Miami’s Cuban-American community tapped enduring symbols of its decades-old exile Sunday to demand a democratic future for communist Cuba now that Fidel Castro is dead — beginning with a cathartic rally planned for Wednesday at the Bay of Pigs Memorial in Little Havana for “all who have been affected by this regime.”
And not far from the museum honoring Bay of Pigs veterans, where about 100 people had gathered to call for the midweek rally, crowds formed for a second day in front of the Versailles Restaurant on Calle Ocho, where they filled the sidewalks waving American and Cuban flags as passing cars honked their horns.
Some carried photos of loved ones whom they said had been jailed and persecuted by Castro, but had not lived to learn of his death late Friday at age 90. Others banged pots and pans, and chanted rhythmic slogans in Spanish, demanding democratic reforms.
“Cuba libre ya!” Free Cuba now!
Nearly all had stories of how Castro had changed their lives, forever.
At the museum honoring the 2506 Assault Brigade, symbols abounded of the struggle — by exiles in Miami and dissidents on the island — against Castro’s rule.
Gathered in a room with walls covered by portraits of men who died in the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, brigade veterans joined with members of Damas de Blanco or Ladies in White, a government opposition movement in Cuba formed by the wives of jailed dissidents.
Throughout a half-hour press conference, they exhorted President-elect Donald Trump and Miami’s Cuban-American community to push hard for freedom in Cuba.
“The tyrant has died, but tyranny remains,” said Humberto Arguelles, president of the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association. He announced a rally “for liberty and democracy in Cuba” on Wednesday, set to begin at the Bay of Pigs Memorial on Southwest Eighth Street and 13th Avenue at 5 p.m.
Arguelles said the rally will include a memorial for the victims of Castro’s repressive state, a “unified message from the Cuban resistance,” and a call to action.
Maria Elena Alpizar, a member of Ladies in White, said that upon learning of Castro’s death, she felt relieved. “I thought, ‘I survived him,’ ” said Alpizar, who added that she lived in Cuba for 47 years “accosted and persecuted”.
“This is not the end of communism,” she lamented, “but the end of an era.”
Alpizar said that Cubans who remain on the island are “Fidelistas,” loyal to the former president but not communists faithful to the current regime led by Raúl Castro.
She expressed hope that the death of Fidel Castro, as well as America’s election of Donald Trump as the next president of the United States, will turn the tide toward democracy in Cuba.
Arguelles also thanked Trump for his “truthful and morally correct words of encouragement for the Cuban people” in his statements following Castro’s death.
Early Saturday morning, Trump called Castro a “brutal dictator” and promised to reverse President Barack Obama’s agreements and other U.S. efforts at rapprochement with the Cuban government.
Arguelles said he expects “thousands” to attend Wednesday’s rally in Little Havana.
“People are going to feel more united than ever,” he said.
In a rapturous plea for unity, the meeting ended with the exile community’s battle cry: “Viva Cuba Libre!”
The crowd shouted back its response: “Viva!”
Following the announcement, about two dozen Ladies in White and members of Brigade 2506 marched down Southwest 30th Avenue in Miami — also known as Damas de Blanco Way.
Dressed in white and carrying Cuban flags, either in their hands or printed on their scarves, the Ladies in White said they marched on behalf of their counterparts in Cuba, who had skipped their usual Sunday march this week to avoid being accused of provocation by government authorities on the island.
But Little Havana was not the only place in Miami where Cuban Americans gathered on Sunday to express their emotions and desires for democracy on the island after Castro’s death.
A similar, though less festive, exhortation was echoed during Sunday morning’s mass at San Lazaro Catholic Church in Hialeah, where the priest issued a stern rebuke of jubilant demonstrations celebrating Castro’s death.
“We, as Christians, cannot applaud the condemnation of anyone, no matter how bad that person has been,” Monsignor Willie Peña, who is from Cuba and serves the church in Puerto Rico, told worshipers during the mass in Miami.
“We are all Cubans and we have all been the victims of this person,” he continued, acknowledging that he, too, had felt mixed emotions upon learning of Castro’s death. But, he assured the congregation, justice was in God’s hands.
“At this moment, the book of Fidel Castro’s life is being read by God and God is dictating the sentence,” Peña said. “The only one who knows how to bring justice is God.”
As the congregation rose for the Prayers of the Faithful, which include specific mentions for respect for all human life from conception to natural death, Peña included Castro in the prayer for those who had died during the week.
Then, Peña led a prayer “for all of the people who have been the victims of this man so they can forgive.”
“Lord hear our prayer,” the congregation responded in unison.
In light of the week’s events, Peña added one more prayer, one that was no doubt on the minds of many in the packed church — as it was among those gathered in Little Havana — that Cuba “can have a little bit more freedom.”
Castro’s death elicted a response from public figures in the U.S. and abroad, including one person Miamians remember very well.
Elian Gonzalez, whose arrival in Florida 16 years ago sparked an international custody battle between the U.S. and Cuba, praised Castro and defended his legacy.
“Fidel was a friend who at a difficult moment was with my family, with my father, and made it possible for me to return to my father, to return to Cuba,” Gonzalez said in an appearance on Cuban government-run television.