Death took our loved ones first

A man waves the Cuban flag on the streets of Miami after Fidel Castro’s death.
A man waves the Cuban flag on the streets of Miami after Fidel Castro’s death. AP

The city where my family’s exile story began and ended erupted Friday in a clamoring of pots and pans over the death of Fidel Castro.

But to my ears, the ruckus in Miami rang hollow. The pots and pans triggered a memory 33 years old: the sight of a Champagne bottle tucked into the back of my aunt’s refrigerator in her Havana kitchen, ready “for when he falls.”

That was the catch phrase that for decades drifted across the Florida Straits, even in the most frigid of Cold War years between Cuba and the United States. Everyone had a plan “for when he falls.”

There would be a roast suckling pig when he falls. There would be carnivals when he falls. Fear and hyphens would vaporize when he falls.

But always another decade or two would grind by. And actual deaths happened, so many of them.

March 8, 1983. My grandmother died. She was cooking a small pot of rice and beans when a searing headache knocked her off her feet in her kitchen.

July 4, 2002. My grandfather died. He had spent decades in exile, tracing the unpaved roads of our native Puerto Padre in memories so vivid they seemed only days old.

Sept. 15, 2006. My mother died. She was just 24 when she came to this country. She worked factory jobs to help support three children. It was in exile that she learned to cook Cuban. She raised us on meals so divine we never realized we had no money.

April 2, 2014. My father died and with him died the final bit of my personal Cuba.

They died in Miami, without returning to the island. Their belongings contained no selfies in Havana, no happy-native souvenirs, no poses next to those distressed, old-city backdrops that populate Instagram. Cuba coursed through their veins. It accented their conversations and spiced up their skillets.

Until, one by one, time silenced each voice, each stove, each home.

Yet, stunningly, there was always Fidel. He was vicious, the executor of thousands, the warden of many more. He blustered, inflicting his mania on the population. As he amassed wealth, homes, and vehicles, Cuba seemed stuck in perennial failure-to-launch mode.

Deep into his fourth decade of rule, an ailing Castro yielded power to his brother, Raul, and a new era began in Cuba. But even as Fidel faded away, the island continued to churn in his shadow. Was he alive? Was he dead? The topic alone filled many a demitasse at the takeout windows of Calle Ocho in Miami.

Meantime, actual deaths happened, so many of them.

Then again, life in the time of Fidel was never really about life. It was about waiting and death. Yes, we lived, we loved, we grew. But as it related to Fidel, life didn’t hold a candle to death.

To much of the world, Fidel Castro Ruz was a savior who lifted his poor, illiterate masses to “developing world” status. But what that world didn’t see or appreciate was the human toll, the political opponents who filled the prisons and firing squad lines, the arbitrary laws and trappings of a one-party system.

Leaving the country was/is a crime. Not supporting the regime equates the crime of “dangerousness.” Neighborhood watch committees turned residential blocks into spy networks. Opting out of Communism was a punishable offense.

At one time, listening to American jazz could land you in jail. Dare to think differently and you can kiss your job, your home, your family, your future goodbye. Yes, medical schools turned out brilliant doctors, but where was the medication? The regime blamed the embargo – for everything.

But my family, like many who had settled in Miami, knew Castro was no hero. He was no “president.” He was a dictator. He was a racist. Doubt that? Take a glance at the most punished dissidents of the last few decades — most of them are black.

He was a homophobe. Doubt that? Look up “UMAP.” Many of Cuba’s gay men, along with others deemed “anti-social,” were sent to a series of forced labor camps dubbed the Military Units to Aid Production.

As I grieve my loved ones, it helps me to think of Cuba in this way: It’s an island, just an island. The rest of it recedes into the background and it all feels rather muted. Perhaps this is why not even the clanging of pots in the Miami streets registers as noise. It’s as silent as the cork on that old Champagne bottle in my aunt’s refrigerator.

I don’t know what ever became of it. My aunt died in the early 1990s without ever opening it.

Then again, I’m sure it has turned to vinegar by now. Time is not kind to Champagne or to dictators.

Liz Balmaseda writes for The Palm Beach Post.