Cuba expats in America weigh return to island

Miami (AFP) - Cuban expatriates in America, including many who risked their lives to escape the communist island, are torn about whether to return after Havana and Washington formally reestablish ties next year.

US President Barack Obama last week announced the normalization of relations with Cuba, which were severed in 1961.

The surprise move, which clears the way for bilateral trade and normal diplomatic relations, also offers unexpected new options for Cuban-American exiles, who once believed that choosing one of the two countries meant forever closing the option of living in the other.

Marisol Camarota said she wouldn't think twice about returning to live in her homeland -- provided she can make a living comparable to what she earns in the United States.

By contrast, Hector Martinez -- who fled Cuba years ago on a rickety raft -- wouldn't dream of ever setting foot in Cuba again.

The historic thaw between Havana and Washington has led to soul-searching among Cubans who abandoned the island for a better life in the United States.

Miami is home to the largest population of Cuban emigres and their descendants, numbering some one million people -- about half the entire exile population.

- 'My heart is divided' -

Many, like Camarota, say the sudden diplomatic changes have left them torn.

Three years after arriving in the United States, "my heart is divided," she said.

"I'd like to be there, and I'd want to be here," said the 40-year old, who works as a florist in Miami.

The decision for Camarota is complicated by the fact that her two children, ages eight and 14, are still on the island and being raised by relatives.

She also misses the "solidarity" that residents on the island show for one another, especially when contrasted with Americans' trademark individualism, which sometimes leaves her feeling isolated and a little homesick.

"If I were given a guarantee that I could have it all?" she asks. "Then I would be in Cuba, with my family."

In the end, she says, "I'm 100 percent Cuban. I don't regret coming to this country, but I remain true to my native land."

Jorge Luis Rodriguez, 54, only made the trip to America six weeks ago, and already he feels the tug of the island on his heart.

He arrived with his daughter Rachel, 15, to reunite his family in the United States, where another of his children settled years ago.

"That's why I came, if not for that I would have stayed there," said Rodriguez, who said he "had no problem" and otherwise would have happily stayed in Cuba.

- Generational differences -

While a number of people say they would be ready to return, most say they'd like to wait and see how the process of reestablishing relations proceeds -- particularly with respect to easing travel and sending funds to the island.

For many, any decision on returning would have one condition: that neither Raul Castro nor his brother former president Fidel Castro hold the reins of power.

For some, who seem to have put down deeper roots in the United States, a return to Cuba seems far less enticing.

"I'd have to think about it," said Luis Denis, 63, who has been in the United States for about a decade.

Some of the difference in views is generational.

Older generations of Cuban-Americans -- many of whom lost property and businesses, and whose relatives were persecuted by the communist government -- often have a hard time contemplating any return, especially with the octogenarian Castro brothers -- President Raul Castro and revolutionary icon Fidel -- still running the show.

The younger set, including those who did not lose property during the revolution, or who never knew a Cuba where the Castro weren't in charge, express more willingness to going back.

Odalis Mendoza, 51, told AFP it's only natural to have feelings of longing for Cuba, even after leaving nearly a quarter-century ago.

"It's my land," Mendoza said, adding however that a return to the island would only be possible after the "Castro regime" is no longer in power.

"It's my people," said Mendoza. "It's my family."