In South Florida, as in the rest of the nation, many awoke Saturday morning to the news that Fidel Castro had died overnight — triggering spontaneous celebrations in the streets of Miami, provoking reflection among Cuban exiles and others, and inspiring a flood of public statements from elected officials.
Almost immediately after news of Castro’s death after midnight, jubilant Cuban exiles and others lined sidewalks and formed processions that closed streets in Southwest Miami-Dade and in Miami’s Little Havana.
Many expressed emotions ranging from joy to regret. Others, particularly travelers arriving from Cuba, were more discreet about their reactions. And though the celebrations in Miami settled down briefly in the predawn hours, they reemerged later Saturday morning with throngs waving Cuban flags, blaring car horns and banging pots and pans.
Many travelers arriving at Miami International Airport from Cuba were tight-lipped about their president’s death.
The majority of passengers asked not to be named by reporters as they spoke about their reaction to the news. Others asked to be left alone as they walked away in tears.
“We’re not supposed to talk about this,” one man said. “At the airport in Havana, people were quiet and hushed. I found out from the taxi-cab driver, who told me to keep my reaction to myself. We aren’t allowed to speak our minds there, but just know that I am the happiest man alive.”
The man, who said his first name was Giovanny, told reporters the airports had broadcast statements from Venezuelan and Peruvian leaders late in the night.
One woman appeared surprised when she was asked about how she took the news.
Her eyes wide: “I can’t talk about that.”
A young man told reporters Internet access was down on the island as many tried to communicate with family members in the United States.
“It wasn’t working the entire night. I think they are shutting down access,” he said.
Mercedes Borego of Miami, told the Herald “fear filled the airport” in Havana.
“You cant talk about this over there,” she said. “Everyone kept the news to themselves. You can’t express emotions because you know it will be bad for you.”
She added that the news will hopefully change the future of the communist regime. She left Cuba three years ago and started returning to visit recently.
“Let’s not forget that Raul is still in power,” she said. “Hopefully in time Cuba can be how it once was, free.”
One woman said she felt insulted that people in Miami are celebrating the death of her leader.
“He is a human being. Why would we ever celebrate someone’s death. No matter if they’re your enemy?”
At Dominoes Park in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, Pedro Gonzalez shared a cafecito with his cousin and reflected on Castro’s death.
“These are the days we dreamed about,” said Gonzalez, 48. “To be here in Miami, drinking this, and be able to say ‘He’s dead’.”
Gonzalez fled the island 24 years ago, and he and his cousin, Eduardo Crespo, 54, recalled the difficulties of growing up in Castro’s Cuba.
Crespo was sent to a school in the countryside, away from his family, at the age of 7, where he was forced to work in the fields. He left Cuba 14 years ago and is a painter in Miami.
“For me it is an immense sadness to be separated from my family,” he said.
As the two men shared their coffee in the shade, cars drove by on Calle Ocho honking in celebration.
Fidel Castro’s death was not treated as an official emergency by Miami-Dade County.
The historic moment that much of Miami has been anticipating for decades unfolded as something approaching business as usual for Florida’s largest local government. In a statement Saturday morning, the county’s mayor said he would not be mobilizing emergency operations the way Miami-Dade does when it confronts a natural disaster.
“Miami-Dade County does not currently have plans to activate its Emergency Operations Center,” Mayor Carlos Gimenez said of the Doral facility that officials open when a hurricane approaches. “I ask that all our residents who choose to demonstrate do so peacefully.”
Gimenez did schedule an unusual Saturday morning meeting with senior staff as the county gauges reaction to Castro’s death.
Juan Perez, Miami-Dade’s police director, said the agency was focused on crowd safety in the scattered gatherings across the county.
“We had celebrations as expected and will probably continue,” Perez wrote in a text message Saturday morning. “We respect the desire for many in the community to celebrate. We are asking that those involved obey the law enforcement personnel trying to keep them safe while they exercise the right to peacefully assemble.”
When Castro was firmly in power as president of Cuba, planning for reaction to his death involved imagining waves of exiles fleeing the country and mass demonstrations in Miami so large that the old Orange Bowl might be used for a rally.
But as of Saturday morning, Marlins President David Samson said there were no plans for any sort of event at Marlins Park, which stands on the site of the demolished football stadium. Local officials said they weren’t planning any organized events, but instead would give breathing room to spontaneous gatherings.
Miami police shut down the streets around Versailles, the iconic Cuban restaurant that has been the de facto gathering place for Miami reaction to Cuban news. Francis Suarez, a city commissioner running for mayor, called it a “wise decision that kept things pretty contained.”
In his statement, the Cuban-born Gimenez warned against seeing Castro’s death as marking a new era for Cuba’s government.
“Despite this historic moment, however, we know that Fidel’s brother Raul continues to lead one of the world’s most repressive governments,” Gimenez wrote. “My hope is that a free and democratic Cuba with the same freedoms we treasure here in the United States will soon emerge. It is what the Cuban people deserve.”
Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives Richard Corcoran released a statement on Fidel Castro’s death:
“At the death of any man, all we can do is measure his life based on his actions and choices. Fidel Castro brutalized and murdered a great people. He pillaged a tropical paradise. He promulgated a Godless ideology that destroyed the lives of countless families. He was a thug. His passing only makes this world a safer, better place.
“Florida has deep historical, geographic and familial ties to Cuba. I know I join all Floridians today in praying that Castro’s death will somehow pave the way for freedom and democracy to at last emerge and flourish on the island.
“It also seems appropriate this day to remember the many heroes in Miami and elsewhere who stood up to this terrible dictator and never lived to see this day. May their children and their grandchildren take comfort in the memory of their courage.”
U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican, issued the following statement regarding the death of Fidel Castro:
“Fidel Castro seized power promising to bring freedom and prosperity to Cuba, but his communist regime turned it into an impoverished island prison. Over six decades, millions of Cubans were forced to flee their own country, and those accused of opposing the regime were routinely jailed and even killed.
“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. The dictator has died, but the dictatorship has not. And one thing is clear, history will not absolve Fidel Castro; it will remember him as an evil, murderous dictator who inflicted misery and suffering on his own people.
“The future of Cuba ultimately remains in the hands of the Cuban people, and now more than ever Congress and the new administration must stand with them against their brutal rulers and support their struggle for freedom and basic human rights.”
Travelers arriving at Miami International Airport aboard flights from Cuba expressed mixed emotions. Some shed tears of joy while others expressed lament.
“What can I say? Fidel ripped apart my entire family,” one woman said, teary-eyed as she walked away from reporters.
Seventeen-year-old Maria Ricardo from Tampa told the Miami Herald the streets in Varadero were quiet. She had come back from visiting her aunt on the island and woke up to the news on the radio.
“My aunt was crying uncontrollably; that’s always been her president,” said Ricardo. “They played Castro’s favorite songs, really sad music.”
“Cuba is mourning today. No one will go to work and places will be closed, my aunt said.”
Others, however, appeared indifferent. One man who had returned to Miami from visiting relatives said it was “his turn,” referring to Fidel Castro.
“He was 90. It’s like any other death,” he said. “No big deal.”
Many passengers told reporters they found out about Castro’s death while in the airport in Varadero, while others said they learned the news after arriving in Miami.
“Thanks for the news,” one man told reporters in Spanish. “I Just found out.”
Meanwhile, one woman told the Herald she doesn’t “have time to talk about Fidel.”
“I haven’t seen my family in 10 years,” she said. “I think that’s worth talking about.”
U.S. Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, a Democrat, issued a written statement in response to Castro’s death, urging Democratic reform on the communist island.
“Now that Fidel is gone, the U.S. should continue to press hard against his brother Raul and continue to take steps to support the Cuban people until he provides basic rights and freedoms to all the people of Cuba. In the meantime, the new Trump administration should continue the policy of opening travel and communication with Cuba.”
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, also issued a written statement regarding Castro’s death. Scott’s calendar for Saturday include calls with President-elect Donald Trump and South Florida elected officials, including Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado.
“I join Cuban-Americans and Floridians across the country who are incredibly hopeful for the future of Cuba. After decades of oppression, the Cuban people deserve freedom, peace and democracy. I have met so many Cubans who have come to Florida to flee the tyranny, brutality, and communism of the Castro brothers’ oppressive regime and now is the time to look at policy changes that will demand democracy in Cuba. Today’s news should usher in an era of freedom, peace and human dignity for everyone in Cuba and the State of Florida stands ready to assist in that mission. I spoke to President-elect Trump this morning to let him know that the State of Florida will help his administration in any way to support a pro-democracy movement in Cuba.”
U.S. Senator Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, issued the following statement on the passing of Fidel Castro:
“Since the end of the Cold War, peace, prosperity and progress have largely been the order of the day for hundreds of millions of people in the Americas, but not for the people of Cuba. Since he took power over half a century ago, Fidel Castro proved to be a brutal dictator who must always be remembered by his gross abuses of human rights, systemic exploitation of Cubans, unrelenting repression, and stifling censorship upon his own people.
“Fidel’s oppressive legacy will haunt the Cuban regime and our hemisphere forever. Under the Castros’ reign, Cubans have not had one single free election. Not one Cuban has been allowed to fully own his or her own company. Not one legitimate trade union has been allowed to be organized. Not one peaceful protest has occurred without being brutally squashed by the regime. This was Cuba’s reality when the Berlin wall fell and it continues to be its reality in 2016.
“Fidel Castro’s death represents an historic opportunity for the United States. Instead of condoning the continuation of repressive actions of a repressive regime simply because some believe it’s been long enough, the United States and the international community must stand up and support the Cuban people as they seek ways to implement changes that bring the fundamental principles of democracy, reinstate the freedoms that inform society and unleash the creative and inventive power-of-people to build a better life for themselves and their families.
“Contrary to the romanticized idea being peddled by some, recent lopsided concessions in U.S. policy towards Cuba have not led to an iota of positive changes in the way the regime rules or the Cuban people live. We know that the Castro regime is still a brutal totalitarian dictatorship that continues to deprive the Cuban people of the basic human rights we so proudly proclaim to support around the world.
“It is my sincere hope that we will use this moment to listen to the human rights activists, the Cubans who have sacrificed day and night in a peaceful struggle for freedom to reexamine and determine a new policy toward the Castro regime. We can never forget those who have suffered and died at the hands of Fidel and Raul Castro. And as long as I have a voice, I will continue to speak out against the Castro regime, against any effort to legitimize it or reward it, and for the thousands of men and women in Cuba who have been forced to live under the iron fist of their repressive dictatorship. Today, Cubans are one step closer to achieving freedom.”
A U.S. Coast Guard spokesman indicated Saturday morning that the agency has not implemented any extraordinary measures in the immediate aftermath of Castro’s death.
Jonathan Lally, the spokesman, also suggested that the Coast Guard has not seen evidence of a sudden Cuban migrant exodus because of Castro’s demise.
“There is nothing out of the normal parameters,” Lally told el Nuevo Herald. “We are continuing our mission, interdicting migrants. We haven’t changed our mission. The Coast Guard is going to continue its patrolling and its work with federal, state and local partners to enforce the laws within our authority and jurisdiction.”