For me, the death of Fidel Castor was one of those “where were you moments.” I was visiting my Cuban-born parents in Chattanooga, Tenn., when the news broke. It was Friday morning, the day after Thanksgiving.
I was seated on the family couch, laptop open, checking on emails.
My dad burst out the bedroom, “That son of a gun is finally dead,” he yelled, startling both me and my mom, who was in the kitchen making coffee.
I clicked the TV on and CNN was breaking the story; “Castro dead at 90.”
“I bet their rushing into the streets in Miami,” dad said.
As if on cue, CNN cut away to a shot of Little Havana in Miami. Hundreds of Cubans were cheering and waving Cuban flags as they marched along Southwest Eight Street, the road that defines the Cuban community who make that home.
For the next few weeks I thought over the whole thing. At first, it didn’t impact me much.
I was born in Miami, not Cuba. I grew up in the land of the free and the home of the brave, not a socialist society. I grew up as an average American who just happened to be bilingual.
But Castro did have a huge impact on me and my family.
My parents left Cuba before Castro and his guerrilla army took control. I was born into freedom because my parents left before the bottom dropped.
Castro was the first dictator to film his atrocities and murders so he could show the world his power. He took an island once touted as a Caribbean paradise and tropical Las Vegas and turned it into the first socialist nation in the western hemisphere. During his early years, he ruled by fear and notoriously killed hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent Cubans who didn’t buy into his regime.
Before Castro took full power, more of my relatives also fled. My aunt and cousins all ended up at my parents’ house, at least until they could manage on their own. Most of the relatives who fled the island were from my dad’s side of the family. They were the lucky ones who decided leaving with nothing but a chance to start new was better than staying.
I was a young adult during the Mariel boatlift in 1980. Between April and October thousands of Cubans made it to the Florida. During a downturn in the Cuban economy, Castro announced anyone who wanted to leave the island could. The mass emigration meant freedom for thousands of Cubans. Castro also used this opportunity to clean out his jails and mental institutions, sending hundreds of prisoners and patients afloat toward the United States.
Many of those “Marielitos” went back to their criminal ways and gave decent, hardworking Cuban Americans bad names.
We were being branded based on the behavior of the few. Castro knew exactly what he was doing.
Most of the relatives on my mom’s side, who stayed in Cuba, lived for years in poverty. Before Castro took over, my maternal grandfather owned two theaters and lived in a two-story house with caretakers.
Even today, after President Barak Obama restored diplomatic relations, the Cuba they show on TV is part of Havana and outskirts set for the visitors and tourists to see.
The reality is that for the past 50 year my parents and other relatives here have shipped care packages to relatives in Cuba. Most of the packages contained necessities that for most people in Cuba are scarce; socks, vitamins, aspirin, shirts, shoes, anything my cousins have requested and needed. They’ve also sent money to help relatives pay monthly expenses and to picking up the items shipped.
There but for the grace of God…
I feel somewhat relieved and hopeful for Cuba’s future now that Castro is dead. But I also realize his brother, Raul Castro, is still in control. It will still be years until Cuba can experience the freedoms we cherish here.
I know that privately my relatives still in Cuba also felt a wave of relief too.
Some have asked me why thousands would take to the streets of Cuba to mourn Castro. I can only assume that the Cuban Millennials were either not born or too young to fully understand the evil Castro did. They only knew him as their leader and a man who pushed forward education reforms and did what he could for his people. They weren’t born during the time of conflict, so they don’t understand why folks in the U.S. would cheer his death.
And even for the older Cubans, it is understandable that they would mourn the loss of their leader. He was in power for nearly 50 years. He is all they knew.
Leon is a staff member with the Coastal Courier. Contact here at firstname.lastname@example.org