Fidel Castro dies: Exiles recall pain with sorrow, freedom with joy

“It’s the beginning. It’s the beginning of the end,” said the restaurant’s effusive owner, Gustavo Garcia, who was offering two-for-one cocktails all day and late into the night. “I’m very happy, and my people here are very happy.”

The grand parenthesis that was Fidel Castro’s 49-year rule over Cuba closed some years ago. But Friday’s announcement that the dictator was dead offered a kind of finality that local Cuban exiles have long dreamed about. It also offered a touchstone moment by which to measure their lives.

For school custodian Lazaro Camacho, the news sent him back to the six years he endured in one of Cuba’s more notorious prisons, Kilo 7 in Camaguey. During his time there, 40 prisoners died in a revolt. Camacho was sent there at age 19 for simply trying to leave the island.

“Only in Cuba. In any normal country, or democratic country, it’s not a crime to leave,” said Camacho, who described the prison as a “terrible concentration camp.” And while he is not one to cheer anyone’s passing, he believes Castro’s death merits demonstrations of joy. “He was a cruel dictator who ruined too many lives.”

In West Palm, few Cuban-Americans shed tears

For airline pilot George Luaces Jr., the news brought a flashback of the scenes he witnessed as a volunteer pilot for Brothers to the Rescue, the Miami-based search-and-rescue group. He witnessed the risky escape of Cubans fleeing Castro’s totalitarian rule by sea.

Commentary: Life in the time of Fidel was about waiting — and death

“I remember we found a raft carrying 15 people, including an elderly person. She must have been in her 80s. It drove home the desperation. I mean, to pack up your family and your hope – it’s almost an act of suicide, but they were that desperate,” said Luaces.

Those rafts were similar to the one that spirited Mayra Alvarez and her husband to Florida in 2005. On Saturday, she described Castro as more of a smothering presence on Cuban daily lives than a mortal man.

Photos: Cubans in Little Havana celebrate Fidel Castro's death

Full Coverage: Life and death of Fidel Castro

For 10 years, she had dreamed of starting a family, but it did not seem meant to be “in that climate.” She braved the Florida Straits in that raft in hopes of finding the freedom to work, start a family, to grow, to breathe. During her voyage, Alvarez prayed to the Virgin of Charity, Cuba’s patron saint. Her prayers, she says, brought her more than safe passage. They brought her a family.

Once she was safely settled, every one of her dreams came true. She is now an office worker sharpening her tech savvy as she raises two American-born daughters, ages 9 and 6. “Now that I am a mother, I don’t know if this is something I would do again. But I understand why I did it,” she says.

Miami Marlins had several links to Castro, Cuba

Growing up on this side of the Straits, Florida-born artist Rolando Chang Barrero was too familiar with the pain of his parents’ exiled compatriots. On Saturday, the West Palm Beach gallery owner summarized Castro’s passing this way:

“One monster dead, but the tyranny continues,” said Chang Barrero, who posted a Facebook message Saturday morning exalting those democracy-seekers imprisoned and executed by Castro as the “true leaders” of Cuba. “Fidel may have died, but the pain of our loss and our true heroes will endure.”

Loss was on the mind of many Saturday. Not the loss of Fidel Castro, but the loss of those who predeceased him.

For Martha Reyes, co-owner of West Palm Beach’s beloved Havana restaurant, the news of Castro’s death was both welcome and poignant.

“Today is the birthday of my father and founder of Havana Restaurant, Roberto Reyes,” she wrote in a Facebook post. “Many years ago, we would have celebrated him and the end of a regime. Today, we remember him in silence.”

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