TV: a Cuban exile revisits his homeland

After 22 years of exile in the United States, Antonio Guernica returned to his native Cuba to rediscover his roots. What he discovered was a greater appreciation of life in America and ''a new understanding of what it means to be free.''

Cuba - A Personal Journey (PBS, Wednesday, Aug. 8, 10-11 p.m., check local listings) is the first in a series titled ''Hispanus,'' a group of special programs focusing on Hispanics in America.

Host-narrator-writer of the documentary is Antonio Guernica, who came to the US in 1962 with his parents when they left their home to escape communism. Since then, Mr. Guernica has earned degrees from Johns Hopkins and Maryland Universities and has become an expert in the Hispanic media and consumer market.

A reluctant Cuban government recently allowed him to return to make his film. He almost always had to be accompanied by ''guides,'' however, and he says that ''watching all the time'' were members of the Committee for the Defense of the Homeland, who report to the authorities on unusual neighborhood activities. His visit was judged to be an especially suspicious neighborhood activity.

Mr. Guernica is thrilled to have visited relatives, old family friends, familiar places. But he finds his childhood memories are frozen in the 1960s when he left, just as Havana itself seems to be frozen in the 1950s. Although nobody seems to be starving, there are long queues for everything, and most people say that ''it's better not to talk about it,'' when asked to give honest opinions about the Castro regime. ''Cuba - A Personal Journey'' is sad and euphoric simultaneously; it is a poignant search for an old identity by somebody who has obviously found a new identity in his adopted country. Certainly the beauty of the old country is reflected in some of the cinematography, but one also gets a feeling of the grittiness of much of everyday life. It is a proud and honest piece of work, this documentary.

Mr. Guernica does not find only unhappiness and dissatisfaction in his homeland. He sees some people much better off than in the past and willing to wait for more freedom to come in the future. He was also encouraged to interview government officials who praised racial and sexual equality in Cuba. He points out, however, that every one of these officials was a white male.

In the final analysis, Mr. Guernica leaves Cuba with a sense of loss. ''The beautiful pearl of the Caribbean,'' he says sadly, ''is now a land of surveillance.''

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