Fidel Castro

From Miami to Havana, Fidel Castro’s death evokes a mixture of celebration, sadness and uncertainty

The Cubans who made it to Miami took a largely – and vehemently – anti-Castro stance

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 November, 2016, 8:41pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 November, 2016, 10:16pm

Within half-an-hour of the Cuban government’s official announcement that former president Fidel ­Castro had died, Miami’s Little Havana teemed with life – and cheers.

Thousands of people banged pots with spoons, waved Cuban flags in the air and whooped in jubilation on Calle Ocho – 8th Street, and the heart of the neighbourhood. Honking and strains of salsa music from car stereos echoed against stucco buildings, and fireworks lit up the humid night sky.

I don’t celebrate. Nobody does. You can’t celebrate somebody’s death. I just hope for democracy
Arnold Vidallet, Cuban in Miami

Police blocked off streets leading to Cafe Versailles, the quintessential Cuban American hot spot where strong cafecitos – sweetened espresso – were as common as a harsh word about Fidel Castro.

“Cuba si! Castro no!” they chanted, while others screamed: “Cuba libre!”

Celebration, not grief, permeated the atmosphere. That was no surprise. Castro has cast a shadow over Miami for decades, and in many ways, his policy and his power have shaped the city and its inhabitants. Cubans fled the island to Miami, Tampa, New Jersey and elsewhere after Castro took power in 1959.

Some were loyalists of Fulgencio Batista, the president prior to Castro, while others left with the hope they would be able to return soon, after Castro was toppled. He never was.

Many others believed they would not be truly free under Castro and his communist regime. Thousands left behind their possessions, loved ones, and hard-earned educations and businesses, travelling to the US by plane, boat or raft.

Many Cubans died on the ocean trip to South Florida. And many never returned to see their childhood homes, their neighbourhoods, their playgrounds, their businesses, their cousins and aunts and uncles, because Castro was still in power. The ones that made it to Miami took a largely, and vehemently, anti-Castro stance.

Fidel Castro’s legacy: how the revolutionary inspired and appalled the world

The news of his death was long anticipated by the exiles who left after Castro took power, and in the decades since. Rumours have come and gone for decades. This time, though, it was real.

“I don’t celebrate. Nobody does. You can’t celebrate somebody’s death. I just hope for democracy,” said Arnold Vidallet, a 48-year-old financial adviser who was woken by relatives with the news.

A couple of blocks away, at the Bay of Pigs memorial, Antonio Hernandez, 76, rode his bicycle up

in a light rain and stood at the eternal flame that honours the men who tried, and failed, to wrest Cuba from Castro’s grip in 1961.

“Everybody’s happy. Now this guy won’t do any more damage,” said Hernandez, who came to Miami on the Mariel boat lift in 1980. “His brother will now go down, too. But the world has to pay attention to this, not just we Cubans.”

I think this is the first step to a great change ... the vast majority of the Cuban people feel uncertain
Eliecer Avila, leader of Somos Mas

In Havana, some 300km southwest of Miami, the mood was more sombre. In a city where few people have smartphones or mobile internet connections, news of Castro’s death spread slowly.

Revellers dancing and drinking rum on Havana’s famed seafront quickly dispersed and a popular club closed its doors. Most of the people roaming along the “Malecon” seafront were not immediately aware that Castro had passed away at the age of 90.

A crowd of young men and women singing by the sea wall in the cool night air fell quiet when they learned that Castro’s death had been announced on state television two hours earlier.

“The whole word will remember this man,” said Duncy Fajardo near the iconic National Hotel that hosted Ernest Hemingway and Frank Sinatra, and even known mobsters, before Castro’s 1959 revo­lution led to its nationalisation. “He achieved things that nobody else did.”

The nearby Gato Tuerto music venue, known for its romantic bolero style of music sung live, closed its doors early when the news broke. Spanish tourist Maite Laza and her Cuban boyfriend said they and the other patrons were asked to leave out of respect.

‘History will absolve me’: Fidel Castro in his own words

Not everybody was sad to see Castro go. Eliecer Avila, leader of the dissident group Somos Mas, watched state television broadcast a parade of archive images of Castro meeting world leaders.

“I think this is the first step to a great change,” ­Avila said. “I think that some were waiting for today with joy. Some are toasting with champagne, others are scared about what will happen and the vast majority of the Cuban people feel uncertain.”

Additional reporting by Reuters