Miamians reflect on Cuban experience after death of Fidel Castro

A prop skeleton is dressed to represent the late Fidel Castro during the rally that took place at the Bay of Pigs memorial Wednesday in Little Havana. Hunter Crenian // Staff Photographer
A prop skeleton is dressed to represent the late Fidel Castro during the rally that took place at the Bay of Pigs memorial Wednesday in Little Havana. Hunter Crenian // Staff Photographer
A prop skeleton is dressed to represent the late Fidel Castro during the rally that took place at the Bay of Pigs memorial Wednesday in Little Havana. Hunter Crenian // Staff Photographer

The death of former Cuban president Fidel Castro has sparked mixed reactions among students at the University of Miami; some celebrate the mark of new era in Cuba, while others hesitate to call his death the beginning of change.

On Wednesday, hundreds of people swarmed the streets of Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, known for its dense Cuban population, to celebrate the death of Castro. People lined the streets in an organized march by the Bay of Pigs Museum with Cuban flags, signs and newspapers. Marchers even brought a plastic skeleton dressed in a replica of Castro’s oft-worn track suit.

This was just the most recent street celebration to be held following the death of the former leader. Although the Miami Cuban community has been reveling after Castro’s death was announced Friday night, people have differing reasons for commemorating this historic event.

“I’m not celebrating the death of a human being. I’m celebrating the death of a tyrant, there’s a big difference,” said Miami resident Ozman Darwiche, a Cuban American who was in attendance.

Crowds fly flags high at Wednesday's celebrations in Little Havana. Hunter Crenian // Staff Photographer
Crowds fly flags high at Wednesday’s celebrations in Little Havana. Hunter Crenian // Staff Photographer

For sophomore Ralph Paz, whose mother is a first-generation Cuban American and whose father is a Cuban exile, the death of Castro symbolized the end of 50 years of waiting for the death of a man who brought harm to Cuba.

“Three generations – waiting for the end of a man who murdered thousands of people, kicked people out of their homes and essentially made them outcasts if they didn’t agree,” said Paz, a history major.

Castro initiated a Communist rule in Cuba and ruled for nearly 49 years unchallenged until 2008. For many Cubans exiles, Castro’s reign marked an era of turmoil on the island.

Paz, a Little Havana resident, said he attended Sunday morning celebrations along 8th Street, also known as Calle Ocho, because he wanted to not only be part of a historic moment, but also because he wanted to experience it with his 86-year-old grandmother.

“We were just happy that she was alive to see the day,” Paz said. “The hope was that she would see Castro dead one day. She got to see the day. Maybe she will see Cuba free too.”

Throughout the day, Paz shared videos and photos from the celebration on his personal Facebook page with friends and relatives. Though many UM students have expressed their celebratory reactions on social media, senior Liam Allen-McGoran, who is not of Cuban heritage but is a Miami local, reacted to the former leader’s death with a Facebook post encouraging students to remember Castro as “a man of both good and bad.” The Facebook post received a slew of comments both in opposition and in agreement.

One of the students who reacted to Allen-McGoran’s post was senior screenwriting major Elisa Cantero who called the idolization of Castro “deeply disturbing.”

“You praise him for his ‘belief in’ and ‘execution of important’ and ‘progressive’ social reforms,” Cantero shared in a general Facebook post on Wednesday addressing those who had voiced support for Castro. “Enlighten me: what good is a literacy rate of 99.8% if you’re only allowed to read the propaganda and fact-altered essays … ?”

Cantero also compared the Cuba of Castro’s making to George Orwell’s dystopian novel, “1984.”

Allen-McGoran said his intention was not to “open old wounds of Cuban Americans,” but to start a discussion about Castro’s legacy.

“In Miami, there’s this real dominance of a certain narrative, its not necessarily a false narrative but its not the only story of Cuba,” Allen-McGoran said.

Allen-McGoran, a history major, said it was important to remember the positive changes Castro brought about, such as improving healthcare and education on the island.

Allen-McGoran said he believed Castro “sincerely acted in the interests of the Cuban people” and was the last defender against capitalist imperialism in the 20th century.

“As far as marking the end of oppression – that’s awesome,” Allen-McGoran said about Castro’s death. “As far as marking the end of resistance to imperialism – that’s awful.”

According to a Pew Hispanic report, 54 percent of Miami is of Cuban descent. More than 25 percent of UM’s students identify as Hispanic/Latino. Federación de Estudiantes Cubanos (FEC), an student organization revolving around Cuban culture open to all students but composed primarily of Cuban-Americans, called Castro’s death “controversial” but a “symbol for a hopeful future” in a statement to The Miami Hurricane.

“Many of our members are the children and grandchildren of Cuban exiles. We understand the significance of the passing of Cuba’s dictator Fidel Castro. We will not relish in his death. However, we recognize that this is a historical event that three generations of Cuban exile families have been waiting for. It is the culmination of more than 50 years of human rights violations, from political imprisonment to political executions and confiscation of private property.

We understand that his death is controversial and brings about a wide range of opinions and emotions. But we know how much our families have suffered under his dictatorship and we see his death as a symbol for the hopeful future of a free and democratic Cuba,” the statement said.

While students such as Paz feel hopeful about the future of Cuba, José Azel, senior research associate at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies (ICCAS), said it is unlikely Castro’s death marks the beginning of change on the island.

“There is no possibility under a totalitarian regime for change to come from the bottom up,” Azel said.

Two cousins attending UM, Gaby Delgado and Peter Caride, celebrated the death in memory of their grandparents’ suffering. Delgado’s grandfather, Gustavo Caso, and Caride’s grandma, Norma Sosa, were cousins.

Both Caso and Sosa ended up in the United States following Castro’s rise to power after very different journeys. Caso first traveled to Spain following the implementation of the U.S. embargo that barred travel between America and Cuba. In Spain, he worked low-level jobs for nine months until he accumulated enough money to travel to America. Once in the United States, Caso worked more low paying jobs until he got married and opened his own super markets and invested in real estate.

For Sosa, leaving Cuba was a choice but never returning was not. Sosa was on vacation in New York when travel between the two countries was barred. This left Sosa and her family with no choice but to settle permanently in America.

“Imagine going away on a vacation and finding out you can never go back to your home. That’s what happened to my Grandma Norma,” Caride said.

Although the UM freshmen never experienced the reign of Castro, they acknowledge and remember their grandparents stories as hope for Cuba. For the two cousins, the death of Castro symbolized not only the end of an era that brought their descendants pain but also renewed hope for the future that they will create as Cuban-Americans.

“More older generations who were there to see downfall. Our generation will see the uprise. You can only build up from where they are now,” Delgado said.

Brianna Commerford and Tommy Fletcher contributed to reporting.