t have Santa Claus. So she was bringing Christmas to Castro country.
Unbeknownst to most of my CNN colleagues, I was also on a personal mission. Days before arriving in Cuba I reached out to my Cuban-born aunt in Miami. Anabel had all the information I needed.
So after filing several stories for CNN and countless live shots, I set out – It was my last morning in Havana. The assignment was almost over. There was little room for error.
My Cuban guide, Ernesto, and I hopped into his beat up old Volkswagon and started driving. We were on our way to the town where my father grew up, the town he fled in 1962, three weeks before the Cuban Missile Crisis.
My aunt Anabel remembers the story well. Back in 1962, she was already in Miami, having fled Cuba first. The articles on the deteriorating situation in Cuba in the newspapers, not to mention the word on the street among Cuban exiles, were all getting worse. So she hopped on a Pam-Am flight to Havana where she hustled my dad and grandmother out of Cuba.
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Only 11 years old, my father was issued a Cuban passport for a one-way trip to a country that would become his sanctuary. That was the last he had seen of Santa Maria del Rosario, a small village outside of Havana.
Flash forward to 2009: There I was in the same village, staring at the old Spanish colonial, Catholic church where my father was baptized.
‘They might put you in prison’
My dad was worried when I told him about my upcoming assignment in Cuba.
“They might put you in prison,” he said.
It’s not that my dad was an anti-Castro ideologue shaking his fist at his former homeland. He was never that guy. AJ, as his friends call him, is proud of his heritage. But he is a forgiving man, softened by old age and retirement. Also, he grew up in Virginia, not Miami. It was just a different Cuban-American experience.
But he had good reason to worry. He remembers the stories of other Cuban refugees who had escaped the island, some literally out of prison, to find sanctuary in the U.S. One former prisoner attended my grandmother’s funeral 10 years earlier.
Critics ridicule the special exception Cuban refugees receive in the U.S. versus other immigrants from Latin America. But those same people forget Cuban refugees were fleeing what had been a fairly bloody revolution, essentially a civil war. Nuclear weapons were positioned in their country, presumably to obliterate portions of the U.S. Then-President John F. Kennedy positioned a naval blockade around the island, taking the world the closest it’s ever been to nuclear war.
Plus, my dad didn’t leave behind a life of wealth or privilege, as some Cubans did. There was no sugar plantation to reclaim. Perhaps that refugee status is a relic of the Cold War, much like the U.S. policy of isolating Cuba. But there once was justification for that status.
So there I was, looking at the place where my father was blessed by a priest and welcomed into the Catholic church. Why was this a good place to turn to trace my father’s heritage? Records. Catholics keep records of baptisms.
As soon as I walked inside the church I met Yolanda. Small towns are small towns, even in Cuba. She knew my family. And within minutes, she pulled a large leather bound book from the shelf and found the record of my father’s baptism.
Yolanda had another surprise for me. She led me to her house around the corner from the church. There I met Yolanda’s husband. Yes, he knew my family. What’s more? He was perfectly happy to walk me over to their house – My dad’s home.
It was only two blocks down the street. Again, small towns.
I met cousins who didn’t know I existed. The last time they saw my dad, Abilito, as they called him, was in 1962. He had left a boy. And here I was, his son, a man.
They were blown away. I was blown away.
Families ripped apart
Seconds later out came the scrapbooks. Pictures of Cuba in the 1960’s. Images of their lives from over the decades that followed. There was one photo that made me take a step back. It was a snap shot of my grandfather. My dad’s dad, Abilio.
He never left Cuba. He stayed. That was part of the heartache that my father felt when he fled Cuba for the U.S.
And he wasn’t alone. As part of the massive migration of Cubans to the U.S., families were simply ripped a part. There was no other way. His father would no longer be a permanent part of his life. He had freedom, yes. But only half of his family.
All of those feelings are swirling in my head as I’m taking in my long lost cousins’ stories.
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Then reality returns. My guide, Ernesto, reminds me we have to get going. I had a plane to catch. Time to go home.
So we hugged. There was only a brief mention of politics. One of my cousins, who looked exactly like my grandfather, said an end to the U.S. embargo on his island was long overdue. It was time, he said, for the U.S. and Cuba to wrap up this final chapter of the Cold War, one that had somehow outlasted the Soviet Union.
As I was about to climb into that beat up old Volkswagon, Ernesto stopped me. He told me to give them all the money I had in my wallet. Which I did. Fifty bucks. That was all I had left from the trip. I felt awful. I wanted to give more. Ernesto said not to worry. That’s probably the most money they had seen in months.
When I returned to the U.S. a few days later, I surprised my dad with the story of my life, his life. He saw the pictures of his old home, his old town, and the cousins he played with as a boy. They were all old men now. Decades had flown by. Of course he cried. I cried. Who wouldn’t?
As I land in Cuba, I am eager to cover Obama’s trip to this island. It’s history to be sure.
When I traveled to Cuba in 2009 and saw those family reunions just outside the airport in Havana, little did I know that I would have one of my own.
It will be quite something this week when Obama walks Old Havana, meets with Raul Castro, and takes in a baseball game.
But I also hope to steal a few hours to catch up with family.