|Eusebio Leal at the Castillo de San Marcos|
Leal, 73, said St. Augustine left him with a "truly extraordinary impression."
The city, the oldest continuously occupied European-founded settlement in the United States, "has been preserved with great love and great detail, with many small details, the beauty of the cultural and heritage legacy of St. Augustine."
St. Augustine, he said, is a place where "the Anglo-Saxon and Hispanic histories come together" along with a trace of indigenous heritage.
Visiting the Nation's Oldest City and other spots in Florida and Louisiana is "a pilgrimage in memory of Cuba because Cuba has profoundly united these lands," he said.
"The bishops of Cuba were also bishops of Florida and Louisiana and that's why there are so many things, things related to Cuba."
Leal spoke at Flagler College on Sunday night, an event that was sponsored by the college’s Public History program and Humanities Department. After his presentation, Leal attended a dinner in his honor and chatted with a variety of personalities, including Flagler College President William T. Abare Jr., Bishop Felipe Estévez and former chief of the U.S. Interests Section John Caulfield.
During an interview today, Leal said highlights of his trip were Flagler College, the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine and Tolomato Cemetery.
Roman Catholic priest Felix Varela, who pushed for Cuban self-rule and helped inspire the movement toward Cuban independence, was buried at the cemetery in 1848.
In 1892, Cuban independence leader José Martí visited the cemetery to pay respects to Varela and kneel at the spot where he was buried.
"It's exciting to be at the cemetery where Father Varela was buried for many years," Leal said.
|Eusebio Leal at Tolomato Cemetery|
Leal also stopped to examine a statue of Varela outside the Cathedral Basilica before stepping into the church, dipping his fingers in holy water and lighting a candle.
Leal is an Ambassador of Good Will of the United Nations and also a deputy to the National Assembly of the Popular Power in Cuba. Asked if visits like his help to bring the United States and Cuba closer together, Leal said that cultural exchange between the two countries is vital. He said:
I am a person of culture, an intellectual. For me, it's very important to live these experiences. My American colleagues have been so kind here. The Americans I've met have only treated me with kindness, friendliness, affection and generosity.Before leaving St. Augustine, Leal strolled along St. George Street and visited the Castillo de San Marcos, a Spanish fort on Matanzas Bay. He pointed toward the water and said the United States shouldn't have such difficult relations with a country that is so close to its shores. He said:
Cuba is too close for us to be so far apart.Leal said relations between ordinary people on both sides of the Florida Straits - and especially relations between Cubans and Cuban-Americans - are growing stronger. But, he said:
There's a very big difference in relations between governments and relations between people.
|Eusebio Leal examines statue of Padre Felix Varela|
Asked if the two governments would ever resolve their differences, including U.S. accusations of human rights violations in Cuba, Leal pointed out that the United States is far from perfect.
He said Cuban officials usually don't dwell on America's internal problems.
We decline to speak because we believe it would interfere in issues of American life of which we do not participate, but I would say that I also feel, as does President Obama, deep concern about the things that can happen here, like the other day when at that little school many people died, these young victims of a policy that in my opinion is a mistaken interpretation of the law.Leal was referring to an Oct. 1 incident at a community college in Oregon where a gunman killed nine people. He said:
The fact that anyone can own guns and can use them against innocent people is a human rights issue of the first order because we are talking about victims. Or when the police act with excessive force is also a human rights violation. When people have no right to study or get an education is also a human rights issue.Cuban officials only want to be treated fairly, he said.
What we do not want is a selective treatment of Cuba.Leal was scheduled to speak in Tampa tonight. After visiting Ybor City, a historic neighborhood in Tampa, he planned to travel to Key West and New Orleans.
Disclosure: I work at Flagler College, where I teach journalism classes.