Fidel Castro

For many Cuban exiles, Fidel Castro’s death is bittersweet

Emotions ran high near Miami’s ​​Calle Ocho at 37th Avenue at the news of the death of Fidel Castro Ruz at age 90. The Cuban leader died at 10:29 p.m., Nov. 25, 2016.
Emotions ran high near Miami’s ​​Calle Ocho at 37th Avenue at the news of the death of Fidel Castro Ruz at age 90. The Cuban leader died at 10:29 p.m., Nov. 25, 2016.

Guillermo Valdes, 57, paused on Calle Ocho to share the story of two Cuban-American parents: one who lived to see Fidel Castro’s death, and one who died six months short of a moment long-awaited in Miami.

His mother, 87, helped the family flee Cuba in the 1960s, and she winced Saturday morning at the thought of relatives who suffered under Castro but didn’t live long enough to see his era come to a definitive end.

Valdes’ father spent three years in a Cuban prison for the crime of trying to build a boat, and was so thin that Valdes remembered not recognizing him during a jailhouse visit. He died six months ago at 94, and Valdes said he joined Little Havana’s throngs Saturday morning because of what the day would have meant for his father.

“I’m here,” Valdes said, “out of respect for my Dad.”

Castro’s death at age 90 finally lays down a marker for Cuban-American families across Miami, a dividing line between those who witnessed the dictator’s demise and those who didn’t make it to its historic juncture.

The day presented Miami’s oldest Cuban Americans with the chance to see how it actually feels to live in a world without Fidel Castro, and gave younger ones an opportunity to conjure how their parents and grandparents might have greeted the moment had they lived to be a part of it.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Rebeca Sosa’s father served time in a Cuban prison for resisting the Castro regime. At age 7 or 8, she had to wave goodbye to him from a balcony when friends managed to secure his hush-hush release and then a seat on an overnight flight to Mexico.

They all reunited in Miami, and nearly 60 years later, Sosa’s mother managed to sleep through the overnight clamor on nearby Calle Ocho before hearing the news of Castro’s death from a granddaughter’s early-morning phone call. “I heard my mother laughing, laughing, laughing,” Sosa said. “And I thought, oh my gosh, she found out.”

Sosa said her father would have been delighted, too, but he died in 2005.

“My father would be the one to tell you: ‘This is one of the happiest days of my life,’ ” Sosa said. But she also suspected the celebration would come with cautionary words about Raúl Castro’s authoritarian regime. “ ‘This is just the beginning of the end.’ Those would have been his words.”

Vivian Donnell Rodriguez was excited enough about Castro’s death that she called her mother at 1 a.m. to deliver the news. But there was a major regret, too: that her father didn’t get to share the moment. A civil engineer who built roads and bridges, Octavio Donnell came to Miami in 1960; his wife and four daughters came a year later. He died in 2015 at the age of 94.

“It is so sad and painful for myself and my sisters to know that Dad passed away not knowing Fidel was gone, not being able to set foot in the country where he was born,” she said. “My Dad never gave up that nostalgia and sense of loss. It was something he spoke about until the very end.”

The Castro news also brought a reckoning on how much one man’s death could actually mean after decades of exile and harsh memories of a dictatorship’s damage.

Georgina Cid Castro, 80, served 17 years in a Cuban prison and was released in 1978, when she married Orlando Castro, another political prisoner.

One of her brothers was shot dead by Batista police after he had been granted asylum in Havana’s Haitian Embassy. Another was executed by Castro in 1968. Her father also died while in custody in 1967. She has lived in Miami since 1979.

“I lament that his death wasn’t earlier, but I don’t celebrate,” Castro said. “I’m not comfortable with that. I have too much sadness in my heart. The Cuban people have suffered the brutality of this regime for many years. The damage has been done.”

Ofelia Benavides, 81, recalled 16 years in prison under the Castro regime for counter-revolutionary activities. When she resisted guards, they stuffed her naked into a box. Her son, Omar Martinez, now 53, had to endure group strip searches with other boys and girls during prison visits.

The Castro news brought a surprise for mother and son: waves of both laughter and tears as they hugged.

For Benavides, living through Castro’s death meant a milestone that had seemed too elusive to ever arrive.

“I feel good,” she said. “I never thought this day would come. … I thought I would die first. I’m filled with happiness.”

There was no joy on the face of Valdes’ mother when she learned of Castro’s death. Amid the celebratory crowds on Calle Ocho, he recalled sharing the news with the 87-year-old and seeing pain on her face, which she said came from thoughts of her husband and others who didn’t live to see the day. She had a parting wish for Castro.

“I hope,” she told her son, “God gives him the mercy that he never showed to his people.”

El Nuevo Herald staff writer Sonia Osorio and Miami Herald staff writer Luisa Yanez contributed to this report.