MIAMI — Chanting “Free Cuba! Down with tyranny!” hundreds of people took to the streets of Little Havana on Saturday to celebrate the death of a man whose brutal dictatorship drove them or their parents from their native Cuba.
Fidel Castro was old and in failing health, but he was also a tyrant who prohibited free speech, jailed or killed political opponents and even abolished Christmas as a national holiday. So when his death was announced late Friday, those who fled Cuba for a better life in the United States saw cause for jubilation.
“It brought tears to my eyes,” said Jonathan Gomez, 39, a delivery driver who came from Cuba to Miami in the 1980 mass emigration known as the Mariel boatlift. “This would have been the happiest day of my dad’s life.”
Gomez said he himself was “looking forward to going back to my country one day.”
Castro’s death, of course, might have a muted political impact, given that he had not ruled Cuba in years. The 90-year-old temporarily transferred power to his younger brother, Raúl Castro, in 2006 and formally resigned in 2008 — bringing his nearly 50-year reign to an end.
Some U.S. politicians warned that his brother will merely keep up Fidel Castro’s abuses, though in recent years, President Obama has sought to normalize relations with Cuba. The advocacy organization Human Rights Watch warns that the Cuban government “continues to repress dissent and discourage public criticism,” using “short-term arbitrary arrests of human rights defenders, independent journalists, and others.”
“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,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who has referred to himself as the “son of exiles” although records show that his parents moved to the United States nearly three years before Castro took power. “The dictator has died, but the dictatorship has not.”
Other Cuban American politicians issued similar statements. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said Castro’s “oppressive legacy will haunt the Cuban regime and our hemisphere forever.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), whose father, Rafael, came to the United States from Cuba in the 1950s, wrote on Facebook: “Fidel Castro’s death cannot bring back his thousands of victims, nor can it bring comfort to their families. Today we remember them and honor the brave souls who fought the lonely fight against the brutal Communist dictatorship he imposed on Cuba.”
Across South Florida, those who fled from Cuba reflected Saturday on how Castro made their lives miserable and drove them to make harrowing treks to the United States. Orestes Andino, a Havana native who served 11 years in a Cuban prison, was among demonstrators marching with a Cuban flag in Miami.
“I didn’t get out until I was 28 years old because of that son of a bitch,” Andino said. “I came here in 1980 and I have been fighting for Cuba ever since. Always.”
Although Andino said he was happy Castro is dead, he lamented that communists still control Cuba. “I hope Donald Trump puts the squeeze on the Cuban government,” he said of the U.S. president-elect.
Francis Suarez, a city commissioner whose father, Xavier Suarez, was Miami’s first Cuban-born mayor, said he woke up around 3 a.m. Saturday to the sound of helicopters buzzing over his home, which is a few blocks from Little Havana’s iconic Versailles restaurant. Upon confirming the news that Castro had died, Suarez said he got dressed and headed over to Eighth Street. “I had heard this so many times, I wondered if this time was it really true,” Suarez said. “For me, being the son of the first Cuban mayor of Miami, it is a particularly special moment. It’s always been a dream that Cuba will become free during my lifetime.”
Suarez said he hoped Castro’s death would result in the death of his communist ideology and lead to a more democratic society in Cuba. “The hope is that this catalyzes change in Cuba,” he said. “That the Cuban people are galvanized and can take back control of their government and their lives.”
Peter Lamelas took a Red Cross boat from Cuba to Florida when he was 4 and now is the chief executive of MD Now Urgent Care centers in South Florida. Lamelas said he recalled when Castro showed up at his family’s home in the early 1960s and seized his father’s brand-new Chevrolet.
“I had red hair, and my brother had red hair, and before he left, Castro rubbed the top of our heads and said, ‘Oh, two little redheaded Cuban boys, red for the color of the revolution,’ ” Lamelas said. “To this day that’s why I think I’m losing my hair. It was a long-lasting poison.”
Lamelas, whose father owned several El Gato Negro stores in Cuba before the 1959 revolution, said he understood others’ joy, but he viewed the day as one of reflection. He said his parents had to “start all over again” when they fled to Miami, and they began with just $100 from the U.S. government. His mother, Mercedes, cried when she heard that the dictator had died, Lamelas said.
“She was just remembering everything, remembering the friends who died in firing squads, remembering when Castro sent my uncle to jail,” Lamelas said. “We talked about when we left, and the walk to the boat, with people yelling at us, calling us worms, spitting at us. The military stripped all our jewelry off and made sure we got on that boat with nothing but the clothes on our backs.
“I can thank Fidel for being the reason that I’m in this country,” he added, “but other than that, everything else he did was a crime and a fraud committed against the Cuban people, and the people who are still fighting this mythical revolution need to realize it.”
The demonstrations were peaceful, though large enough that Miami police closed down streets to facilitate them. The city’s mayor, Tomás Regalado, a Cuban American, joined revelers on the streets.
“I am proud of this celebration. The reason that I am proud of this celebration is because Fidel Castro hurt many generations of Cuba,” Regalado told a local television station. “What you see here is many, many young people that are celebrating because their fathers and grandfathers were hurt and attacked and killed by Fidel Castro.”
Regalado, whose father was a lawyer and a journalist who spent more than two decades as a political prisoner under Castro’s regime, likened the former leader’s death to Adolf Hitler’s passing.
“The world celebrated when Hitler died,” he told WSVN 7. “Today, the Cubans are celebrating the death of Fidel Castro.”
Luis Enrique Fernandez, 19, a sophomore at the University of Florida who came to the United States when he was 13, said that he had returned to his home country a few times since leaving and that conditions seemed to have improved slightly. He said he was hopeful even more would change with Castro’s death.
“My family and I don’t really wish death to come to anyone, but we’re feeling kind of liberated right now,” Fernandez said. “It’s the end of an era, and the person who was behind so much pain and suffering is gone now.”
Rozsa reported from Palm Beach, Fla., and Zapotosky from Washington. Kristine Guerra and Cleve R. Wootson Jr. in Washington contributed to this report.