Cuban exiles pour onto Miami streets to celebrate Fidel Castro's death
BY DAVID OVALLE, JOEY FLECHAS, VERA BERGENGRUEN, CARLOS FRÍAS AND
Fidel Castro died, and Cuban Miami did what it does in times of
community celebration: It poured onto the streets of Little Havana — and
Hialeah, and Kendall — to honk horns, bang pans, and set off more than a
few fireworks, saved for exactly the sort of unexpected special occasion
that proved worthy of their detonation.
The scene across Miami-Dade County, the cradle of the Cuban exile
community, was one of pure, raw emotion. This time, after decades of
false alarms, Castro's death was real.
"I wish my dad was here to see this," 27-year-old Abraham Quintero cried
just before 2 a.m. Saturday.
Wearing an "I love Hialeah" T-shirt, he stood on West 49th Street and
Ludlam Road, where police quickly set up watch posts to make sure
impromptu revelers stayed safe.
"Beautiful madness," 29-year-old Christopher Sweeney said, describing
Passing cars honked incessantly. People waved huge Cuban flags. Parents
carried their children and puppies. A few people appeared clad in
pajamas and, in one case, flamingo slippers, jolted out of bed — and out
of their homes — by the late-night news.
Shortly after midnight, Cuban leader Raúl Castro announced on state
television, his voice trembling, that his older brother had died at
"Toward victory, always!" he said.
The streets in Havana, where a nine-day mourning period was announced,
appeared to remain quiet. Not so in Miami, the city across the Florida
Straits shaped by exiles who fled Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution.
Calle Ocho was completely shut down to traffic to accommodate the elated
crowds gathered at Versailles Cuban restaurant, the iconic exile
hangout, to cheer and wave signs — no matter how unseemly it might be to
revel in an old man's death.
Some even yelled profanities about Castro.
"Fidel, tirano, llévate a tu hermano," they chanted outside Versailles.
Fidel, tyrant, take your brother. There was also a variant: "Raúl,
tirano, vete con tu hermano" (Raul, tyrant, go with your brother).
Someone outside the restaurant brought a portable karaoke system, and
the crowd sang Cuban star Willy Chirino's exile anthem, "Nuestro día ya
viene llegando" (Our day is coming), as the scent of long-saved Cuban
cigars burned at last.
"Libertad!" young and old yelled. Liberty.
People were still popping champagne bottles in the middle of the street
after 4 a.m.
Only about 20 people milled outside Versailles' cafecito window right
before 1 a.m. "Cuba libre!" drivers hollered from their cars. The few
onlookers explained the news to passersby — and to a few confused,
straggling tourists still dressed in clubbing attire.
About an hour later, the crowd had swelled to hundreds, including
Venezuelans, Colombians and Puerto Ricans who said they came in
solidarity. The mood was festive, with periodic outbursts of anger at
"One down, now comes the other," yelled Enrique Rodriguez, 58, to
cheers. "He can go to hell just like his brother."
Barely half an hour after the news broke , several street sellers had
parked on the sidewalk selling everything from flags to beaded necklaces
in Cuba's colors. The Cuban flags went very quickly: Tony Erst, one of
the sellers, said he was sold out of 100 Cuban flags with car clips
within 20 minutes.
On the outskirts of the rowdy crowd, Vivian Trigo, 57, stood quietly
with a yellowed, framed photo of her parents. She came to Miami from
Cuba in 1961, when she was 2 years old.
"They passed away before they could see this day," she said. "I wish
they could be here, but I know they are. And they can rest in peace now
that the devil is gone."
After a first weak attempts to start singing the national anthem by
older people in the crowd, a woman got a megaphone and led the crowd in
the first two stanzas of La Bayamesa. Many in the crowd had pulled up
the lyrics on their phones.
An apparent march, destination unclear, got under way on foot along
westbound Southwest Eighth Street shortly before 3:30 a.m. At least one
couple danced salsa in the middle of the street, surrounded by a crowd.
Carlos Lopez, 40, brought his 12-year-old daughter, Tiffany, to witness
history. In Miami, it felt like the sort of moment people would recall
for years to come: Remember where you were when Fidel died?
"We are not celebrating one man's death, but the death of an ideology,"
Lopez said. "We are celebrating that little piece of liberty we got back
He hugged his daughter tight: "She'll tell her grandchildren about this
Victor Perez-Aubreu, 21, came out with four friends to join the action.
Little will change on the island immediately, he predicted, but the wee
hours of Saturday were for celebrating.
"I don't think this means anything will change tomorrow," he said. "But
there's an emotional excitement to this."
"The head of the snake is gone," said 20-year-old Sergio Morales, who
came to Miami from Cuba with his parents and younger brother in 2003. He
waved a Cuban flag.
So many reporters descended on Versailles that Miami police had to
designate an area for a spokesman to give interviews. Media choppers
Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, who was born in Cuba, held court by the
restaurant entrance, surrounded by microphones. He outlined how the city
recalled officers to work, and posited that perhaps the Cuban government
waited until late on a Friday night to announce Castro's death to avoid
outbursts on the island.
Across Miami-Dade, police deployed to protect spontaneous
demonstrations, including at Southwest 87th Avenue and Bird Road, by a
La Carreta Cuban restaurant. All local TV stations — in English and
Spanish — cut into regular programming to provide live special coverage.
The county's Cuban-born mayor, Carlos Gimenez, told WPLG-ABC 10 he
learned the news via text message from Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine.
"I said, 'Are you sure?'" Gimenez asked, recalling the many times over
the years that Castro's supposedly imminent death had been rumored.
The mayor said he telephoned his 94-year-old father in Miami — who told
him, tonight, he'd sleep a little more soundly.
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican who left Cuba when she
was 8 years old, said she was "snoring" when the news broke.
"I had not heard any rumors," she said. "But all of us have had our
press releases ready for some time!"
She cast Castro's death not as a moment of joy but as a "new opportunity
for Raúl Castro to listen to the winds of change."
"This is the moment that so many in our community have been waiting for
since I can remember, since I was a child," said U.S. Rep. Carlos
Curbelo, a Miami Republican whose parents fled Cuba. "Everyone's been
waiting for this moment because they believed it would be the beginning
of the end of the nightmare, and I think that's exactly what this is:
the opening of a door to a brighter future."
Castro's death comes during the transition of President-elect Donald
Trump, who pledged as a candidate to undo President Barack Obama's
policy renewing diplomatic relations and pursuing closer ties with Cuba.
In an odd historical coincidence that did not go unnoticed among some
exiles, Castro died 17 years to the day a 5-year-old boy named Elián
González was rescued off Florida's coast, also on Thanksgiving weekend.
Contemplating the revelry from the parking lot of a Latin Café in
Hialeah was 80-year-old Elisa Martin, who fled Cuba in 1962, leaving
behind her father and cousins. She seemed bewildered, eyes wide at the
"I feel the worst for the people still living in Cuba," she said. "He's
done so many bad things."
Her son, Dan Martin, a 46-year-old engineer who was born in Miami,
watched with amazement.
"I find it hard to be believe. We've been out here so many times when it
wasn't true and this time it is," he said. "I have so many family
members who never lived to see this day."
Oscar Gomez, who turned 18 on Thursday, considered the street party in
Hialeah "the biggest celebration ever." "What else could I ask for?"
Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez, who was born in Cuba, predicted the
demonstrations would "continue all day."
"I can't say I am unhappy," he acknowledged. "This is something we have
been waiting for for a long time."
Even a steady rain did nothing to turn away the crowd. If anything, the
crowd delighted in it, dancing under umbrellas in the downpour.
"This is one step closer to me being able to go back to my country,"
said 49-year-old Eduardo Blasto. "I've been waiting for this for 49 years."
MIAMI HERALD STAFF WRITERS DAVID J. NEAL AND CARLI TEPROFF CONTRIBUTED
TO THIS REPORT.
Source: Cuban exiles in Miami celebrate Fidel Castro's death | Miami