A durable communist dictator at home and a romanticized icon of the left throughout much of the world, Cuba’s Fidel Castro was also a towering figure for decades in Florida politics.
Exiles who fled Castro’s oppression reshaped the cultural and political landscape in Miami, where they and their descendants have dominated elected offices and established themselves as an influential constituency in statewide politics.
Younger generations of Cuban-Americans are more open to engagement with the communist island, but a hard-line approach remains prevalent in the GOP, with candidates for president and other offices making regular trips to Miami’s Little Havana to sip cortaditos and denounce the Castro regime.
President-elect Donald Trump, for whom large rallies were the main mode of campaigning, did a rare small-scale event last month at Miami’s Bay of Pigs Museum, which commemorates the failed 1961 effort by U.S.-backed Cuban exiles to overthrow Castro.
Trump, who is spending Thanksgiving weekend at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, first reacted to Castro’s death via Twitter.
“Fidel Castro is dead!” Trump tweeted on Saturday morning.
Trump put out a statement later in the morning saying he hopes Castro’s death heralds a shift toward freedom in Cuba.
“Today, the world marks the passing of a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for nearly six decades. Fidel Castro’s legacy is one of firing squads, theft, unimaginable suffering, poverty and the denial of fundamental human rights,” Trump said.
“While Cuba remains a totalitarian island, it is my hope that today marks a move away from the horrors endured for too long, and toward a future in which the wonderful Cuban people finally live in the freedom they so richly deserve,” Trump said.
Cuban-American elected officials from Miami rejoiced at the news of Castro’s death.
Florida Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, who had relatives imprisoned by Castro, sounded like a kid at Christmas.
“Has it finally come? FIDEL IS DEAD!” Lopez-Cantera posted on his Twitter account.
“After so many decades of oppression the tyrant #Castro is dead and a new beginning can finally dawn on #Cuba and its people,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, who was 8 years old when her family fled Cuba in 1960.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, whose parents were born in Cuba and came to Miami before Castro seized power, noted that Cuba remains a communist nation after Fidel Castro handed power to his brother Raul in 2006.
“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,” Rubio said.
“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,” Rubio said.
President Barack Obama, who has moved to normalize relations with Cuba, issued a statement that offered condolences to Castro’s family and did not criticize his regime.
Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson attempted to strike a balance between criticism of Castro and support for more engagement with Cuba.
“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,” Nelson said. “In the meantime, the new Trump administration should continue the policy of opening travel and communication with Cuba.”
Gov. Rick Scott called Castro’s death a time for optimism.
“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,” Scott said.
“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.”
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