By Michael Paluska
Herminio Otero and his wife Aida Sanchez last saw their daughters two years ago. But, on Thursday, the family was finally reunited at Tampa International Airport in a homecoming filled with pure joy.
Otero and Sanchez were forced to flee the communist country after Otero spoke out against the Cuban government becoming an enemy of the state.
Persecuted for writing articles about freedom and liberty, Otero's home was searched and, for a short, time he was thrown in jail. He made the tough decision to leave his children and start a life in the U.S.
"I feel sad, and I feel good," Otero told ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska in June.
Otero said he's felt a lot of guilt for leaving his daughter, but hoped the risk, in the end, would pay off and they would be reunited. For two years, the Cuban government refused to let his daughters leave Cuba. For two years, Otero waited for good news. Some days, he felt he would never see his daughters again.
When we traveled to Cuba in May to cover the first American cruise ship allowed to dock at the harbor in Havana, Otero and Sanchez asked if we could travel to Pinar Del Rio and take their daughters a video message.
As we arrived in the small, but bustling town, two hours outside of Havana, we were greeted with open arms by Aida Daniela, Sanchez's 20-year-old daughter, and Amanda Beatriz, Otero's 12-year-old daughter.
Sitting in their kitchen with no running water and the electricity going off and on, we played the emotional message recorded a few short weeks earlier in Tampa. Aida and Amanda cried seeing and hearing their parents for the first time in more than a year.
"It's been very difficult," Aida told us. "We are living here and they are living there, it's not fair."
After our story aired, we were contacted by U.S. Congressman David Jolly's office. The congressman said Otero had come to his office seeking help months before. But, it wasn't until Jolly saw our reports that he vowed to do everything in his power to reunite the family.
"To be honest, I wasn't quite sure how we were going to do it. But, I said, we are going to get your girls home," Jolly said. "It took longer than it should have. There were unusual circumstances in this case because of the father's political statements. We were concerned that perhaps there was a delay in returning the kids to the U.S."
But, after our meeting with Jolly in June, more than two months later, the girls were reunited at Tampa International Airport with a grateful mother and father that thought this day would never come.
"You can never lose hope, never," Otero said. "You have to have faith the family will be reunited."
Otero hopes this reunion will be the start of many for other Cuban families who have loved ones on the island. For the girls, the first thing they want to do is learn how to speak English and start going to school.
"We are very grateful to be reunited with our parents, being separated was very difficult," Amanda said.
Otero said none of this would've been possible with the help of a lot of dedicated people. Thursday, the family is breathing a collective sigh of relief that his gamble to move to the United States finally paid off.
"Thank you to everyone who helped do this," all of the family members said. "We are together again.