[an error occurred while processing this directive]

Behind Castro's handshake lurk generations of suffering

By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 4, 2002

Cuba is not a place on a map to Simon Canasi but a large chunk of his heart's landscape.

Cuba is not a place on a map to Simon Canasi but a large chunk of his heart's landscape.

He was 5 years old when his parents took him and his older brother and left Cuba for Tampa. In the 40 years since, Fidel Castro hasn't just torn up a country. He has torn up families, like Simon Canasi's.

While his parents fled to Tampa, all their relatives -- Simon Canasi's grandparents, aunts and uncles -- stayed behind. That fact never ceased to wound his father. When Canasi as a grown man told his father he wanted to visit Cuba and see their relatives, his father said no, absolutely no.

Canasi, 46 and a top executive in Tampa with Merrill Lynch, had to wait until the father he would not disrespect died. Since 1995, he has visited his relatives three times, first his father's family, then his mother's, and finally a cousin suffering from cancer.

His trips have not been at all like Tampa Mayor Dick Greco's guided tour.

During Canasi's trips, he has seen all that his relatives have been denied. Nothing is too mundane, or necessary, to lose.

In the bathroom of his uncle's house, Canasi recalled last week, a long nail stuck out from the wall.

Impaled on it was a stack of neatly torn squares of newspaper that his relatives used when the toilet paper ran out. It always ran out in a hurry. Their family ration was one roll a month.

And from these trips, Canasi has learned to respect his relatives' silences. "The one rule I have when I go there," he said, "is I don't discuss politics with my family. I know in my heart where they stand. They just can't say it."

Canasi showed up Thursday when Greco held a news conference to describe his trip. Canasi did what he could to refocus the picture Greco painted.

The mayor told of visiting a nightclub and having a young Cuban woman beg to let her accompany him and his wife. She said Cubans couldn't go the clubs without an escort.

Canasi rose and told Greco the woman was almost certainly a prostitute, that prostitution was rampant in Cuba and with it, sexually transmitted disease.

Canasi isn't as angry as those Cuban-Americans who think Greco shouldn't have gone, period. Canasi just didn't want the mayor to see Castro.

He wanted Greco to announce his plans ahead of time, so that people like himself could prepare him. "I wanted to remind him that the cause (of Cuba's suffering) is the man who sat across the table from him," Canasi said.

And he rebelled at Greco's statement that he understood the feelings of his critics, because he understood what they had endured over the years.

"You cannot know how I feel," Canasi said. "You have never been in my shoes or my parents' shoes."

Like many other Cuban-Americans, Simon Canasi now sends money regularly to his relatives. "I send enough to be able to last them on average about a year. For each family member, it's probably like $300."

He keeps in touch by phone or e-mail.

But Canasi isn't planning another Cuba trip for a couple of years. The trip is always hard. It's like visiting a Third World country, and he returns emotionally spent.

His thoughts are contradictory.

He wishes that he had begun his trips sooner. He could have started sending help sooner.

He would have had to defy his father, yes. But if he had visited Cuba while his father still lived, Simon Canasi would have been able to say some important things.

He would have had a chance to thank his father, for getting the family out of Cuba, and for giving his sons a chance at a better life.

He would have hugged his father when he said these things, and this unfinished business between father and son would have been, finally, done.

-- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelone@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.