MIAMI (WSVN) - Pots and pans in hand, members of South Florida’s Cuban-American community took to the streets of Miami-Dade County to mark the death of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro at age 90.
Thousands of people filled Southwest Eighth Street near 36th Avenue, in front Cafe Versailles, early Saturday morning, at around 2 a.m., some banging on pots and pans. Police were forced to temporarily close the road, about an hour later. The mood was festive as the growing crowd held up U.S. and Cuban flags and let their kitchenware be heard.
By sunrise, many had gone home to bed, and the road reopened, but it didn’t last long. Crowds swelled again by the late morning, forcing officers to close the street again, just before 10 a.m.
During initial gatherings, not even rainy weather seemed to deter those in attendance as they chanted “liberty” and popped champagne bottles, as City of Miami Police said, the crowds swelled to more than 3,500 people.
“This is a night for the Cuban people,” said Rafael Penalver, the president of the San Carlos Institute. “I can only think of my parents, of the thousands of Cubans who died without seeing this day, hoping not for the death of Castro but for the freedom of Cuba.”
After 2 a.m., In the Southwest Miami-Dade community of Westchester, a crowd gathered on Bird Road, near Southwest 87th Avenue. Miami-Dade Police advised motorists to avoid the area via Twitter.
Cars honked as people waved U.S., Cuban and Venezuelan flags cheered in front of the area’s famed Cuban restaurant La Carreta, at that intersection.
Back in the City of Miami, South Florida’s Cuban-American Congressional delegation held a news conference at 11 a.m., at the offices of Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. She was joined by U.S. representatives Mario Diaz-Balart and Carlos Curbelo. All are republicans.
Former U.S. Representative Lincoln Diaz-Balart was also there, and he emphasized the significance of the passing of Castro, despite his brother’s continued position as the island nation’s leader. “The brain has always been the brother who has died, so let’s not minimize the importance of that. As Carlos said, it’s a ton of opportunity.”
In the early morning hours, the mayor of Miami showed up to join the revelers. “As a Cuban-American, I am part of this celebration,” said City of Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado. “The reason that I am part of the celebration is because Fidel Castro hurt many generations of Cubans. It damaged the fiber of the Cuban people, not only in Cuba but here, in exile.”
Lillian literally draped herself around an American flag. “I’m Cuban, but I’ve been living here all my life, and this is my American flag.” she said.
Among the attendees was Maria, a Cuban-American resident who brought her family after her 16-year-old niece received a text alert on her phone. “We were having dinner, and we all wanted to come here,” said Maria.
She added the announcement was personal for her family. “This is a very big deal. My mom had to leave [Cuba] in 1959 with nothing,” she said, “and the fact that Fidel is dead is a sign, maybe, of a new beginning for the Cuban that we all love.
Maria said there was nowhere else she’d rather be than in front of Miami’s Versailles to mark the occasion. “This is an historic place, Versailles, and the fact that Fidel is dead marks the end of many decades of oppression for the Cuban people,” she said.
“What you see here is people who have suffered, but what you see here, also, is many, many, many young people who are celebrating because of their fathers and grandfathers that were hurt and attacked and killed by Fidel Castro,” said Regalado.
Maria said she called her parents after hearing the news of Castro’s passing. “My mom started to cry. My grandfather has been ambassador to the United States for Cuba,” she said. “They had to leave with nothing on their backs, and they came and they rebuilt this country. America is great.”
Maria’s 15-year-old niece said she is aware of the significance of this moment. “For me, it’s this revolutionary moment in history when we can all [come together] as Latin Americans and Cubans to just witness this moment,” said the teen.
Penalver put it more bluntly. “This is the beginning of the end for the Castro regime in Cuba,” he said. “Fidel has died and soon will the revolution. This is not a celebration of the death of one man. This is an aspiration to turn the page, that our long national nightmare might soon be over.”
When asked to describe the energy on Southwest Eighth Street, Maria’s niece replied, “There are so many people here. Everyone is so excited for this moment, for Fidel Castro being dead.”
Penalver said Castro’s death suggests big changes might be in store for the Caribbean island. “The people of Cuba are looking for hope, and this is the repression that Castro held them under for almost 60 years,” he said. “This is just incredible. We’re going to start now looking at the atrocities that Castro committed and how the world just looked blindly at what happened in Cuba.”
Maria’s 16-year-old niece said her late grandfather would have definitely wanted to experience this event. “I’ve heard all these stories about him having to leave everything behind, having to come back and study his medicinal work and becoming a doctor,” she said.
However, despite Castro’s death, many such as U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, feel that there is still a long way to go before Cuba is freed from the grips of communism and Castro’s death only serves as a symbol.
Penalver said Castro’s death goes beyond symbolism. “Raul Castro is in his late 80s, and more importantly, the symbol that Castro was invincible, he has succumbed to death and so will the Cuban revolution. Raul must go. Let’s hope he does so peacefully.”
“No matter what the polls said, here there is a common denominator,” said Regalado. “People are celebrating, no matter what party, no matter what age. They’re celebrating the death of a dictator. It’s not the death of a leader, and they have all the reason in the world to celebrate.”
One woman, Inez, woke up early Saturday to go out and celebrate the news. “I have not slept. I have not slept. I finished shopping around 10 at night, went home, did a couple of things, started watching shows on T.V. that I recorded, and then, I heard the news, and right after that, I did a little bit of stuff at home and came over,” she said.
Inez said she blames Castro for the death of her father who was shot down in a military aircraft in 1959. She said the pain of these memories have made her distance herself from the Cuban community and now she feels she can identify with her Cuban roots.
Lillian said it’s curious Castro died on Black Friday. “That means his soul is very black,” she said, “I’m sure he’s not in heaven. He went straight to hell, hopefully.”
Cafe Versailles remained open serving Cuban coffee as the celebration continued.
The mayor expects the celebration to grow and last through the weekend, so officials are prepared to shut down roads during that time, should large crowds form once again in the area.
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