Decades of anger and hope ingrained into generations of Miami’s Cuban exile community burst forth like champagne from the bottle after midnight Friday and continued throughout Saturday in a jubilant street party that was part wake, part independence day.
After so many false alarms, it had actually happened: Fidel Castro was dead.
“I find it hard to believe,” Dan Martin, a Miami-born engineer whose mother fled Castro’s Cuba in 1962, said before dawn outside a Latin Café in Hialeah. “We’ve been out here so many times when it wasn’t true — and this time it is.”
At first greeted by wary skepticism, Castro’s death at age 90 — announced around midnight Friday on state television by his younger brother and Cuban leader Raúl Castro — released a raw and emotive celebration as a stunned Miami-Dade County danced on the grave of a despot. Thousands flocked to Cuban landmarks in Little Havana, Westchester and Hialeah to join in a revelry that was simultaneously impromptu and planned, since there was no doubt where the diaspora crowds would go.
By the thousands, people surrounded the iconic Versailles Cuban restaurant on Southwest Eighth Street and La Carreta on Bird Road to bang pots and pans, light fireworks, and wave huge Cuban flags. Parents woke children in their beds. Some popped bubbly and sparked Cuban cigars saved just for the occasion. Others carried shovels, alluding to a burial. A few jolted out of bed by the late-night news appeared clad in pajamas and, in one case, flamingo slippers.
“Beautiful madness,” 29-year-old Christopher Sweeney said.
By about 2 a.m., all Miami television networks were broadcasting live, and police had closed parts of West 49th Street in Hialeah and three blocks of traffic on Calle Ocho, where helicopters hovered overhead and a march randomly launched, with one couple dancing salsa in the middle of the swarm. Later, a woman with a microphone led a crowd through a triumphant rendition of the Cuban national anthem.
Generations removed from the island, many pulled up the lyrics on their phones to sing along.
Around them, vendors hawked Cuban flags and beaded necklaces. One man inexplicably dressed like Apollo Creed from “Rocky” before a boxing match danced around for hours in a Donald Trump mask.
They came for those who didn’t live long enough to witness it.
“What you see here is people that have suffered. But what you see here also is many young people that celebrated because of their fathers and their grandfathers that were hurt and attacked and killed by Fidel Castro,” Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, one of the thousands of children flown to Miami in the 1960s under Operation Pedro Pan, said in a 3:30 a.m. television interview.
“They’re celebrating the death of a dictator. ... And they have every reason in the world to celebrate. As the world celebrated when Hitler died, today the Cubans are celebrating the death of Fidel Castro — and it will go on for hours and for days.”
In an odd historical coincidence that did not go unnoticed, Castro died 17 years to the day fter a 5-year-old boy named Elián González was rescued off Florida’s coast, also on Thanksgiving weekend.
Having prepared for Castro’s demise for decades, Miami-Dade didn’t even have to declare an emergency Saturday. Monroe County, home to the Florida Keys, and the U.S. Coast Guard monitored the seas, with no signs of the sort of mass Cuban exodus that had been predicted years ago, when Castro was still in power.
Instead, Saturday resembled a national holiday for Miami’s Cuban community, many of whom still have family on the island, or who saw their parents outlived by the man who pushed them into exile. With word of Castro’s death spreading overnight, many families learned of his passing after dawn and called each other to share the news, like the mother of Miami musician Elsten Torres, who called him at 8 a.m. screaming with joy.
“I thought she had won the lottery,” said Torres, 51, who came from Cuba in 1966 with his mother and brother when he was 1. “For her today is a moment to rejoice.”
As night bled into morning, the disparity in life and reaction between Miami Cubans and those still living on the communist island became apparent at Miami International Airport. The majority of passengers coming off an arriving flight from Cuba asked not to be named by reporters as they spoke about their reaction to the news. Others asked to be left alone as they walked away in tears.
“We’re not supposed to talk about this,” one man said. “At the airport in Havana, people were quiet and hushed. I found out from the taxicab driver, who told me to keep my reaction to myself. We aren’t allowed to speak our minds there, but just know that I am the happiest man alive.”
The man, who said his first name was Giovanny, told reporters that the airports had broadcast sympathetic statements from Venezuelan and Peruvian leaders late in the night. One woman appeared surprised when she was asked about how she took the news.
Her eyes wide, she said: “I can’t talk about that.”
Castro’s death isn’t expected to change the political situation on the island in the short run, with his brother still entrenched in power.
“Fidel, tirano, llévate a tu hermano,” they chanted outside Versailles. Fidel, tyrant, take your brother. There was also a variant: “Raúl, tirano, vete con tu hermano” Raúl, tyrant, go with your brother.
Enrique Rodriguez, 58, yelled about Raúl to cheers: “One down, now comes the other. He can go to hell just like his brother.”
By midday, as crowds in front of Versailles continued to swell, one man held a long wooden stake with a recreation of Fidel Castro’s head on the end and a sign reading “LA SOLUCION,” the solution. A few people posed for selfies with the stake.
Nearby, a couple held up a large sign reading, in both Spanish and English, “Satan, Fidel is now yours.”
We are not celebrating one man’s death, but the death of an ideology. We are celebrating that little piece of liberty we got back today
Saturday’s festivities over an old, ailing man’s death may come off as crass to other parts of the world. But Miami’s celebration was as much about a community embracing itself as one celebrating the death of someone they hated. It was a moment of reflection and recognition of the decades that have passed since Castro seized control in 1959, pushing exiles to pour their dreams into a new city across the Florida Straits.
It felt like the sort of moment people would recall for years to come: Remember where you were when Fidel died?
That’s why Carlos Lopez, 40, brought his 12-year-old daughter, Tiffany, out in the middle of the night: to witness history.
“We are not celebrating one man’s death, but the death of an ideology,” Lopez said. “We are celebrating that little piece of liberty we got back today.”
He hugged his daughter tight: “She’ll tell her grandchildren about this one day.”
Miami Herald staff writers Joey Flechas, Carlos Frías, Kyra Gurney, Douglas Hanks, Alex Harris, Chabeli Herrera, Jordan Levin, David J. Neal, Monique O. Madan, Charles Rabin, Carli Teproff and Ana Veciana-Suarez, and el Nuevo Herald staff writers Alfonso Chardy, Nora Gámez Torres and Brenda Medina, contributed to this report, as did McClatchy correspondent Vera Bergengruen.