While Cubans on the island celebrated the 85th birthday of Fidel Castro with a serenade concert, exiles in Little Havana wished the communist leader would not see another year.
“He is a symbol of evil and what’s needed is for his life to end as soon as possible,” said Jesus Permuy, 75, as he gathered for coffee with other longtime exiles at Versailles on Calle Ocho.
Permuy said he believes officials on the communist island are open to change — but not while the revolutionary icon lives.
Castro still casts a long shadow over Cuban society and the government, though he is rarely seen in public these days. He marked his 85th birthday outside of the public spotlight Saturday.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
At Versailles, the political backdrop to Cuban exiles for 40 years, Castro’s birthday was not the main topic of conversation. Permuy and his colleagues talked instead of the Obama administration and its policy toward Cuba, such as relaxing travel restrictions to allow people-to-people exchanges on the island. But Castro was not forgotten.
“Year after year our contempt for him has increased,” said Lázaro Segundo, 83, who lives in Kendall. “We have a certain joy because it’s one year less that he will live.”
Even in retirement, Castro has continued to be a player on the island. Raul has said he consults with his older brother, and some Cuba-watchers say his presence has acted as a brake on reforms that Raul is betting will save the island’s economy by loosening some state control.
“I think the issue is how long (Fidel) is going to linger on and how long he’s going to meddle in the government,” Ann Louise Bardach told The Associated Press. Bardach is a longtime Cuba watcher and author of the book “Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana and Washington.”
“As long as he is alive and he is compos mentis, he’s not going to change his thinking,” Bardach told the wire service. “He’s not going to have an epiphany about economic policy. He’s going to do what he always did, which is the preservation of the revolution at all costs.”
Castro has publicly backed Raul’s reforms, however, even though he expressed ideological dislike for similar openings while president.Stopping by Versailles’ outdoor window for a cafecito, retired trumpet player Manuel Coll, 77, said he didn’t care much that it was Castro’s birthday.
“That man should never have been born,” Coll said.
On Saturday, Coll received two letters from his older brother, his last surviving family member on the communist island. Coll’s family never joined him in Florida after he arrived in Miami on July 2, 1960, to play a Fourth of July concert in Bayfront Park, and ended up staying. Coll still carries his worn sky blue passport, titled the Republic of Cuba, with him.
In Havana, neither Castro nor his younger brother and presidential successor, Raul Castro, attended a birthday bash held Friday night. Two dozen musical acts from across Latin America held a concert in his honor.
“What we say in the songs of our invited artists will be little next to what he deserves,” Alfredo Vera, one of the organizers, said late Friday, according to The AP. “Congratulations, beloved and eternal comandante.”
Castro has appeared infrequently since he stepped down in 2006, at first temporarily, and then permanently in 2008, due an intestinal illness that he later said nearly killed him.
At the Friday night concert, First Vice President Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, who also delivered the keynote address for Revolution Day on July 26, was the highest ranking among several government officials in the presidential seats at Karl Marx Theater.
A gregarious public speaker as president, Castro is seen publicly these days in official still photographs and video footage, such as recent images showing him with Raul and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who is receiving cancer treatments in Cuba.
Castro seemed unsteady on his feet when he made a surprise showing at a Communist Party Congress in April, walking to his seat with the help of an aide. It was at that same gathering that the party for the first time named a leadership council without him on it, as Fidel left his last official position.
In retirement, Castro has been a prolific writer of newspaper columns and a series of books, including autobiographical accounts of the events that led him to take power after the 1959 revolution.
“Nobody better than he understands the basic, primordial part of our history,” official biographer Katuska Blanco said in an interview aired Friday on state TV. “He also has always said that history is made by leaders and the people.”
A well-known Cuban politician in the 1950s, now an exile leader in Miami-Dade, Luis Conte Agüero called Castro “nothing.”
Conte Agüero arrived at Versailles in a suit and tie after a monthly breakfast meeting with other exiles, local politicians and immigrants from other Latin American countries. The topic of the meeting: Venezuela.
At one time, Conte Agüero was a political ally of Castro, when they were both members of the anticommunist party, Partido Ortodoxo.
“He was an idol,” Conte Agüero said. “Now he’s a misery to democracy.”
The Associated Press staff writer Peter Orsi contributed to this report.