Cuban exiles in Miami celebrate Fidel Castro's death
In South Florida, as in the rest of the nation, many awoke Saturday morning to the news that Fidel Castro had died overnight — triggering spontaneous celebrations in the streets of Miami, provoking reflection among Cuban exiles and others, and inspiring a flood of public statements from elected officials.
Almost immediately after news of Castro’s death after midnight, jubilant Cuban exiles and others lined sidewalks and formed processions that closed streets in Southwest Miami-Dade and in Miami’s Little Havana.
Many expressed emotions ranging from joy to regret. Others, particularly travelers arriving from Cuba, were more discreet about their reactions. And though the celebrations in Miami settled down briefly in the predawn hours, they reemerged later Saturday morning with throngs waving Cuban flags, blaring car horns and banging pots and pans.
Even a local franchise of Cuban restaurants, Sergio’s, jumped in on the celebration with a Saturday only offer of a free Cuba Libre cocktail with the purchase of any entree, and a free cafecito when dining in.
Below is a blog that will be updated regularly with news and events in Miami surrounding Castro’s death.
The greatest regret that Vivian Donnell Rodriguez and her three sisters have is that their father, who died last year at 94, didn't get to witness Castro's death. A civil engineer who built roads and bridges, Octavio Donnell came to Miami in 1960; his wife and four daughters came in 1961.
"I still have my return ticket on Pan Am," says Rodriguez, who was 9 when she arrived in Miami. "I remember my father thinking next year we'll be in Cuba. That became the mantra of his generation for a while."
She called and woke her mother, now 87, at 1 a.m. on Saturday morning, to give her the news. But although her mother has been reconciled to living in the United States, with her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Rodriguez says her father never stopped pining for Cuba.
"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 says. "My Dad never gave up that nostalgia and sense of loss. It was something he spoke about until the very end. Over the years [my mother] made peace with this being home, because for her home is where her family is. For my Dad there was a piece of him that never ever separated."
Susana Garcia Behar's family was torn apart in 1965. Part of Cuba's tiny Jewish community, they had received visas to leave through an international Jewish refugee organization. But then Cuba decreed that men from 15 to 27 had to do military service, just as Behar's brother turned 15. Behar, then 9 years old, and her mother left for Venezuela; her father and brother stayed. They soon tried to escape; her father was caught and jailed for almost a decade, her brother sent into the army. For a while Behar's mother hid their plight from her daughter; Behar discovered her father was in jail when she overheard her mother pleading with an international operator to get a call through to Cuba. When he and her brother finally got out in 1979, her parents, separated for 15 years, ended their marriage. The family moved to Miami over the next few years.
"So many of us have stories," says Behar, a songwriter. "In some cases, even people that have known us for years, don't know our story and don't know the depth of our wounds. But almost every Cuban has a wound, some deeper than others. Some of us were separated from our parents or one parent, or a parent and one sibling like me, and the effect of those separations lasts a lifetime. Some of us had parents or relatives in prison, some of us never saw them again. I have cried a lot today. I have cried for the 9 year old girl I once was, for my 15 year old brother, for my mother and for my father and for that tragic day when we said goodbye. I have cried for the 15 years that we were separated, I have cried for the tears my mother hid to protect me and for the tears my father and brother shed while we were too far away to console them. I have cried for me and for others."
"Around the world, a lot of people don't know the human side of what happened. We don't know until we hear from somebody who has that in their own flesh and heart and has to live with that for the rest of their life."
Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho issued a written statement Saturday that the public system was prepared for a mass migration of Cubans to South Florida following Fidel Castro’s death — an event the U.S. Coast Guard has yet to see materialize.
“Miami-Dade County Public Schools has a preparedness plan in place that contemplates a potential influx of child and adult learners,” Carvalho said. “We are ready to work with state and federal entities to secure the appropriate and necessary support to deliver educational services to all who, in light of today’s development, may arrive in our community. Just as we did during the 1980 Mariel Boatlift and the 1994 Cuban rafter exodus, this school district will continue its long-standing history of opening our arms to welcome, embrace, and educate all students.”
Neither Damian Rojo, nor his parents, who are both deceased, ever wanted to return to Cuba.
The family left in 1971 after winning a lottery for exit visas. Rojo, 53, was only 7-years-old at the time, but he remembers what it was like to be branded as traitors. His father, who had to work from dawn till dusk cutting sugar cane as the price of asking to leave, would come home and deposit his pay, seven cents, into his son's palm.
Members of the neighborhood watch committee told Rojo that his mother and two sisters would be strip-searched naked at the airport. “It was the kind of thing they said to put fear in you,” he says.
At school Rojo, then in kindergarten, and other students whose families were trying to leave were called “gusanos” or worms.
“They would separate communist kids — they called them ‘patriots’ — and gusanos,” remembered Rojo, an artist. “Everyone who was on the lottery was identified and segregated. During snack time they would get guava and cheese, and we would get crackers. We would take a pencil and blacken the cracker to make it taste like it was buttered. During activities they would go sing patriotic songs, and we couldn't sing.”
Worst was his teacher, Sofia Buhan.
“It's so weird I remember her name,” said Rojo. “She was a rabid communist and hated us. One day I was sitting in class, I asked her if I could use the restroom. She kept saying no. Hours went by. Finally I peed on myself. I sat there in a pool of my own urine crying and she called me a mariquita (slang for “little queer”).
Rojo's mother Blanca Aurora Rojo died three years ago, at age 78; his father Wenceslao Rodriguez was 86 when he died a year ago. Adamantly pro-embargo, they never returned; and they begged Rojo not to go either.
“They were pragmatic, they knew we were gonna live here,” Rojo said. “For the most part they had given up hope on change for Cuba. They brought lots of family but they wouldn't go.”
“I haven't gone back. A few years ago I was all excited about going, but it passed. I might go this year. But I don't have any living family in Cuba. I would just go to see where I lived, my old street. But I'd be seeing Cuba like anybody else.”
— Jordan Levin
Ninety-year-old Mary Jimenez was one of nine children. But she is the only one in her family who lived to see Fidel Castro die.
She was in a wheelchair on Calle Ocho in front of Versailles restaurant on Saturday afternoon with perfectly coiffed white hair, waving a small Cuban flag.
When asked how she felt about Castro’s death, she smiled and nodded profusely.
Her niece, Margarita Fernandez, 57, was pushing the wheelchair and explained that her aunt left Cuba in 1959, one of six siblings who made it off the island. The other three died in Cuba.
Fernandez shared her aunt's joy.
“I have been waiting for this day since I was a little girl,” she said.
Fernandez was two years old when her family left Cuba and said that her father almost didn’t make it off the island. He was a doctor and in those days the Cuban regime was especially careful not to let doctors leave the country.
“He told my mother, ‘If they take me off the plane, take the kids and go’,” Fernandez recalled. The whole family made it safely to Miami in 1960, but Fernandez's father died before Castro did.
— Kyra Gurney
Crowds in front of Versailles restaurant on Calle Ocho continued to grow in the early afternoon Saturday as speakers blasted Cuban music and some began to dance in front of the iconic Cuban restaurant.
Others carried grim messages for Castro. One man held a long wooden stake with a recreation of Fidel Castro's head on the end and a sign reading "LA SOLUCION," or the solution, underneath.
A few people posed for selfies with the stake, but one woman pulled down the top of her toddler's stroller as she walked by to shield her child from the bloodied plastic head.
Nearby, a couple held up a large sign reading, in both Spanish and English, "Satan Fidel is now yours".
Some also showed their support for President-elect Donald Trump. One man carried a cardboard sign reading “Castro dead Trump effect”. A mother and daughter walking their dog through the crowd wore matching red “Make America Great Again” hats. Earlier in the day a Trump Pence campaign sign could be spotted in the crowd among dozens of American and Cuban flags of varying sizes.
— Kyra Gurney
Musician Elsten Torre’ mother, Elsa, called him screaming with joy at 8 a.m. Saturday.
“I thought she had won the lottery,” said Torres, 51. “For her, today is a moment to rejoice. It's very symbolic — the tyrant is finally dead.”
But that joy comes late for the Torres family, whose early years were forever scarred by Castro’s rule.
Elsa Leyva Torres was 26-years-old when she left Cuba with Torres, then just one-year-old, and his older brother, in 1966. She had to leave her husband, Emigdio Torres, behind.
Originally a Castro supporter, he had turned against the communist leader and was jailed for treason for 12 years. In 1980, he was one of the people who scaled the wall of the Peruvian Embassy, sparking the Mariel exodus.
Torres was 18 when he finally met his father, who died in 2007 and never recovered from his time in prison.
“You can never really recover from something like that,” said Torres, an award-winning Miami-based songwriter and performer.
“My dad never spoke to me about his years in prison. He said it was very hard and some days he wanted to die. But we never really talked about it. I think he didn't want to burden us with the pain and the horrific things he lived through and that he saw,” Torres said. “For him to get here and finally meet his sons, we were already men. I don't think he wanted to start our relationship with him that way.”
His uncle, a musician who gave Torres his first guitar, fled the island at 17. He, too, was traumatized by the experience, and died without returning to the island.
“He didn't get to grow up there,” says Torres. “He came to a country that accepted him, but he never felt part of America. He always felt he was Cuban. It's a bittersweet moment for us.”
— Jordan Levin
Political prisoner Ofelia Benavides and her son, Omar Martinez, endured the worst that Fidel Castro’s government could inflict on its people.
Arrested in the mid-60's for helping a counter-revolutionary movement in Pinar del Rio, Benavides was imprisoned in the notorious Reclusorio Nacional de Guanajay, the national women's prison outside Havana, for 16 years.
She was held naked in a box, water dripping onto her head; later, because she refused to wear the prison uniform, she was left naked in a cage.
Martinez, just two months old when Cuban police arrested his mother, was breastfed in a jail and later passed around to strangers by relatives too afraid to take him in.
“I lived in ten foster homes because my mother’s family, her sisters and brothers and cousins, were supporters of the Castro regime,” said Martinez, now 53. “I was like a hot potato — they didn't want the son of a political prisoner. I was raised by neighbors and people I didn't know. I slept on the streets.”
But worst were the times when, as a child of four or five, he went to visit his mother. Children, but not adults, were allowed to visit political prisoners. Martinez said he and other children were strip searched, boys and girls together, because guards thought they might smuggle contraband into the jail.
“We went to a room just for the kids, boys and girls together, stripped of our clothes. We had to bend down,” Martinez remembered. “They made us jump to see if we had something [in our rectum]. I remember we were all crying, holding hands, naked in that room. The animals would make us jump up and down. I will never, ever forgive them for that. It's the worst thing that's ever happened to me in my life. Every time I remember that I cry and I feel it again.”
In 1980, during the Mariel Boatlift, as Cuban authorities emptied the jails to send political prisoners, gays, and other so-called “undesirables” to the United States, Benavides was hustled out of her cell in the middle of the night and placed on a boat to Key West.
Two weeks later, Martinez arrived in Miami. They have lived together ever since. But he has never forgiven the Castro government for taking away his mother.
“We have been best friends since 1980, when we started getting to know each other,” he says. “But even though I tried, I was never able to recover the mother and son relationship. That's what hurts the most, of all they took away from us.”
He says that his mother has always refused to speak about what happened to her. “She thought to talk about this was to give it power," he says.
“I feel good,” said Benavides, 81, who heard the news with her son at about 10 a.m. Saturday morning. “I never thought this day would come. It’s a surprise I never thought I would see. I thought I would die first. I’m filled with happiness.”
Martinez says they were overcome with emotion. “We started holding each other,” he says. “We both started crying and laughing at the same time. It's something I've never done before.”
— Jordan Levin
Like many in Miami’s Cuban exile community, Guillermo Valdes took to the streets on Saturday morning carrying the painful memories of loved ones who suffered under Castro.
Valdez, 57, walked quietly alongside a mass of people waving Cuban and American flags and chanting libertad or liberty on Calle Ocho in front of Versailles restaurant.
He was there to represent his father, who had been imprisoned for three years in Cuba in the 1960s and died six months ago.
“They’ve suffered so much throughout the years,” Valdes said of his parents and the older generation of Cubans celebrating in Miami.
The elder Guillermo Valdes was jailed in 1966 for trying to build a boat to take his family to the United States.
Valdes remembers going to visit his father in prison and seeing a man who was malnourished beyond recognition. When the elder Valdes was released after three years behind bars, the family fled to the United States.
But Valdes never recovered from the psychological trauma of his incarceration. He suffered from severe anxiety and was unable to work, so the younger Valdes got a job at Versailles at the age of 13 to help support his family.
When Valdes' 87-year-old mother woke up this morning and heard the news, he said, her face was contorted with pain as she remembered her husband and the family members who didn't live to see this day.
“I hope God gives him the mercy that he never showed to his people,” she said to her son.
Watching the outpouring of joy on Calle Ocho, Tania and Robert Ros felt ambivalence over Castro’s death.
“I feel sad because my mom’s generation isn’t here, but at the same time satisfied that I'm able to be here in this moment,” said Tania Ros, 75.
Her family left Cuba in the 1960s and her mother died about three years ago.
“For them, remembering, melancholy, sad, but also excited, a lot of feelings,” Ros said.
Her husband, Robert Ros, 77, said he felt the same way because his father hadn't lived to see Castro die. Although the couple said Castro's death had important symbolic significance for them, they didn't think it would have a significant impact on daily life in Cuba.
“The island isn't going to change at all,” said Robert Ros.
— Kyra Gurney
Many travelers arriving at Miami International Airport from Cuba were tight-lipped about their president’s death.
The majority of passengers 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 taxi-cab 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 the airports had broadcast 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: “I can't talk about that."
A young man told reporters Internet access was down on the island as many tried to communicate with family members in the United States.
“It wasn’t working the entire night. I think they are shutting down access,” he said.
Mercedes Borego of Miami, told the Herald “fear filled the airport” in Havana.
“You cant talk about this over there,” she said. “Everyone kept the news to themselves. You can't express emotions because you know it will be bad for you.”
She added that the news will hopefully change the future of the communist regime. She left Cuba three years ago and started returning to visit recently.
“Let's not forget that Raul is still in power,” she said. “Hopefully in time Cuba can be how it once was, free.”
One woman said she felt insulted that people in Miami are celebrating the death of her leader.
“He is a human being. Why would we ever celebrate someone's death. No matter if they're your enemy?”
— Monique O. Madan
At Dominoes Park in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, Pedro Gonzalez shared a cafecito with his cousin and reflected on Castro’s death.
“These are the days we dreamed about,” said Gonzalez, 48. “To be here in Miami, drinking this, and be able to say ‘He’s dead’.”
Gonzalez fled the island 24 years ago, and he and his cousin, Eduardo Crespo, 54, recalled the difficulties of growing up in Castro's Cuba.
Crespo was sent to a school in the countryside, away from his family, at the age of 7, where he was forced to work in the fields. He left Cuba 14 years ago and is a painter in Miami.
“For me it is an immense sadness to be separated from my family,” he said.
As the two men shared their coffee in the shade, cars drove by on Calle Ocho honking in celebration.
— Kyra Gurney
Fidel Castro's death was not treated as an official emergency by Miami-Dade County.
The historic moment that much of Miami has been anticipating for decades unfolded as something approaching business as usual for Florida's largest local government. In a statement Saturday morning, the county's mayor said he would not be mobilizing emergency operations the way Miami-Dade does when it confronts a natural disaster.
“Miami-Dade County does not currently have plans to activate its Emergency Operations Center,” Mayor Carlos Gimenez said of the Doral facility that officials open when a hurricane approaches. “I ask that all our residents who choose to demonstrate do so peacefully.”
Gimenez did schedule an unusual Saturday morning meeting with senior staff as the county gauges reaction to Castro's death.
Juan Perez, Miami-Dade’s police director, said the agency was focused on crowd safety in the scattered gatherings across the county.
“We had celebrations as expected and will probably continue,” Perez wrote in a text message Saturday morning. “We respect the desire for many in the community to celebrate. We are asking that those involved obey the law enforcement personnel trying to keep them safe while they exercise the right to peacefully assemble.”
When Castro was firmly in power as president of Cuba, planning for reaction to his death involved imagining waves of exiles fleeing the country and mass demonstrations in Miami so large that the old Orange Bowl might be used for a rally.
But as of Saturday morning, Marlins President David Samson said there were no plans for any sort of event at Marlins Park, which stands on the site of the demolished football stadium. Local officials said they weren't planning any organized events, but instead would give breathing room to spontaneous gatherings.
Miami police shut down the streets around Versailles, the iconic Cuban restaurant that has been the de facto gathering place for Miami reaction to Cuban news. Francis Suarez, a city commissioner running for mayor, called it a “wise decision that kept things pretty contained.”
In his statement, the Cuban-born Gimenez warned against seeing Castro’s death as marking a new era for Cuba's government.
“Despite this historic moment, however, we know that Fidel’s brother Raul continues to lead one of the world’s most repressive governments,” Gimenez wrote. “My hope is that a free and democratic Cuba with the same freedoms we treasure here in the United States will soon emerge. It is what the Cuban people deserve.”
— Douglas Hanks
Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives Richard Corcoran released a statement on Fidel Castro’s death:
“At the death of any man, all we can do is measure his life based on his actions and choices. Fidel Castro brutalized and murdered a great people. He pillaged a tropical paradise. He promulgated a Godless ideology that destroyed the lives of countless families. He was a thug. His passing only makes this world a safer, better place.
“Florida has deep historical, geographic and familial ties to Cuba. I know I join all Floridians today in praying that Castro's death will somehow pave the way for freedom and democracy to at last emerge and flourish on the island.
“It also seems appropriate this day to remember the many heroes in Miami and elsewhere who stood up to this terrible dictator and never lived to see this day. May their children and their grandchildren take comfort in the memory of their courage.”
U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican, issued the following statement regarding the death of Fidel Castro:
“Fidel Castro seized power promising to bring freedom and prosperity to Cuba, but his communist regime turned it into an impoverished island prison. Over six decades, millions of Cubans were forced to flee their own country, and those accused of opposing the regime were routinely jailed and even killed.
“Sadly, Fidel Castro's death does not mean freedom for the Cuban people or justice for the democratic activists, religious leaders, and political opponents he and his brother have jailed and persecuted. The dictator has died, but the dictatorship has not. And one thing is clear, history will not absolve Fidel Castro; it will remember him as an evil, murderous dictator who inflicted misery and suffering on his own people.
“The future of Cuba ultimately remains in the hands of the Cuban people, and now more than ever Congress and the new administration must stand with them against their brutal rulers and support their struggle for freedom and basic human rights.”
Travelers arriving at Miami International Airport aboard flights from Cuba expressed mixed emotions. Some shed tears of joy while others expressed lament.
“What can I say? Fidel ripped apart my entire family,” one woman said, teary-eyed as she walked away from reporters.
Seventeen-year-old Maria Ricardo from Tampa told the Miami Herald the streets in Varadero were quiet. She had come back from visiting her aunt on the island and woke up to the news on the radio.
“My aunt was crying uncontrollably; that’s always been her president,” said Ricardo. “They played Castro’s favorite songs, really sad music.”
“Cuba is mourning today. No one will go to work and places will be closed, my aunt said.”
Others, however, appeared indifferent. One man who had returned to Miami from visiting relatives said it was “his turn,” referring to Fidel Castro.
“He was 90. It’s like any other death,” he said. “No big deal.”
Many passengers told reporters they found out about Castro’s death while in the airport in Varadero, while others said they learned the news after arriving in Miami.
“Thanks for the news,” one man told reporters in Spanish. “I Just found out.”
Meanwhile, one woman told the Herald she doesn't “have time to talk about Fidel.”
“I haven’t seen my family in 10 years,” she said. “I think that’s worth talking about.”
— Monique O. Madan
U.S. Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, a Democrat, issued a written statement in response to Castro’s death, urging Democratic reform on the communist island.
“Now that Fidel is gone, the U.S. should continue to press hard against his brother Raul and continue to take steps to support the Cuban people until he provides basic rights and freedoms to all the people of Cuba. In the meantime, the new Trump administration should continue the policy of opening travel and communication with Cuba.”
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, also issued a written statement regarding Castro’s death. Scott’s calendar for Saturday include calls with President-elect Donald Trump and South Florida elected officials, including Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado.
“I join Cuban-Americans and Floridians across the country who are incredibly hopeful for the future of Cuba. After decades of oppression, the Cuban people deserve freedom, peace and democracy. I have met so many Cubans who have come to Florida to flee the tyranny, brutality, and communism of the Castro brothers’ oppressive regime and now is the time to look at policy changes that will demand democracy in Cuba. Today’s news should usher in an era of freedom, peace and human dignity for everyone in Cuba and the State of Florida stands ready to assist in that mission. I spoke to President-elect Trump this morning to let him know that the State of Florida will help his administration in any way to support a pro-democracy movement in Cuba.”
U.S. Senator Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, issued the following statement on the passing of Fidel Castro:
“Since the end of the Cold War, peace, prosperity and progress have largely been the order of the day for hundreds of millions of people in the Americas, but not for the people of Cuba. Since he took power over half a century ago, Fidel Castro proved to be a brutal dictator who must always be remembered by his gross abuses of human rights, systemic exploitation of Cubans, unrelenting repression, and stifling censorship upon his own people.
“Fidel's oppressive legacy will haunt the Cuban regime and our hemisphere forever. Under the Castros’ reign, Cubans have not had one single free election. Not one Cuban has been allowed to fully own his or her own company. Not one legitimate trade union has been allowed to be organized. Not one peaceful protest has occurred without being brutally squashed by the regime. This was Cuba’s reality when the Berlin wall fell and it continues to be its reality in 2016.
“Fidel Castro’s death represents an historic opportunity for the United States. Instead of condoning the continuation of repressive actions of a repressive regime simply because some believe it’s been long enough, the United States and the international community must stand up and support the Cuban people as they seek ways to implement changes that bring the fundamental principles of democracy, reinstate the freedoms that inform society and unleash the creative and inventive power-of-people to build a better life for themselves and their families.
“Contrary to the romanticized idea being peddled by some, recent lopsided concessions in U.S. policy towards Cuba have not led to an iota of positive changes in the way the regime rules or the Cuban people live. We know that the Castro regime is still a brutal totalitarian dictatorship that continues to deprive the Cuban people of the basic human rights we so proudly proclaim to support around the world.
“It is my sincere hope that we will use this moment to listen to the human rights activists, the Cubans who have sacrificed day and night in a peaceful struggle for freedom to reexamine and determine a new policy toward the Castro regime. We can never forget those who have suffered and died at the hands of Fidel and Raul Castro. And as long as I have a voice, I will continue to speak out against the Castro regime, against any effort to legitimize it or reward it, and for the thousands of men and women in Cuba who have been forced to live under the iron fist of their repressive dictatorship. Today, Cubans are one step closer to achieving freedom.”
A U.S. Coast Guard spokesman indicated Saturday morning that the agency has not implemented any extraordinary measures in the immediate aftermath of Castro’s death.
Jonathan Lally, the spokesman, also suggested that the Coast Guard has not seen evidence of a sudden Cuban migrant exodus because of Castro's demise.
“There is nothing out of the normal parameters,” Lally told el Nuevo Herald. “We are continuing our mission, interdicting migrants. We haven’t changed our mission. The Coast Guard is going to continue its patrolling and its work with federal, state and local partners to enforce the laws within our authority and jurisdiction.”
el Nuevo Herald staff writer Alfonso Chardy and Miami Herald staff writer Charles Rabin contributed to this report.