Havana, MIAMI: Cubans will likely forever remember where they were when Fidel Castro’s death was announced. The music stopped across the dance-happy city and people rushed to awaken loved ones with the news.
Parties shut down and the bustling streets emptied after President Raul Castro, Fidel’s 85-year-old younger brother, made the announcement on state television around midnight Friday.
“Everyone was stunned. It was a very sad moment,” said Yaimara Gomez, who was working in a hotel at the time.
Unlike various occasions over the years, this time it was not a hoax: the man most Cubans had grown up with as their country’s leader had died.
“With great pain I appear before you to inform our people and our friends in the Americas and the world that today, November 25 at 10:29pm, the Commander in Chief of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro, passed away,” the president said.
Car washer Marco Antonio Diez, 20, was out at a party when the music suddenly stopped. “I went home and woke up everyone, saying: ‘Fidel has died’,” he said. “My mother was astonished.”
As the news spread, crowds danced and celebrated in the streets of Miami, home to the largest Cuban exile community and their descendants.
But in Havana, locals mourned.
“Losing Fidel is like losing a father - the guide, the beacon of this revolution,” said Michel Rodriguez, a 42-year-old baker.
He was still in his shop late at night when he heard the news on the radio.
The government decreed nine days of mourning and ordered flags to be flown at half-mast.
Castro’s ashes will be buried in the historic southeastern city of Santiago de Cuba on December 4 after a four-day procession through the country, it added.
Santiago was the scene of Castro’s ill-fated first revolution attempt in 1953.
In Miami, thousands of people banged pots with spoons, waved Cuban flags in the air and whooped in jubilation on Calle Ocho — 8th Street, and the heart of the neighborhood — early yesterday. Honking and strains of salsa music from car stereos echoed against stucco buildings, and fireworks lit up the humid night sky.
Police blocked off streets leading to Cafe Versailles, the quintessential Cuban American hotspot where strong cafecitos - sweetened espresso - were as common as a harsh word about Fidel Castro. “Cuba si! Castro no!” they chanted, while others screamed “Cuba libre!”
Celebration, not grief, permeated the atmosphere.
That was no surprise. Castro has cast a shadow over Miami for decades, and in many ways, his policy and his power have shaped the city and its inhabitants.
Cubans fled the island to Miami, Tampa, New Jersey and elsewhere after Castro took power in 1959.
Some were loyalists of Fulgencio Batista, the president prior to Castro, while others left with the hope they would be able to return soon, after Castro was toppled. He never was.
Many others believed they would not be truly free under Castro and his communist regime. Thousands left behind their possessions, loved ones, and hard-earned educations and businesses, travelling to the US by plane, boat or raft. Many Cubans died on the ocean trip to South Florida. And many never returned to see their childhood homes, their neighborhoods, their playgrounds, their businesses, their cousins and aunts and uncles, because Castro was still in power.
On New Year’s Eve every year, Cubans in Miami utter a toast in Spanish: “Next year in Cuba.” But as the Cuban exiles aged, and as Castro outlived them, and as US President Barack Obama eroded the embargo and younger Cubans returned to the island, the toast rang silent in many households.
In Miami, where Havana is closer both geographically and psychologically than Washington, the news of Castro’s death was long anticipated by the exiles who left after Castro took power, and in the decades since. Rumours have come and gone for decades, and Castro’s death had become something of a joke — mostly because it seemed to happen so frequently. This time, though, it was real.
“We’re all celebrating, this is like a carnival,” said 72-year-old Jay Fernandez, who came to Miami when he was 18 in 1961.
He and his wife and another woman held up a bilingual sign he’d made four years ago when Castro first became ill. “Satan, Fidel is now yours. Give him what he deserves. Don’t let him rest in peace.”
Several blocks away, at the Bay of Pigs memorial, Antonio Hernandez, 76, rode his bicycle up in a light rain and stood at the eternal flame that honors the men who tried, and failed, to wrest Cuba from Castro’s grip in 1961.
“Everybody’s happy. Now this guy won’t do any more damage,” said Hernandez, who came to Miami on the Mariel boat lift in 1980. “His brother will now go down, too. But the world has to pay attention to this, not just we Cubans.”
Starting lives over
Wrote Valentin Prieto, a prominent Cuban-American blogger, on Facebook: “A few hours of sleep tonight is the very last thing fidel castro will ever rob me of.” In his writings on his blog, Prieto never capitalised Castro’s name.
Many Cubans made successful livings and raised families in Miami despite having to learn a new language and start their lives over. Exiles who arrived as teenagers with no money in their pockets became millionaires, political leaders, clergy members, teachers - influential members contributing to the sturdy fabric of American society.
Cemeteries in South Florida abound with the remains of those who fiercely wished Castro had died before them. Their children weep today because they could not see their parents and grandparents return to Cuba under a democratic regime, to see their homeland one more time.