posted on Tue, Aug. 01, 2006
A prelude: Miami streets burst with spontaneous joy
Miamians, eager to celebrate a change of any sort in Cuba's leadership, reacted to news of Cuba's power transfer with spontaneous partying, honking, yelling and joy.
BY OSCAR CORRAL, TERE FIGUERAS NEGRETE, SUSANNAH A. NESMITH AND SUSAN ANASAGASTI
For two generations, Cuban Americans in Miami have waited patiently for the news that reached them through cellphones, televisions, BlackBerries and radios Monday night: Fidel Castro is no longer the leader of Cuba.
At least temporarily.
But the disclaimer meant little to the thousands who took to the streets, oozing 47 years of pent-up joy as they leaned madly on car horns to awaken anybody who may not have heard:
Fidel Castro, suffering from a serious illness, ceded power Monday night to his brother, 75-year-old Raúl Castro, the leader of Cuba's armed forces.
Minutes after the announcement from Havana, news spread like electronic wildfire, with countless hands reaching simultaneously for telephones and television remotes. Nostalgia clashed with disbelief in an electrified Miami.
''We just wish [Castro] a slow and painful death,'' said Lourdes Cambo, outside Versailles restaurant in Little Havana.
On Bird Road and Southwest 87th Avenue, where police blocked off the streets to traffic, dozens of revelers formed a makeshift conga line and banged on pots and pans, chanting ``¡Cuba si, Castro no!.''
They danced on Calle Ocho and in Broward, Hialeah and Sweetwater.
''Do what you're going to do, this is a happy moment, but please celebrate on the sidewalks, don't block the street and don't block traffic,'' said Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez, who was born in Cuba.
Across the street from Versailles restaurant, the default epicenter of exile political life, Teresita Del Cueto said Castro's time had come.
''It's time for him to pay for all the suffering he has caused, not only to Cuban people but the whole world,'' del Cueto said.
Cautious Miami-Dade county officials fired up the emergency operations center and set up the 311 line for information, standard operating procedure the county had prepared in the event of Castro's death.
Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, a Cuban exile, hit the town. Crazed celebrants banging kitchenware surrounded him as he stepped onto the traditional backbone of Cuban Miami, Calle Ocho.
While many Miamians popped beers, partied and vented decades of pent-up angst, other exiles who watch Cuba more closely were more cautious.
Ninoska Pérez-Castellón, a commentator on Radio Mambí and stalwart anti-Castro hard-liner, could barely contain the glee in her voice during an interview. But still, she didn't say IT.
''IT'' in Miami is best translated for the layperson in this way: ding dong, the witch is dead.
''I think the moment has arrived, but we can't even savor the moment,'' said Pérez-Castellón. ``We don't want to go out and start saying anything because it's not confirmed. It would be irresponsible to fuel that. Maybe they are just buying time in Cuba before taking that step.''
Ding dong. . .
It's been 47 years of waiting, of praying on Christmas eve for the possibility of celebrating the holidays in Havana the following year.
This is the day Miami Cubans itched for all these years. The day the news trickled down that Fidel is no longer Cuba's leader.
At the Bernado Garcia Funeral Home on Southwest Bird Road and 82nd Avenue, about 20 Cuban exiles had been mourning the loss of a loved one when news of Castro's potential demise filtered in.
For 64-year-old Mercedes Valdes of Hialeah, who came to Miami in 1968, the emotions were bittersweet.
''They forgot about the dead and started talking about Fidel,'' she said.
But then, she added, ``It's a ray of hope in the midst of so much sadness. We're all scared it's not true.''
Zoila Castro, 85, stood on West 49th street screaming and hollering with other Hialeah residents. ``I am crazy with joy.
Radio personalities like Marta Flores of Radio Mambí cautioned the audience to temper their celebration.
''People, listen to me, no one has confirmed that Fidel is dead,'' Flores reminded her audience, who clogged her radio lines.
But the callers didn't care.
''This is the happiest day of my life,'' one woman caller said joyfully.
Many people longed for the report to go further, hoping it meant Castro was already dead.
''That's the only reason Cuba said anything; otherwise, we wouldn't even know he was sick. He's dead,'' said another caller.
At WQBA-La Cubanisima, radio personalities said they had seen a copy of the statement issued by Castro and the signature did not appear to be the comandante's, giving fuel to the ''he's dead'' theory.
At La Ideal Babystore's parking lot in Hialeah, dozens sang and danced along to Willy Chirino's Ya Viene Llegando, (The Time is Comin), practically a Cuban American Anthem, as it blared from a red Toyota Camry's speakers. On woman was on the brink of tears.
Aiza Rodriguez, 33, said though they hadn't pronounced Castro dead she felt it inside.
''It reeks of death,'' she said. ''The Cuban government never says it all,'' she said. ``Either way, one thing is for sure, Cuba is free. Raul Castro can't stop us, nobody can.''
Jose Chavez, 32, predicted the partying would go on well into the night and for weeks to come.
Other exiles didn't want to believe that THE DAY had come. Exile activist Ramón Saúl Sánchez, head of the Democracy Movement, theorized this could just be a dress rehearsal.
''Castro could have planned this. Castro could be watching to see how it will really go if he really hands over the reigns to his brother,'' he suggested.
But Democratic Party activist Joe Garcia, former director of the Cuban American National Foundation, said he thinks the announcement from Havana is key.
''Something major happened,'' Garcia said. ``If it turns out it was all a joke, then it'll just be a night where people had a few too many beers and that's it.''
Miami Herald staff writers Luisa Yanez, Elaine De Valle, Marc Caputo, Frances Robles, Monica Hatcher, Diana Moskovitz, Pablo Bachelet, Evan S. Benn, Jennifer Mooney Piedra, Yudy Pineiro, Charles Rabin, Gladys Amador, Carli Teproff, Ben Torter, Carolyn Guniss, Betsy Martinez, Jack Dolan and Jim Murphy contributed to this report.